The Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki gave birth to her first child, a boy named Walid, not long ago. I congratulate her and she replies: "Thanks, but is this interview going to be about my baby? I don't want to talk about that." That's Labaki: determined and focused. At only 35 years old, she is the hottest film director in the Middle East right now. Caramel (2007) was her first feature film, but Labaki actually started out making music videos. It's only after she had made a name for herself - working with Arab music stars such as Nancy Ajram, Nicole Saba, and Majida El Roumi - that she ventured into feature filmmaking and wrote the script to Caramel (Sukkar Banat in Arabic) in 2005, and was accepted into the Cannes Film Festival's script development programme.
Labaki made her debut as a director at Cannes in 2007 to much acclaim, earning a standing ovation. After years of civil-war-themed Lebanese films, Caramel did well in Lebanon. A romantic comedy that is centred around the everyday lives of five women in a beauty salon, the film showed a personal side of Beirut that most people outside Lebanon are unfamiliar with. It was the official Lebanese entry for the 2007 Academy Awards and had grossed more than 14 times its production costs before it went to DVD in the summer of 2008. While all of this was going on, Labaki got married to Khaled Mouzanar, who composed the music for Caramel.
She is adamant that her second feature will not explore the same themes that Caramel did. "There are so many things that I need to explore. But they are all inspired from the Lebanese surroundings and society," she says. Although Labaki speaks fluent French and English, she has always directed in Lebanese Arabic. Asked if she would ever consider directing in a different language, she says maybe, but adds: "For the time being I feel the need to make Lebanese films with Lebanese actors and Lebanese dialect.
"We have so many things to explore in Lebanon and I don't think it adds anything for me to make a film in a non-Lebanese language with non-Lebanese actors." Clearly for Labaki, Beirut is where her heart is, and she dedicated Caramel to "My Beirut" in the credits. For Labaki, the city "is the people - it's what you see in the film. This is how I see Beirut and this is how I live it. "It's the small shops, and the old people taking care of the shops. The narrow streets. The good, affectionate, welcoming and surviving people. Beirut is a colourful place with colourful people, and when I'm not here that's the image I get. And that's what I wanted to show in the film.
"Some people ask me: 'Why are the people so modest in Caramel? Why do I show poverty?'" Labaki laughs before adding that some people have asked her why she doesn't want to show the modern side of Beirut, "things like the Sky Bar", but she insists: "For me Beirut is about the genuine and authentic people that make the place what it is." Labaki admits that the Lebanese film industry - albeit in its early stages of development - is different now to when she finished university a decade ago. With an increasing number of universities offering film and television production programmes, the number of new filmmakers in the country is increasing each year, as is the number of feature films being shot. "For the past few years there have been three to four films being shot every year," Labaki says. "We're on the way to having a proper industry."
Funding for feature films is clearly an issue in Lebanon as there is little government or institutional money available. The key funding for Lebanese films tends to come from Europe. "We still do rely on co-productions from abroad because we don't have a film industry in a proper sense," Labaki says. "It's still very shy of being an industry. But I think that in time, when Lebanese films start going abroad, people will get more and more of an industry.
"For a lot of potential financiers or investors, Its not easy to invest in a Lebanese film when you don't know if you are going to get your money back. Although now that there have been a few films that have done well abroad, it might get better." Asked if she thinks Lebanese films will increase in popularity within Lebanon and across the Middle East, where Egyptian cinema dominates, Labaki says it boils down to the fact that the Lebanese don't have the same filmgoing culture that is established in Egypt. "It's different here in Lebanon - we still have a lot to do. Lebanese consumers are not used to going to movies. It's only now that they are even used to going to watch a Lebanese film. It's a very new idea for them."