She is one of the better known directors of Arabic music videos, and credited with bringing artists into the music scene; she has worked with music stars such as Nancy Ajram, Nicole Saba and Majida El Roumi. And following her 2007 directing triumph of a movie that became an international sensation at film festivals and went on to achieve box office success, she cemented her reputation as a moviemaker to keep an eye on.
But at the close of the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, when her second movie - a bittersweet comedy set in war-torn Lebanon - beat two well-received entries starring George Clooney to win the people's choice award, the Lebanese-Canadian Nadine Labaki proved that the acclaim she has garnered as one of the Middle East's most talented female directors - not to mention writers and actresses - is definitely well-deserved.
The Cadillac People's Choice award, which also includes a C$15,000 (Dh56,000) cash prize, is voted on by audiences throughout the festival and has typically been regarded as a bellwether for Oscar success. Where Do We Go Now?, from Labaki, garnered rave reviews at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where it screened on the margins of the official competition. In Toronto, it received a standing ovation. And earlier this month, it was chosen as Lebanon's 2011 entry in the best foreign language film category for the Academy Awards.
The film follows Labaki's feature Caramel (Sukar Banat), a sweet love story set in a Beirut beauty salon, which was Lebanon's entry for the 2007 best foreign language film Oscar. The movie shows a Beirut that most are not familiar with. Rather than tackle political and religious issues, which have plagued Lebanon, she presented a romantic comedy that deals with five Beirut women who gather at the salon and deal with love, sexuality, tradition, disappointment and everyday ups and downs.
Labaki, who also stars in both Caramel and Where Do We Go Now?, was travelling in Europe when she heard the news, which was announced at a closing brunch for the 11-day festival.
Festival programmer Rasha Salti accepted the award on the filmmaker's behalf, reading a statement sent by Labaki from an airport in Germany.
"I'm thrilled, I'm happy, I'm ecstatic, I'm excited - my day that had just started on the wrong foot because of a flight cancellation has just been turned upside down," the 37-year-old Labaki said in her statement.
"I'm running around jumping up and down at the Frankfurt airport." Labaki said the film would be screened today for the first time in Lebanon. "I will be proud and happy to announce the news in front of my crew, my family and the Lebanese audience," she said.
Her latest film, which also features strong female characters like her first, is about village women bent on keeping their hot-headed men out of a religious war.
Set in a remote, unnamed village where the church and the mosque stand side by side and where Christians and Muslims have been happily living together as neighbours, Where Do We Go Now? follows the antics of the town's women to keep their blowhard men from starting a religious war. Women heartsick over sons, husbands and fathers lost to previous flare-ups unite to distract their men with clever ruses, from faking a miracle to hiring a troupe of Ukrainian strippers.
Labaki wrote the screenplay for the film, which was shot on location in three Lebanese villages with a cast made up almost entirely of nonprofessional actors. The female ensemble, including Labaki, is enthralling, and the film has a surprisingly light touch, especially given the serious central premise. Labaki, who is married to the film's composer, Khaled Mouzannar, effortlessly mixes in song and dance to the film by including a handful of old-school numbers that buoy the mood.
Festival director Piers Handling noted it was a surprise triumph for a film that was overshadowed by heavily promoted, star-studded Hollywood films. These included Clooney's two films: The Descendants and The Ides of March.
"We have some very, very high-profile films here at the festival and ones that a lot of people are talking about and I'm sure will go on to awards," said Handling. "But Nadine's film obviously connected with the public in a significant way because it was a clear, clear winner."
Last year's fans' pick, The King's Speech, starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, went on to take four Oscars, including Best Picture. Similarly, the 2008 people's choice winner, Slumdog Millionaire, starring Freido Pinto, took Best Picture and seven other Oscars.
Quebec director and writer Philippe Falardeau's Monsieur Lazhar, about an Algerian schoolteacher in Quebec and his relationship with two students, won the award for best Canadian feature and a $30,000 prize.
The best first Canadian feature award, which includes a $15,000 prize, went to director Nathan Morlando's period piece Edwin Boyd, starring Scott Speedman as the notorious Canadian bank robber.
Associated Press with reports from The National staff