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Up close and personal with Lebanese screen rebel Manal Issa

Politically outspoken and fearless, Issa talks about how a coincidence turned her into an unpredictable thespian

Manal Issa says film let's her experience things she didn't always have in life (MEE/Joseph Fahim)

CANNES - It was at a BBQ party in Beirut where Middle East Eye recently met Manal Issa for the first time. Dressed in a t-shirt, loose jeans, and wearing no make-up, this striking young actor kept alternating between tending to her baby daughter and taking cigarette breaks. 

The pensive look on her face evaporated seconds after hearing Egyptian indie singer Maryam Saleh’s Teskar tebki, as she enthusiastically muttered the song’s expletives. 

Producers had warned me not to share my feelings about the shortcomings of her latest Lebanese movie, One of These Days, by Nadim Thabet, a trivial teenage drama.

Actor Manal Issa poses at the 71st Cannes Film Festival for the film "My Favourite Fabric" in competition, on 12 May 2018 (Reuters)
Later, during an interview in Cannes, she revealed that she too had major reservations about the film, candidly discussing the various flaws of the Arab productions she has starred in so far.

I decided to walk the red carpet and lift up this sign to remind everyone that there’s something more important than movies, and dresses, and jewellery

- Manal Issa

Like a young Bette Davis, 26-year-old Issa conforms to no rules and has no filters. She is the rarest of Arab film stars: politically outspoken, rebellious and fearless.

Issa also happens to be one of the most talented Lebanese actors of her generation, and with future roles opposite Eric Cantona in Ulysee et Mona, and Isabelle Huppert in Une Jeunesse dorée, she is soon to be internationally renowned.

French-Lebanese actress Manal Issa (R) holds a sign reading "Stop the Attack on Gaza," on 15 May 2018 for the screening of the film "Solo : A Star Wars Story" at Cannes Film Festival in Cannes (AFP)
For many, Issa is best known as the Arab actor who raised the “Stop the attack on Gaza” sign on the red carpet in Cannes last month. For international film audiences, she is best known as Sabrina, the teenaged member of the middle-class and multi-ethnic millennial terrorist group planning a vaguely motivated Paris attack in Bertrand Bonello’s controversial French thriller, Nocturama (2016).

I come from nowhere. These people [artists] felt like they were from another planet at first

- Manal Issa

For Arab audiences, however, she is Lina, the Lebanese immigrant student struggling with her identity and French norms in her new Paris home in Danielle Arbid’s Parisienne (2015).

This year in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section, Issa confirmed her status as one of the region’s most unpredictable thespians with her pull-no-punches performance in Syrian director Gaya Jiji’s debut feature, My Favorite Fabric; a quasi-surrealistic portrait of a sexually frustrated young bride-to-be who finds solace, and release, in her neighbour’s brothel on the eve of the Syrian war.

Stripping her character bare, emotionally and physically, with remarkable control and precision, it’s difficult to take one’s eyes off Issa, even when the narrative around her swiftly runs out of steam – a common feature all of her released films bar Nocturama share.

Issa is often more interesting than the actual films she’s in. She can be both a cipher and an ingénue; a performer capable of tackling a variety of emotions.

Born to Lebanese parents in 1992 in the small French town of Angers, Issa has always had artistic tendencies, yet remarkably, she had never sought to be an actor. Her entrance to cinema was pure coincidence. 

“I wanted to be a rock star,” she jokes, but she decided to study engineering instead.

‘I became Lina’

Out of nowhere, Eiji Yamazaki, a producer for award-winning Lebanese filmmaker Danielle Arbid (In the BattlefieldsUn homme perdu), messaged her on LinkedIn and Facebook in 2014, asking her to audition for the latter’s last movie, Parisienne.

“The whole art scene was impossible for me,” Issa told Middle East Eye. “I come from nowhere. These people [artists] felt like they were from another planet at first.”

I like the sounds of Beirut. I like its colours. I like speaking and listening to Arabic, but I never belonged there, and I never will

- Manal Issa

Issa was a fan of Arbid’s work, admiring her boldness in dealing with sex and politics, and appreciating the naturalism she brings to her work. She didn’t do or say much in her audition and she was convinced it was a flop.

Landing the lead role in Arbid’s semi-autobiographical story came as a surprise to her and she was not entirely motivated to do the film initially.

“What attracted me to the role was Danielle,” Issa said. “She’s strong. She didn’t care about what others think. She’s low-key. I wanted to spend more time with her than doing the actual film.” 

For her role as Nahla, Issa had to gain much weight and feel "uncomfortable in my own skin" (Photo courtesy of My Favorite Fabric)
She didn’t do a lot of rehearsing to prepare for her role. The first day of shooting was the first time she stood in front of the camera. “And then it just happened. I became Lina.”

“I used my naivety towards cinema in channelling Lina’s naivety towards Paris,” she said. “I was just happy to meet people. Before then, all my energy was directed towards work. I didn’t have friends. My life was all about work, video games and sports. Cinema made me experience all kinds of things I didn’t live in real life.”

My life was all about work, video games and sports. Cinema made me experience all kinds of things I didn’t live in real life

- Manal Issa

A key issue Issa initially faced with Parisienne was the nudity, a move most actors, especially established stars from the Arab world, balk at.

“It was a major issue from the start, and my initial answer was no. When I mulled it over though, I thought, why not? After I knew what the scenes are about, I didn’t mind doing it, and this was only three months after I lost my virginity as a matter of fact,” Issa said.

