‘Capernaum’ director Nadine Labaki directs film like a dance

Nadine Labaki’s film career began with acting, but she was a filmmaker first. In an interview with FF2 in 2012, Labaki recalls her childhood, when she was inspired by the TV as a form of escapism and education. She decided she wanted to produce herself the stories she saw on the TV.

Labaki began to make music videos for Lebanese pop singer Nancy Ajram, and she directed the video for Ajram’s breakout hit song, “Akhasmak Ah.” The song’s lyrics translate roughly to “We might fight, but I still love you and I’m not going to leave you.” In the music video, Ajram is passionate and powerful, aloof over crowds of men arm wrestling and playing cards. Labaki was interested in showing Arabic women as they were not normally seen. “I started understanding that my voice should have a meaning,” she said to FF2. “I started feeling how big an impact it can have on people.”

Through her early filmmaking experiences, Labaki came to recognize cinema as a “non-violent weapon for change.” She came to acting through her experiences directing actors. She recalled to FF2 in 2012, “I knew [the characters] so well I could be them.”

Labaki wrote, directed, and acted in her debut feature Caramel, a comedy about five Lebanese women at a beauty salon. The film premiered at Cannes in 2007. In the 2012 interview, Jan noted that the story has a conventional love story with more abrasive edges. For Nadine, it was a non-confrontational way to be provocative: “I decided to write a film about women that are going through all these things, whether it is virginity or marriage or having a forbidden relationship or being a lesbian or all these taboo subjects. And for me, it was a way to heal.” Although Caramel is much lighter in tone and tighter in scope than her later films, Labaki had already early cemented her preference for non-professional actors.

Labaki wrote, directed, and starred in her second feature, Where Do We Go Now?, released in 2011. Set in a fictionalized Middle Eastern village (recognizably Lebanon but unnamed), this film employs elements of magical realism and allegory. It tells the story of a Muslim and Christian woman trying to keep their male family members and neighbors from starting a religious war. Their effort spreads to their entire town, bringing women together in their fight to keep peace and, later, in their grief.

When FF2’s Katusha Jin reviewed the film, she observed: “There is a lot of beauty when people from very different belief systems and walks of life are able to be understanding towards one another, and the women in this piece represent exactly that.”

Where Do We Go Now? is based on a real outbreak of sectarian violence that Labaki witnessed in Beirut in 2008. Labaki describes the experience: “The absurdity of the situation is that these people are able to live in peace for years together in the same neighborhood, in the same building. Their kids go to the same school… But then a political difference occurs and they turn into enemies again—over hours—and that’s what I cannot understand.” A central question of her film is the same one she found herself asking as she watched her neighbors fight: “What makes us forget that this was my brother a few hours ago?”

Labaki has a background in dance, and she incorporated dance in Where Do We Go Now? as a way of bringing her ensemble together and producing arresting images of grief and resilience. Labaki comments on the dance scene: “These women have found their children in the trunk of a car… And I wonder: How do they do it? How do they keep living? … And I wanted to create sort of a tribute to all these women, so I did it through a dance.”

Where Do We Go Now? won the People’s Choice Award at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (In 2019, FF2 co-sponsored a well-attended screening of Where Do We Go Now in Washington Square Park for NYC’s “Films on the Green”). It was the highest-grossing Lebanese film, only surpassed later by Labaki’s next feature, Capernaum.

In Capernaum, Labaki explores child characters as she follows a 12-year-old boy living in Beirut who feels betrayed by his parents for his suffering. In a 2018 interview with FF2, Labaki described her thinking in creating a film from a child’s point of view: “These kids didn’t ask to be here, they’re paying a very high price for our own mistakes and conflicts… I started doing a bunch of research and interviewing kids. I went to courts and prisons for minors. And when I asked most of the kids if they were happy to be alive, most of them said they weren’t and felt that they were just being punished for reasons they don’t understand. So I wanted to tell the story of one child that would rebel against the abuse.”

Labaki describes the experience of making this film as an open, collaborative process. “I felt that I wasn’t entitled to impose what I had written or imagined,” she said at a Q&A at Film Forum in 2018. “I knew that this was a starting point and there was so much more to explore with the actors themselves because they were living in almost the same circumstances and the same story, so we had to always be collaborating during the whole process.”

Many of the Capernaum actors, adults and children, were really living in the difficult situations Labaki depicts. The lead actor, Zain Al Rafeea, was a Syrian refugee. Following the film, he and his family were resettled in Norway, where Zain and his siblings went to school for the first time in their lives.

Capernaum brought Labaki historic awards and secured her place as an internationally renowned filmmaker. The film was nominated in the foreign language Oscars category, making Labaki the first female Arab director ever to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. She was also the only female director nominated for the category that year. In 2018, Labaki was invited to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In a Q&A at the Chicago European Union Film Festival, Float Like a Butterfly writer-director Carmel Winters expressed her admiration for Labaki following her Oscar nomination: “That’s everything I would aspire to. Like, how did she do it? And she has small kids.”

For her birthday on February 18 this year, Vogue Arabia published a feature on Labaki’s body of work thus far. Labaki said to FF2 back in 2012 about the power of filmmaking: “I truly believe it because you are able to entertain people but at the same time tell them stories about the world: Give your vision; give an opinion; give a statement; change something; make people aware of who they are as human beings.” We can’t wait to see what she does next.

© Amelie Lasker (4/7/20) FF2 Media

Photos: Zain Al Rafeea and Nadine Labaki in Capernaum, Where Do We Go Now, and Caramel.

Photo Credits: Sony Pictures Classics and Roadside Attractions

Tags: Capernaum (2018), Caramel (2007), nadine labaki, Where Do We Go Now? (2011)

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Amelie Lasker joined FF2 Media in early 2016 while studying English and history at Columbia University. She received her Master's in English Literature at the University of Cambridge in 2019 and became a Contributing Editor at FF2. Her work with FF2 has earned her Rotten Tomatoes accreditation. Now, she is FF2's Brand Coordinator, developing iSWANs campaigns. Amelie is an artist herself; she is a produced playwright and fiction writer.
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