Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki is back this Friday with "Where Do We Go Now?," her anticipated follow-up to her directorial debut, "Caramel,"a critical and international commercial success that brought on a wealth of buzz for the gorgeous newcomer.
"Where Do We Go Now?" once again finds Labaki headlining a predominantly female ensemble of non-professional actors. But while "Caramel" was a lighthearted drama focused on the lives of a group of women who frequent the local beauty shop in Beirut and not on the troubles that plague Lebanon, Labaki's second feature a decidedly more serious affair that addresses her country's problems in an unconventional manner.
The film centers on a group of women living in unnamed village inhabited by both Muslims and Christians, and isolated because of the landmines surrounding it. When news hits the village that civil war has broke out in the neighboring communities, the two sides find themleves at battle, forcing the women of the village to band together and put an end to the unrest by whatever means necessary. That's not to say the film is all doom and gloom. Fans of "Caramel"'s buoyont tone will be happy to know that "Where Do We Go Now?" features some musical numbers that add levity to the tale.
Indiewire caught up with Labaki in New York last month to discuss the conflict at the center of the film, and the drama's surprise win at last year Toronto International Film Festival where it won the Cadillac People's Choice Award, beating out the likes of "The Artist" and "The Descendants."
Let's start with the win in Toronto. It marks quite the achievement for your film, especially given the fact that in past years, audiences have tended to go with more mainstream fare that seems Oscar certified. What did it mean to you to win the award?
It was just overwhelming. When I saw the audience reaction after the film, I thought this was so huge, so overwhelming, something should happen after this, it shouldn't go invisible. It was the biggest reaction. I was crying, the people were crying. People stood up and clapped for twenty minutes. And then when I got the news that we won the award — I was on the plane going back to Lebanon — I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that this Lebanese film, in a foreign language, with non-professional actors…that we did it. Of course it opened a lot of doors, a lot of discussion.
Toronto's such a different film festival from Cannes, a festival where you got your start by workshopping your debut feature as well as your follow up.
It's a completely different audience. There's something about a very instinctive reaction that's really coming from the heart. It's very different from a jury's reaction. Juries are forced to analyze.
But that's what's most important for me. I'm making films for the audience. I want this film to go beyond the film itself, and this is what's happening. They are not reacting to the film because it's perfect. The film is not perfect. It's not the best thing I could have done. People are relating to what the film is saying. They are relating to what they are feeling as human beings, and this connection to your neighbor. So it's about human nature, human relations. That was the aim for me.
No doubt a large part of the cross-over appeal lies in the fact that "Where Do We Go Now?" is intentionally not specific. You never actually cite Lebanon as the film's setting. Why did you set out to make the film on these broad terms?
Because it should be more universal. I'm not only talking about Christians and Muslims. This is a conflict between human beings who are different and do not tolerate this difference. I could have talked about a conflict between two races, or two families, or two friends, or maybe even create two new religions. It's about how we are not able to tolerate our differences. Living in the same country, living in the same building, the same family — that's what I want to talk about. We have so many conflicts and so many problems, most of the time for stupid reasons.
You resolve the central conflict between the Christians and Muslims in the village by having them each adopt the other's religion — a pretty fantastical conceit. Were you wary of the potential controversy this plot point could bring about?
It's been a little bit controversial, but it's not as controversial as I imagined it would be. Of course at first you are a little bit scared about the consequences, especially when you talk about religion. Of course I had this anxiety about it, but people shave been reacting so well. If you are a bit shocked by certain scenes, when you get to the end of the film you understand why and you calm down. And then it forces you think, who doesn't want to live in peace? Everyone does somehow.
How did you go about finding non-professional actors who were comfortable with that aspect of the film?
Sometimes it's more difficult to convince them. But when you do explain to them, I had this army around me that wanted this film to happen, because everyone believes that this is something that we need in our country. I'm not the only one feeling angry. I'm not the only one fed up. I'm not the only one who wants to live in peace, who wants to raise her kids in peace. I'm not th sonly one.
You took such a long break between your last film "Caramel" and this. Why the wait?
I think in the meantime of course I travelled with my first film for a year, and then I got pregnant. When I was pregnant I wrote. I think it was a natural time that I needed, maybe to be inspired by something new. Not only that, it was some really specific events in Lebanon that led me to this film. It was because of some conflicts in Lebanon that happened a few years ago that led people to take weapons again unfortunately; this after we had succeeded living in 20 years of peace since the civil war. We thought that everything was OK and then all of a sudden Beirut is a new war zone. It was all so absurd. These people who were fiends just yesterday — how can you turn into enemies so quickly for political or religious reasons?
At that time I was pregnant with my first child. I guess it does change your perspective on things. You wonder, what kind of a world is this? How am I going raise this child in this world?
So you do have to wait sometimes for this need to express yourself. It becomes bigger than just talking about it. You want to just shout it out loud. If I shout it out loud in real life, nobody's going to listen to me. But if I shout it out loud in a film that's going to be seen by so many people, then the message is going to come across stronger.
I've seen so many women in my family, so many mothers, that have lost children in the war in such absurd ways. I wonder how they do it. How do they keep living? How do they keep smiling? How do they put on their clothes on in the morning and survive? I don't want to be (God forbid) in that situation. Nobody wants to be in that situation anymore. We just want to live a normal life.
I need to say we've had enough. I don't know if will change anything, but at least I know I tried. I'm sharing this responsibility. I can't do politics, so I'm doing politics in my own way.
"Caramel" was an art house hit, winning several awards and a slew of fans. You no doubt must have been offered some projects out in English after your debut. Why did you choose not to go down that route and become a director for hire?
It was very tempting. Like you said, I did have these offers. You think, am I crazy saying no? But it was never anything that I felt a connection with. Like I said, it has to come from some kind of need to express myself, otherwise it's not going to change anything. I could tell another story with a culture I have nothing to do with, I could pull it off. But it wouldn't be the same involvement. I think you owe it to yourself and you owe it to your status as an artist to be true to who you are. If I find this script that I really feel a connection with, of course I will do it. Why not? But I haven't really felt this. That's why I haven't gone on this adventure. It doesn't mean that I will not.