Nadine Labaki's favourite films when she was growing up were ET, Grease and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Given her experience of living and working in Beirut, where dealing with complicated subject matter, civil war and sudden violence is a way of life, it's surprising to hear. But from these classic 1980s films, the Lebanese actress and director learnt her first valuable filmmaking lesson: the craft of storytelling - and this is something that she has continued to hone with her latest film, Where Do We Go Now?.
She says this with a smile when we meet for lunch in central Beirut. Labaki has chosen a pizzeria in Achrafieh, across the road from the flat she shares with her husband, the composer Khaled Mouzanar. Natural and down-to-earth, she offers to pay for my meal. "I come here all the time for a working lunch," says the 37-year-old with genuine warmth. "The staff know me and don't tend to bother me."
What is also strange is that diners at the other tables also pay no attention to Lebanon's biggest movie star.
But this quiet life may soon be about to change. Her latest release, the follow-up to Caramel, her directorial debut, wowed critics at Cannes in May and picked up the People's Choice Award at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. Talk of an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film has already begun.
"Caramel changed me in the sense that I became more confident," says Labaki. "When you have the appreciation of the Oscars and the Palme d'Or, it gives more people the opportunity to see and enjoy your work - film festivals like Cannes automatically give you a label of quality."
While Caramel centred on a beauty salon, following the interweaving lives of five women, Where Do We Go Now? couldn't be farther removed from the world of manicures and mascara. The story - which Labaki wrote, in addition to directing and starring in the film - takes place in a remote Lebanese village cut off from the rest of the country. Civil war threatens to disrupt the peace of the community, prompting the women of the village to perform a series of absurd scams and stunts - such as faking a miracle and hiring a troupe of Ukrainian strippers - to keep their hotheaded husbands out of the conflict. At its core is a religious divide, but Labaki hopes her film can be interpreted as a story of any two opposing factions, be they political parties, next-door neighbours or even football teams. "The female characters go through a lot of suffering in this film for the men they love," she adds. "Yet what they experience is expressed through singing and dancing - and comedy too."
That doesn't mean that the film lacks a serious side. When Labaki began writing the script, she was pregnant with her first son. With guns on the streets, roads blocked and the airport in Beirut closed, her motherly instinct took over. "It's been inspired by what's happened in Lebanon's past," she explains. "People who had lived in the same building for years became enemies within hours - it was an absurd situation." The thought of her son carrying a rifle "became my inspiration."
The upshot is that the subject matter is far more important to Labaki than critical success second time around - even if she realises that having an international hit will give her more opportunities to make the kind of thought-provoking films she wants to make, which in the Middle East can sometimes be a hard sell for both film studios and audiences. There is also a weight of expectation on her shoulders. With a budget of US$5.5 million (Dh20.2m), Where Do We Go Now? is Lebanon's biggest film production yet and hopes are pinned on it to help revive Beirut's long-dormant film industry. "We live in a place that's very delicate, where there is no real freedom of expression - so we have learnt to express ourselves in a more subtle way through self-censorship," she says.
As our lunch comes to an end, Labaki's husband enters to remind her that she has a busy afternoon ahead. In parting, Labaki tells me that she wants to change the world in her own small way - a bold claim - but then admits to being unsure of what her next step will be. "It's not like I have worked on films with other directors to see what they are doing," she says. "I have learnt naturally from my mistakes until now. Caramel was my biggest dream - that I was able to make my own film, I couldn't believe it. But after this, I have to begin looking for another dream."
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