“In that scene, I wanted to tell my mother not to be scared, that sex is not wrong, that I’m not a bad girl. Our parents implant this idea in our heads that sex is a mortifying, dangerous thing. I was too apprehensive to even kiss a guy in school. I cried after finishing that scene. I felt relieved.”

After the shooting wrapped in 2015, Issa decided that she wanted something new. For the first time in her adult life, she moved to the capital Beirut. 

“I didn’t want the movie to end’

That same year, before Parisienne’s release, Arbid introduced her to Hamza Meziani, the young French actor who linked her up with the casting director of Bertrand Bonello’s aforementioned Nocturama.

Shortly afterwards, she was flown from Beirut to France and was hired the same day by the infamous French director, who had never seen Parisienne.   

Being directed by Bonello was starkly different from Arbid. “Danielle is more of an actor’s director. Bonello, on the other hand, is more focused on the image and the aesthetics, more focused on action,” Issa said.

After Nocturma, Issa returned to Beirut in 2016, fell in love, soon became pregnant and got married. “I was given two choices: to have the baby and say goodbye to my career, or to get an abortion,” Issa said. “Everyone around me couldn’t accept the idea of me having a baby, especially people my age.”

Still, Issa decided against an abortion and had her baby girl Sona in 2016. 

Most people are fake in Beirut. Most people pretend that everything is fine, when nothing is

- Manal Issa

The short-lived Beirut honeymoon came to an end, compelling her to return to France. She had felt disillusioned with the city – its policies, people and double standards. 

“Real individuals in there are a rarity,” she said. “Most people are fake in Beirut. Most people pretend that everything is fine, when nothing is. I like the sounds of Beirut. I like its colours. I like speaking and listening to Arabic, but I never belonged there, and I never will.”

At this stage, Issa was certain she’d never act again because she had a baby at the beginning of her career, and she started looking at pursuing graduate studies in medical robotics.

Her plans were upturned earlier this year when French director, Sébastien Betbeder, offered her the starring role of an effervescent art student who falls in love with a dying veteran artist, played by football legend Eric Cantona, in the upcoming movie, Ulysse et Mona; a role Betbeder wrote specifically for her.  

“Cantona was the first actor I acted in front of that gave everything he has to his character,” she said. “It’s my best performance. At that time in my life, I wasn’t sure I could portray a character that emits hope.”

When Issa’s brief marriage ended, she admits that Mona, the character she played in the film, helped her get closure.

“I didn’t want the movie to end. I didn’t want to go back to reality,” Issa said.

A modern take on Cinderella 

She has landed several high-profile roles in the past year, including German director Veit Helmer’s star-studded silent comedy, The Brawhich is a modern take on Cinderella with a train driver urging a girl to try on an anonymous blue bra in place of a slipper; and as Farida Khelfa, France’s first Arab supermodel, in Eva Ionesco’s period romance, Une jeunesse dorée, opposite Oscar-nominated French icon, Isabelle Huppert.

Syrian director Gaya Jiji (L) and French-Lebanese actress Manal Issa pose on 12 May 2018 during a photocall for the film "My Favourite Fabric (Mon Tissu Prefere)" at the Cannes Film Festival (AFP)
In between these films, Issa gave her most divisive role to date as the confused and angry Nahla in Jiji’s Cannes contender, My Favorite Fabric.

Issa was not the first choice for the main role, taking it on after the principal lead dropped out. “It’s a psychological study about what happens when you’re stuck somewhere,” Issa said. “I loved Nahla, because of how unlikable she is. The challenge was to make the audience like this character, and I think they ultimately do, because she’s true.”

I was at the Camera d’Or reception, and all I could think of was the people being killed in Gaza

- Manal Issa

For the role, Issa gained between 12-15 kilos, not only to underline the averageness of her character, but “to feel bad about myself”.

“The more I gained weight, the more I became uncomfortable in my own skin, which is what Nahla is all about,” Issa said. “Even in the way my eyes looked…they looked vacant. I was mean towards everyone. I disregarded everyone. Everything bad I had experienced, I projected on Nahla, including my lack of confidence.”

Manal Issa plays Nahla in the film "My Favorite Fabric," which was directed by Gaya Jiji (Photo courtesy of My Favorite Fabric)
Issa is ambivalent about her future, although her first film, which she is both writing and directing and is currently in development, is the summation of many of her preoccupations.

“I started writing to understand why I’m like that, how I became like that,” she said. A symbolic tale of love and anarchy, it centres on a strong-headed young woman who falls in love with a revolutionary artist, but eventually caves into the lure of the political system.

A sign of protest

On 15 May, Issa held up a sign in support of Gaza on the red carpet during the premiere of Solo: A Star Wars Story at the 71st Cannes Film Festival, a subject she has refrained from discussing with the media in order not to bring attention to herself.

“I was at the Camera d’Or [the award for best first movie] reception, and all I could think of was the people being killed in Gaza. I couldn’t bring myself to hit another red carpet while this was happening,” Issa said.

“I decided to walk the red carpet and lift up this sign to remind everyone that there’s something more important than movies, and dresses, and jewellery. This gesture was just a wake-up call, that’s it. I don’t think it changed anything, but at least it broke that weird silence over Gaza.”

My Favourite Fabric will be released in French theatres on 18 July.

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