HAILED as a rising star in France, Manal Issa is in Cork today for International Women’s Day and for the screening tonight of Parisienne as part of the Cork French Film Festival.
The 25-year-old, originally from Lebanon, fell into acting quite by chance and is a qualified engineer, with an interest in robotics and a passion for video gaming.
Manal is also mother to a five-month-old baby girl and is married to a Syrian whom she met through video gaming.
In the film Parisienne, she plays 19-year-old Lina who arrives in Paris in the 1990s, alone, lost and fearful, but also adventurous and in pursuit of freedom which was missing from her life in Lebanon.
This semi-autobiographical movie from France-based Lebanese director, Danielle Arbid, is a coming-of-age story. It has been well received on the film festival circuit.
So how did Manal get the role? While studying engineering in France, she received and initially ignored a curious message through social media asking if she would take part in a casting call with Arbid.
With zilch interest in an acting career, it wasn’t until Manal received a second message from the director that she decided to go to the audition. (Arbid used Facebook to find young Lebanese women living in France that fitted the image she had in mind for the film’s main character.) Manal fitted the bill. Asked what it’s like to be a film star, Manal says: “I’m happy to be acting, it’s such a wonderful feeling, such a beautiful gift that I have. I’m not really thinking about it. I’m just living it. I tried to keep true to the emotions I felt when I read the scenario for the film. I tried to forget about myself and be the character. I really trusted the director for guidance.”
Manal was born in France and grew up in Lebanon from the age of three to thirteen.
“After the war in Lebanon, I came with my family back to France. It was very hard. You feel detached from your country having been forced to leave it. I was just alone in my room in Angers (a city in western France), feeling very isolated. I come from a very conservative religious family.
“In France, seeing my classmates kissing each other was really weird. But when I started university, it was much easier. There were more people I could find that I really wanted to talk to.”
Manal rebelled against her Muslim upbringing and is an atheist.
“Being a woman is not easy. I discovered freedom in France. Maybe if I didn’t come to France, I would have had to get married at 17 to someone I didn’t know. I was really scared before. I didn’t have the strength to say ‘no’ when my father would tell me to dress properly. I was scared to even try to wear a skirt and to think that I could love someone and that someone could love me.”
A book by Egyptian feminist, Nawal El Saadawi, changed Manal’s life.
“I told my family they didn’t know who I am. I took the decision to travel to the US and work there in research. I then decided to live alone in Beirut. I want to be an inspiring person, to be free and not scared. I have a big family and my uncles were mad at me, saying I can’t live away from my family.
“I lived with guys and couldn’t say it to my family. After I got married, I told my mum I had lived with guys (who were friends) and nothing bad happened. We didn’t sleep with each other and didn’t have orgies! It was just normal life, sharing music, speaking to each other and not acting like everyone must be a pervert or that a girl and a man should have sex straight away.”
Manal says returning to Lebanon as an atheist was initially difficult. “But I met people who had left their families. They drink, smoke, go out and read books. When I was little, everyone was supposed to be Christian or Muslim. But in Beirut, I discovered people who were just like me.”
Manal, who has another film due out this year dealing with the passage of adolescence in a chaotic Lebanon, is not yet making a choice between engineering and acting.
“I love engineering because I just love technology and gaming. I’m passionate about acting. It’s like an escape. When I work, I really work, work, work. When I act, I feel like I’m flying. It’s another world. Acting, for me, is not like a job.”
Manal clearly has the best of both worlds.
Parisenne will be screened at the Gate Cinema tonight, 9pm. Cork French Film Festival continues until March 12. See www.corkfrenchfilmfestival.com