Women and Hollywood: Congratulations. I read your film is going to represent Lebanon in the Oscars. How does that feel?
Nadine Labaki: It feels great. I don’t know what will happen afterwards, but it’s already great.
WaH: I noticed it’s a strong roster of female directed movies being submitted this year to the Academy.
NL: It’s amazing. This point of view is new and important and I think it’s a different way of seeing things.
WaH: Do you think women directors tell different kinds of stories because of their life experience?
NL: I think so. It’s a different point of view on the world and it’s different issues and it’s important. It’s healthy to have both, and more and more women are becoming of aware of that. And when you are aware of how strong of an impact it has on people — it changes things.
WaH: Are there other female directors in Lebanon?
NL: There are a lot of female directors in Lebanon but we can’t really talk about a true film industry, it’s still very small. But we do have a few female directors.
WaH: And do you all help each other?
NL: No, we don’t really know each other.
WaH: How did you get the idea for this film?
NL: It was something really personal because of the fact I live in Lebanon and Lebanon is always on the verge of a new conflict. There is always something happening. We never tend to keep peace for a long time. Anything can be a reason to start a conflict again.
It was also inspired by the May 2008 events in Lebanon where people took to the streets with weapons again. I think we were inspired and frustrated by the absurdity of the situation. We decided to tell a story of a village where women were going to do everything they can to stop the men from engaging in a new war. I think facing the absurdity of the situation you cannot help but talk about it. During this period I was also pregnant and I think my motherly instinct led me to want to write this story and be aware of my responsibility as a woman and a mother living in this society and wanting to change things.
WaH: What lessons did you use from your first filmmaking experience for making this film?
NL: I think because there is no film industry, I think the first film you do with your instincts because you haven’t learned with another director or you haven’t worked on other films, so you tend to do things your own way. I think what I learned the most was to take your time, to try to be less rushed into things and have some distance with what you’re doing. But again, it’s not easy to make films in general over there. We don’t have a lot of experience and we don’t have a lot of experienced crew, so you do things the way you feel are the right way. It’s only when your film is selected in film festivals and when it meets a big audience that you know that you are doing the right thing. There are no real references.
WaH: Your filmmaking is also a family affair with your husband doing music and your sister doing costumes. How does having family around help with your process?
NL: It’s important. Not only because it’s family but because I’m lucky to be surrounded by these talented people. It’s only normal for me to work with my family because I think they are talented and because there’s a warmth when I’m working. As a filmmaker, sometimes you are very fragile. You are in a very fragile situation most of the time. I think it’s important to be surrounded by people you just get along with. There are no complications in the relationship. And I tend to also surround myself with people I really like in life. The human contact is very important to me when I’m working. I don’t like to work with people I don’t have any connection with. It’s also the same with the crew. They are family to me.
WaH: What was your inspiration to become a filmmaker?
NL: I think because of the war we were always at home and we were bored. The relationship with the television became very important in my life. It allowed me to escape the routine of my life. And I think when I understood that I decided to become a filmmaker. It allowed me to escape my own reality, even though I had a very happy childhood, but I was bored because of the war and because of the fact you couldn’t leave the house.
WaH: How many years were you unable to leave your home?
NL: All of my childhood, and up until I was 16 or 17. Not all the time but it was on and off.
WaH: The women keep everything going and they are the power structure in the village even though the men get deferred to in some ways. One of the things I kept saying was why aren’t women in more visible, powerful positions in the world? Do you have any comments on that?
NL: Yes. I think somehow because you are the one that educates and you are the one that raises the family – you do have power. I think that maybe we aren’t aware of the power we have. That’s why these women, even if they are not in empowered positions do have power to have influence on how their children think, how they are brought up, how they are educated and how they see the world. We really just need to be aware of the power that we have. I do believe in changing things through the way we educate our children.
WaH: It’s interesting because one of things I thought about a lot is if we had more women in leadership positions in the world, maybe we would have less war.
NL: I do think so. Unfortunately, sometimes you feel like maybe I shouldn’t say this or maybe it’s too simplistic to say this or too naive, but I do think it’s not the women who make war. It’s not us who take the weapons. Maybe it’s this protective instinct of the people we love that reacts first.
WaH: I was struck by the fact there were no girls in the town.
NL: It’s true. I didn’t notice that. Maybe it was more focused on how I thought men should grow up and change this way of thinking.
WaH: What kind of message do you want people to take away from the film?
NL: There’s no message in the real sense of the term. In the film I’m talking about Christians and Muslims but I could have talked about anyone. This film could have happened anywhere. I just feel like this conflict exists everywhere in the world. I feel this conflict when I take a Metro in Paris and see how people are scared of each other and how people can’t tolerate the fact the other is different. This is what I want to talk about. I have created this film in Lebanon and I’m talking about the situation over there and this is my culture and I feel true when I talk in my language. But this film could happen anywhere and I want to change the world in a sense.
This might sound a little naive but I think the way we live is not absolutely the right way. The way we are educated and the way we are brought up in this fear of the other – it’s not the right way to see things. Why can’t we accept that I can go enter a pubic place and talk to everyone. This is the right way, not the other way around. I do not understand this fear we have of each other.
WaH: Is it hard to act and direct at the same time?
NL: It’s very hard but at the same time it works for me. It helps me be closer to my actors because they are not professional actors. To direct them from within the scene, to set the rhythm within the scene — it creates very spontaneous moments. And these spontaneous moments are very special to me. I like to experiment with reality. I like you as the spectator to ask if this real or was this supposed to happen or it was written. For me to act, it allows me to do this with the actors because I’m there and close to them. At the same time, I like acting. I like to express myself fully with my body, with my language, with my voice and through directing.
WaH: I felt like the film was about a deadly, serious subject but there was so many moments of lightness. I guess what you’re saying is that you can’t believe we are still having this same conversation we’ve had since the Roman Empire and we’ve got to make fun of this.
NL: You’re making fun of the absurdity of the situation. It’s so absurd you cannot but help but laugh about it and that’s what I want you to feel when you’re watching the film.
WaH: What was the hardest part of making this movie?
NL: I think the fact that I sometimes had to direct more than a hundred non-professional actors. People who have never in their lives been on a movie set. They don’t have the discipline. And it’s hard to control all of this at the same time.
WaH: Is there any issues related to being a woman director on a set in Lebanon?
NL: I never felt the difficulty in being a woman. It’s a difficult job anyway. I never felt the difficulty because I am a woman. It’s just a difficult job.
WaH: What advice would you have for other directors, particularly women directors?
NL: Anything is possible. You can dream big. Don’t be afraid to dream big. Don’t be afraid to express yourself. Even though it could have seemed impossible for me in my situation as a Lebanese woman living in a country where there’s no film industry and it’s a place not a lot people know about and it’s a very small country. I could have said this dream is an impossible dream and stop it at that. I always felt that anything is possible. Believe in that. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I was in Cannes. I’ve never stopped believing in it. It’s simple. Just believe in your dreams.
WaH: What’s the next kind of story you are going to tell?
NL: I don’t know yet. I’m always waiting for the next revolution and revelation in me to happen. It’s always a sense of wanting to change the world that pushes me to write something. That pushes me to write a film. I’m waiting for this next revelation.
Here is what I wrote about the film.