“Caramel,” the funny, sharp-eyed import about a beauty shop that opens in theaters today, set tongues a-flapping in Cannes last year as well as in 40 countries so far–by far the largest release a Lebanese film has ever received. It also is the first movie made in Beirut that doesn’t reference the war. Director/writer/co-star Nadine Labaki, who was 17 when the war ended in 1990, says that omission was “a very conscious choice.” During a recent whirlwind visit to NYC, she explained why to indieWIRE.
“All the world sees of Lebanon is that we are a people of war,” Labaki said. “I wanted to show that we are more than that, that we have a very strong positivity, a sense of humor and a will to survive. There is a message of coexistence in my country, where Christian and Muslim live together, and I wanted to bring that out.”
Growing up during the war, she said, she watched television constantly because there was no school. “I watched French, Arabic, Spanish, American television,” she recalled. “And I was inspired by it all.” After college, she began to direct music videos and wrote the script for “Caramel,” her first feature (its title references a Middle Eastern grooming wax).
Labaki chose the backdrop of a cosmetic salon not as an homage to a certain 2005 Queen Latifah vehicle, she noted, but because women of different backgrounds drop their masks with each other in those contexts. “I chose to work with nonprofessional actresses so the film would be as natural as possible,” she said, adding that the women, including herself, improvised the bulk of their lines. “At first I didn’t want to cast myself, but it helped break down the barriers,” she laughed. “We were all each other’s psychiatrists.”
In the film, Labaki, who boasts the lush hair and dark eyes of a ’40s matinee idol, plays Layale, a woman forced to keep her love affair with a married man secret to avoid shaming her Christian family. She works closely with Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), a Muslim woman engaged to a man who doesn’t know she’s not a virgin, and Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), a young lesbian forced to sublimate her sexuality. “She is not allowed to express herself at all,” Labaki noted. “I didn’t want to shock anyone, but that is one of the many stories I needed to share. And the sexuality between women is easier to show and share in the context of a salon.”
As for why she didn’t just make a documentary given her emphasis on naturalism, Labaki said, “Because you have to filter it less, fiction is a better way for me to tell the truth.”
ABOUT THE WRITER: A former labor organizer, Lisa Rosman is the film editor for Flavorpill.com and writes for such publications as Premiere, Us Weekly, and her own blog The Broad View.