Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 November 2019

‘Capernaum’ gave her worldwide recognition, so what's next for Nadine Labaki?

We sit down with the Oscar-nominated Lebanese director to talk the legacy of ‘Capernaum’, the power of art and potentially working with Oprah

Nadine Labaki at the 91st Annual Academy Awards in 2019 in Hollywood, California. Getty
Nadine Labaki at the 91st Annual Academy Awards in 2019 in Hollywood, California. Getty

Nadine Labaki is at the peak of her career. This week, the Lebanese director was in Abu Dhabi to receive an award alongside her husband, Lebanese composer and producer Khaled Mouzanar. It is the latest in a series of awards in her honour. And it is so well deserved.

Labaki released her film Capernaum after five years of research, shooting, editing and post-production and it was internationally acclaimed. The movie tells the story of a 12-year-old boy called Zein, living in the slums of Beirut, who sues his parents for bringing him into this world.

It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, was met with a 15-minute standing ovation, went on to win the festival’s prestigious Jury Prize. It also received nominations for a Bafta and an Oscar. It received worldwide recognition and launched Labaki on to the international stage, giving her a seat at the same table as Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron – Labaki was pictured with the directors pre the Oscars.

Labaki is a huge inspiration. As an aspiring filmmaker and a mother myself, her success certainly motivates me. And so when the opportunity to interview the Lebanese director came up, I took it. As I wait at the lobby of The St Regis Abu Dhabi, I see Mouzanar passing by, so I walk over and introduce myself. We chat for a few minutes while waiting for Labaki to come and meet with us.

Mouzanar tells me they expected Capernaum to be a big success. “I mortgaged my home to do the film,” he says. “It was never a question of not succeeding. For us, it was as clear as water.”

Labaki arrives; she is calm and welcoming. “This film to me felt like a duty,” she says. “It wasn’t even a choice.”

But life after Capernaum isn’t the same as life before it. Hollywood has now come calling and Labaki is still deciding what her next project will be. It has been “very very tempting”, she says. There are “things that I can be doing abroad, things that I can be doing with big American actors. There are these possibilities, but is this what I want to be doing next? I’m not sure. It needs to make sense for me.”

Nadine Labaki, Christopher Aoun, and Jad Asmar in Capharnaum (2018)
Labaki spent five years making the film. Here she is on set of the film with Christopher Aoun, left and Jad Asmar. Capernaum

It seems that the process of making Capernaum has transformed Labaki and her craft. She feels her work needs to have purpose – especially when it comes to a process as exhaustive as making a film. “The next project really needs to be coming from the heart and be faithful to this instinct; this very deep faith in what you do.”

For her, art has a mission and that is to change the world. “I truly believe in that because art is the only tool that can hit your emotional chord. I think a film or a poem or a piece of art can be so much more powerful than any political speech because it talks to your emotions as a human being, it talks to your inner vibration so it’s a different level of dialogue. It’s a completely different level of dialogue and this is the kind of dialogue that can move mountains for me.” However, Capernaum is not completely over yet. The couple have been working on keeping the children who made up the cast of non-­actors off the streets through the Capernaum Foundation. A documentary that follows their lives is being made, including the life of Zein El Rafee, who plays Zein in the film and who now lives in Norway. He is the movie’s other success story.

Capernaum’s strong following is also worthy of note. One of the film’s biggest fans has been Oprah. The American media mogul praised the film on several occasions, and even received Labaki and Mouzanar for lunch, describing Labaki as a “director extraordinaire”. When I ask Labaki if she will be collaborating with Oprah, she smiles and says the possibility stands. “We spoke about collaborating on something that is related to the cause that I spoke about in the film because she was very sensitive to that,” she says. “But there is nothing tangible yet.”

In the interest of time, I move quickly to my next question. Not only was Labaki making Capernaum, shooting, editing and traveling, but she was doing it all while breastfeeding her baby for two and a half years. As a breastfeeding mother who works full-time myself, I ask Labaki how she has been able to do it. I know it’s hard work. “I think we women have this super power. I truly believe in that,” she says. “I think it’s this natural instinct and natural power that we have to be able to multi-task and do many things for our kids, but also be very present for our work and be very passionate and dedicated.”

That passion is contagious and I feel I could talk to Labaki for hours. But our time is running out and so I ask her my million dollar question – her advice for filmmakers who want to get that international recognition; who want to get to the Oscars. She smiles and says: “There’s no recipe … there’s no secret.” I was hoping for a blockbuster headline, but the answer was that simple.

“You know, hard work pays off. It’s not just a saying. It does pay off. This film practically destroyed me. I worked so hard. I worked for five years on it. It was emotionally draining and physically draining. I gave it everything because I truly believed in this mission. It wasn’t just a film for me. It was a mission. And there’s no secret. You get what you deserve at the end of the day.”

And maybe next time, Labaki will get what she truly deserves – an Oscar.

Updated: October 15, 2019 06:57 PM

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