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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 March 2019

When Labaki met Spielberg: 'He told me Capernaum was one of the best films of the year'

The 'Capernaum’ director talks about getting her young film stars - and their families - into school, and one particular admirer who knows a thing or two about movie-making

Nadine Labaki at the UAE premiere of Capernaum at Mall of the Emirates, on Wednesday night. Leslie Pableo / The National.
Nadine Labaki at the UAE premiere of Capernaum at Mall of the Emirates, on Wednesday night. Leslie Pableo / The National.

Nadine Labaki can now count Steven Spielberg among the legions of fans she has gathered since the runaway success of her ­Oscar-nominated film Capernaum.

Labaki was at the Oscars at the end of February, where she lost out to Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma in the Best Foreign Language Film category. She clearly took some solace from the praise of a true legend of the industry when the director of Schindler’s List and Raiders of the Lost Ark took time out to personally tell her he was a huge fan of her film, however.

“To have someone like Steven Spielberg say: ‘Yes, this is one of the best films this year,’ it’s something else. To have Steven Spielberg, literally, asking me ‘How did you do this? How were you able to achieve this? It’s absolutely one of the best films of the year. How were you able to do it?’ It’s just … I don’t know the words,” she tells The National in an exclusive interview.

Oscars recognition, and creating 'something from nothing'

Labaki admits she was moved by the whole Oscars experience, and says that although the 15-minute standing ovation her film received at its Cannes premiere last May was an equally moving experience, the Oscars was a somewhat ­different feeling. “You feel real recognition for your work. It’s the best feeling because you’re surrounded by people from the industry – filmmakers, directors, producers, actors who are recognising your work.”

Labaki adds that the recognition was all the more welcome because the film was such a small-scale, personal affair: “This is really a home-made film,” the director says. “My husband produced. He had no experience producing, he’s a music composer. So on top of composing an amazing score, he had to concentrate on producing too.

"We really started with nothing, created our own small production company to be able to do it. So to be there at such a big level with all these amazing filmmakers and all these production houses and money there, it was out of this world,” she explains.

The changing landscape for foreign films

Labaki can perhaps consider herself unlucky to have been in the Best Foreign Language running in an unusually strong year. This year saw an unprecedented two of her foreign-language peers also nominated in the main category for Best Director, including the 10-times-nominated Roma, which picked up the foreign-­language prize among its three wins on the night.

Labaki concedes that she always knew Roma was the favourite, but far from being despondent, she sees the strong competition as a good thing: “This year shows things are changing for foreign films,” the director asserts. “To have two in competition for Best Director [Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War was the other], it’s insane. Even the US industry is changing, drifting towards something more universal and open to other languages and cultures, it’s definitely changing. But it was a tough year. Maybe any other year, with no Roma, we’d have won, but hey?”

A message we never got to hear from the Oscars stage

One unfortunate side effect of Labaki’s failure to land the prize was that we did not get to hear her speak at the Oscars. Labaki had said before the ceremony that she had plenty she wanted to say about the plight of street kids, such as those in her film, should she take the stage to claim the prize.

Whether he’s a Syrian refugee, or a child being separated from his parents at the Mexican border or an Indian child working to feed his family, a child is a child and there’s so much we can do.

Nadine Labaki

While conceding that I may not quite be the Oscars stage, I offer Labaki the pages of The National to make her plea instead. “I wanted to say I truly believe that we are the decision makers of the world, and I wanted to take advantage of those 30 ­seconds to address the people there because I truly believe each one of them has a very big, resonating voice and each voice can change so much, each one of those talents,” she says.

“I truly believe that cinema is one of the biggest, most efficient weapons in changing the world, and I truly believe in the human being, and that a child is a child. He has nothing to do with politics, no matter where he’s come from, what is his situation, if a child is deprived of his rights, a child is deprived of his rights. Whether he’s a Syrian refugee, or a child being separated from his parents at the Mexican border or an Indian child working to feed his family, a child is a child and there’s so much we can do, so I just wanted to take advantage of that and talk about that.”

Why this year might not have been the year of change, but it's coming

Film may be a powerful agent for change, but one thing the Hollywood industry seems slow to change is itself. Despite the #Metoo movement and a growing sense of female empowerment in Hollywood, Labaki was one of very few female directors up for a prize on the night, with not a single woman nominated in the coveted Best Director category.

She admits that, given the prevailing mood, she was surprised by the lack of representation. “I was hopeful that this moment was going to make a change,” she admits. “I thought it really was making a change, but maybe it didn’t translate this year in this competition, but I can see women are allowing themselves to express themselves more freely because of the #Metoo movement.”

Nadine Labaki speaks at the 91st Academy Awards Foreign Language Nominees Reception at the Los Angeles Museum of Art on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)
Nadine Labaki speaks at the 91st Academy Awards Foreign Language Nominees Reception at the Los Angeles Museum of Art. AP.

Nonetheless, Labaki insists she is confident that things are changing, and will continue to. “This taboo has been broken and the conversation is involved at such a large level, and the fact is that women are not afraid of talking about it any more. That’s the way to heal. It’s a healing process, and if there’s a problem, we need to talk about it and that’s what’s going to happen. I think in a few years from now, we won’t be talking about it any more. It’s going to take a few years, like everything, but I truly believe that.”

Getting her stars, the real-life street kids, into school

Labaki’s own film, on the other hand, has already effected huge change for one vital group of people – the real-life Beirut street kids who made up the bulk of ­Capernaum’s cast: “Zain [Al Rafeea, the film’s lead] and his family are now resettled in Norway. The whole family is going to school, even his parents are going to school, and they have a lovely house overlooking the sea. We’ve been working with the UNHCR and they resettled the whole family. The other kids from the film are all in school now, none of them are on the streets any more, there’s no more roaming and begging,” Labaki reveals.

“I’d love to say we’ve cleared the streets of the whole of Beirut, but we’re doing what we can. We’re working with the UN, UNHCR and Unicef. We’ve created a foundation, and we’re trying to make as much money as we can. It’s not ideal because we don’t have a lot of money, but we’re doing what we can.”

What's next?

Of course if there’s an offer that I truly feel like doing then I will do it, definitely, but I will not wait for anyone else’s desire.

With Labaki now breathing the same rarefied air as the likes of Steven Spielberg, perhaps she’ll be in a position to raise a lot more money before too long, although the director says she won’t be rushing headlong into the first big-­budget Hollywood project that comes her way: “I’ve had a lot of offers, and producers interested in my work, and people who want to work with me [since the Oscar nomination], and that’s been great. But I’ve never been in that situation of depending on anyone else’s desire,” the director says.

“I’ve always done my own thing, I’ve always made my own films, written my own films and never really asked for anything from anyone. Everything I’ve worked on up till now, I’ve initiated myself, so I really don’t care. Of course if there’s an offer that I truly feel like doing then I will do it, definitely, but I will not wait for anyone else’s desire. I will do my thing. I’ve always done this.”

Updated: March 7, 2019 08:34 PM

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