This must be a bittersweet week for filmmaker Nadine Labaki. On the one hand, her latest film Where Do We Go Now? (W Halla' La Wein?) is being screened to sold-out audiences at Sundance, and yet it failed to get into the Best Foreign Film race for this year's Academy Awards, as Lebanon's official entry to the Oscars. And Lebanon had it right to submit Labaki's film for the Academy's consideration, since Where Do We Go Now? broke every record in cinemas across the country and won Audience Choice Awards at both TIFF and the Doha Tribeca Film Festival.
Where Do We Go Now? would have pushed the envelope (pardon the pun) for the Oscars, as a film made by a woman during a particularly lean year for women filmmaker, but also for its subject matter. Ultimately, Labaki's latest is about the vital role women play in solving the problems that men create, and teaches how we could all learn to get along if we only took the time to walk a few steps in our neighbor's shoes. While she takes this last idea to the extreme and embellishes Where Do We Go Now? with an amazing soundtrack, courtesy of her husband and longtime collaborator Khaled Mouzanar, and magical Mediterranean scenes out of a Giuseppe Tornatore film, the end result is the perfect follow-up to her masterpiece Caramel.
I got a chance to chat with Nadine Labaki at this year's Doha Tribeca Film Festival back in October and was delighted by her candor, modesty and outstanding elegance. On a personal note, I credit Caramel as the film that single-handedly started my love affair with cinema from MENA.
E. Nina Rothe: You had such an amazing world hit with Caramel, how do you follow a film like that, and how difficult is it to think back to such a film when you are making your next?
Nadine Labaki: Even though it was a hit and really successful, as a filmmaker, as the director and the author of this film, you only see the flaws. It's really the people's reaction, like yours, that give me confidence, that relax me, it calms me down. Because all I see, in both films, are the problems, are the things that I would have done differently. Even though Caramel was a huge success, for me I wanted to challenge myself, to make an even better film. I didn't want to make the same mistakes, I didn't want to make the same concessions, I wanted to be more clever, more mature, everything I wanted more. As a filmmaker, you don't have the distance with a film, you don't have the pleasure of discovering the film, because you know everything about it. After Caramel, with its success, I thought what happened was like a a fairytale. And I said "this can only happen once, it's not gonna happen again." So I was calming myself down, but then it happened again! And even bigger now.
ENR: Because people know your name now. It's like an avalanche...
NL: Yes, an avalanche, and I cannot believe what is happening. In Lebanon, we are making history, even compared with American films, or action movies... They are opening more and more cinemas in the same cineplex, because there is not enough space for everyone. People are talking about it, the title of the film is the status on everyone's Facebook profile, so it's really becoming a phenomenon, and I'm really, really happy.
ENR: How challenging is it to be a woman filmmaker today, what is your experience, and how different is it in the Arab world?
NL: You know, it's really strange, but even yesterday we had a panel called "She Is Film", and we were talking about the position of the woman in this business, and I've never felt the difficulty of my job because I'm a woman. I've never felt that I'm not achieving something or people are not letting me achieve something because I'm a woman. Frankly, I've never felt this in my personal or my professional life. Because I have in my head that I can achieve anything, so for me it's not different, being in the Arab world. The only difference is the self-censorship, it's only the fear of how others will look at you. That's it. Like you said that you identified with Caramel because you felt this bond between women, we live in a community, so this of course creates a lot of warmth, but at the same time also a lot of pressure. You want to be up to the expectations of the people you love, you feel how they look at you, the weight of their expectations.
ENR: In both your films you act as well as direct. How difficult is it for you to step between both roles?
NL: It's not difficult. Physically it is, because you have too many things to do. But it's a pleasure for me to do this, as it allows me also to be close to my actors, I'm there with them. They are not professional actors, so they have the feeling that we are all on the same team, we are the same family, there is no structure. Because structure is not good for non-professional actors.
ENR: You are so elegant, in your films and in person. What does elegance mean to you?
NL: For me elegance is just simplicity, wearing things that suit you. That's it. Not having to make a fashion statement. I don't want to be a fashion icon, just because this is the latest trend. I just wear things that suit me.
ENR: One thing about Nadine Labaki that most people don't know?
NL: It's so hard. Can I let you know? (laughs)... Oh, that I haven't completely lost my baby fat.
Top image of Nadine Labaki on the set of Where Do We Go Now? courtesy of DTFF