When Zayn Alexander took his latest short film Manara to the Venice Film Festival last month, he was asked an intriguing question during the audience Q&A afterwards. "Somebody asked me, 'Why did I choose to tell a movie about death when Lebanon is about life?' I froze," he tells The National, as the film is about to be screened at the Carthage Film Festival in Tunis, which begins on Saturday.
Away from the spotlight, Alexander, 30, is more than able to articulate exactly why his film takes on such a difficult topic. Set in a small village in southern Lebanon, the Zayyad family are preparing for a funeral. With only an hour to go before mourners arrive, Alia (Hala Basma Safieddine) is at loggerheads with her children, Rami (Alexander) and Noura (Pascale Seigneurie), because she wants to keep the reason for their father's death a secret from judgmental locals.
"It's not really a film about death," Alexander says. "It's more about the cover-up and the secrecy and the examination of a culture and a set of behaviours and a set of dynamics within a family."
Raised in Lebanon but having lived in New York for almost a decade, Alexander says he wanted to "make a film about the obsession with appearances in Lebanon", which he says is a real psychological problem in the country. "I wanted to talk about how far people are willing to go to avoid embarrassment."
In the film, the "very dominant" Alia turns her grief-fuelled rage towards her children, even telling her son that he's achieved almost nothing in his life at the age of 30. "In that part of the world, or in family-oriented cultures in general, there's a dynamic whereby families take each other for granted," says Alexander. "They say hurtful things and they say, 'We're family, they're never going to be hurt by what I say because they know my intentions are pure.' I wanted to showcase that – no, children do feel pain and they do hear what you're saying, even if the intentions are pure."
Shot in the beautiful resort of Al Fanar in the coastal town of Tyre in southern Lebanon, the action is all set around a lighthouse, or "manara" in Arabic. "There's a metaphorical aspect to lighthouses, because a lighthouse is supposed to show you the way and warn ships about rough waters," says Alexander. "So it's a path away from adversity, but the lighthouse in the film … you can see there's no light. That is the whole metaphor. The question is: how do you move from adversity? There is so much adversity within that family."
Without venturing into spoiler territory, Manara also dips into issues of mental health – as did Manele Labidi Labbe's comedy Arab Blues, which is set in Tunisia and also played in Venice this year. It stars Golshifteh Farahani as a psychoanalyst in a country in which the profession is still in its infancy.
"There is that kind of thinking that if you see a counsellor in that part of the world you're labelled 'crazy', so people automatically resort to pills," says Alexander. "There is not much focus on mental health and mental well-being in that part of the world."
Alexander, who studied psychology at the American University of Beirut, says he hopes Manara "can be part of the overall conversation" when it comes to discussing the subject more openly. "Mental health is such a global trending topic right now," he says. "With social media and the rise of technology people feel more secluded than ever."
The fact the film picked up the Laguna Sud 2019 Award for Best Short Film when it played before the Venice Days strand at the Italian festival, shows how much it resonated with audiences.
Manara is the second short Alexander has directed, after last year's Aboard, which focuses on Arab actors in Hollywood and the stereotypes they face in the American film and TV market. Both Manara and Abroad were scripted by Seigneurie, who also co-stars with Alexander in both films. They met while working on a play in New York and have forged a working relationship. "On a personal level, we connected because she's somebody who is filled with humility and she's very talented," he says.
Alexander has acted on screen for other directors, including in Eduard Ordonez's 2017 TV movie High School Noir – but it was Alexander's frustration with the business that turned him towards directing. "I wasn't getting the roles I wanted as an actor, I wasn't getting those fulfilling experiences," he says. "So I decided it was time for me to go behind the camera and tell stories my way."
Now working on the script for his feature debut, Alexander continues to do just that.
Manara is being screened at the Carthage Film Festival, which runs from this Saturday until Saturday, November 2