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Nadine Labaki : Power Through Art

She's a media powerhouse in the region, having made a name for herself directing music video for stars such as Nancy Ajram and Nicole Saba. Now, her influence just got bigger; her first movie has garnered international success. AM digs deeper into the mind of Nadine Labaki, actor, director and recently voted as one of the most influential Arabs.

"The cinema should have a mission and help to change things. But what was my film going to bring or change?” That was the question that Nadine Labaki posed to herself after the war in Lebanon broke out in 2006. It was barely a week after she wrapped up filming for her movie ‘Caramel' before the bombs started to rain in on Beirut. “I was even tempted to give it all up. But, in the end, I told myself that ‘Caramel' is yet another way of surviving the war, of getting over it, of winning it and of getting revenge. It marks my revolt and my commitment.”

Thankfully she persevered as the film went on to become an international sensation at film festivals and later achieved box office success. The film garnered Labaki much acclaim as both a director and actress, and put her on Variety's 10 Directors to Look Out for List. On top of that, it has earned her the No. 5 spot on Arabian business's 100 Most Influential Arabs which also effectively made her the most influential Arab woman on the power list.

Born in Lebanon in 1974, she obtained her diploma in 1993. She then studied media at Saint-Joseph University in Beirut and graduated in 1997. Her school film project, ‘11 RUE PASTEUR', was awarded first prize for short films at IMA's Biennale du Cinéma arabe in Paris in 1998.

She went on to direct commercials and many musical videos for well known Middle-Eastern entertainers. Labaki made her directorial debut with the video for Habeebi Ya for singer Carla during a competition. A few years later, she hit the big time with Nancy Ajram's music video for Akhasmak Ah. The video, which depicted Ajram as a waitress in a traditional Egyptian coffee shop entertaining men, caused controversy but Labaki justified the use of the character as a powerful and attractive female figure.

Despite being one of the most famous directors in the Arabic music video industry and often credited with bringing new artists into the Middle East music scene, Labaki remained an unknown on the international scene. Until ‘Caramel' that is.


‘Caramel' is the story of five Lebanese women who work or meet in a beauty salon in Beirut. Not only was it the largest release a Lebanese film has ever received by far but it's also the first movie made in Beirut that doesn't make any reference to the war. Labaki explains that this was no coincidence but a very conscious decision “All the world sees of Lebanon is that we are a people of war. The events of the past have been viewed, analysed, reviewed and broken down to such an extent that I do not feel the need to mention them,” Labaki said.

“I wanted to show that we are more than that, that we have a very strong positivity, a sense of humour and a will to survive. There is a message of co-existence in my country, where Christians and Muslims live together, and I wanted to bring that out.”

The movie has often been asked about its political motivations. Though Labaki said that it was never her intention from the start to impose any agendas, she agrees that the film ultimately took a political twist due to the war. “Because of the events, I would say yes. In Lebanon, everything has become a political act and politics slip into the most intimate areas of our lives! I thought I could get away from it but the reality of the war caught up with me. Today, with the tensions that reign in Lebanon, ‘Caramel' contains a message nonetheless: in spite of the opposition between the different religions reactivated by the war, cohabitation and coexistence are natural. At least, that's how we should live,” she said.

Labaki wanted to start afresh, to write about the future and not dwell on the past. “I belong to a generation that wants to talk about something different, love stories for instance, something that is closer to the feelings that we know and the experiences that we have. Unfortunately, one week after the end of shooting, we were made to live through dramatic events again. It was very hard for us, because we had just made a film that talked about life, love, colourful women, while our country was at war. As a filmmaker, you feel like you have a mission, you want to do something for your country.”

Women's rights

Although ‘Caramel' portrays the lives of Arab women in modern society and the deep-rooted issues that they face, Labaki denies that the film is purely feministic. “I didn't want to present a sociological work and I certainly haven't summed up the whole of Lebanese society in the film. I made this film because I ask myself a lot of questions about Lebanese women.”

 “Little girls in Lebanon grow up with the Arabic word ‘aayib' which, accompanied by a threatening gesture of the finger, means, “That's shameful”. Anything can be shameful. We are continually afraid of doing something that we shouldn't do- with the idea of sacrificing ourselves to please our parents, children, husband and family. At every stage in our lives, we are given an example to follow that, of course, doesn't correspond to what we want to be.”

The film does however attempt to bring to the surface the contradicting lives of Lebanese women in the modern society. “In this typically feminine world, these women- who suffer from the hypocrisy of a rational oriental system in the face of western modernism- help each other with the problems that they encounter in relation to men, love, marriage and sex. “

“You see these modern women- dressed like normal Western women, they drive cars, they go to work, they have their opinions and personalities. They don't seem to be imprisoned or anything. But at the same time you see that we have a lot of issues to deal with that might seem completely ridiculous for other cultures. You understand the contradiction for this other country that is exposed to Western culture, but at the same time you see they have the weight of tradition, education, religion- whether we're Christian or Muslim. The Lebanese woman, Muslim or Christian, lives a contradiction between what she is, what she wants to be and what she is allowed to be.”


With the old world traditions still very much alive in the bustling modern world, conflicts are bound to arise in practices and taboos emerge. ‘Caramel' does not hide these taboos but rather thrusts it upon the viewer, not to conjure feelings of angst but rather simply to show that these issues exist. For instance, a character in the movie, Nisrine, is a Muslim woman of 28 about to get married to a Muslim man who doesn't know that she is no longer a virgin. This becomes a big issue as she contemplates telling him the truth or just getting herself stitched up like many other Lebanese girls in this situation do.

Labaki reveals that having a woman's hymen stitched back up before marriage is not as rare as people might like to think. “For Muslims, as for Christians, virginity has great value. That too is extremely representative of Lebanese society. Appearances are continually stressed because of our fear of not conforming to a model. It's done in secret but in well established clinics. Men never talk clearly about the subject.”

“As a result, we never really know what they think. Even if they claim to be broad-minded, how will they react when forced with the reality? Between modernity and tradition, the men are often as confused as the women are. But, there too, one should avoid general remarks.”

Another taboo subject in the movie is homosexuality. “Homosexuality is very secret, which is why I decided to write about that. I see a lot of homosexual women and men who just keep it to themselves, and they lead very unhappy lives where they end up hating their bodies and hating themselves. Many people live with it in secret, but there are also many victims and others who have problems dealing with it in public. It's the contradiction of the country.”

To make the movie even more realistic, Labaki opted to go with non-professional actors, including herself. “I wanted women who, in real life, are like their characters. I had a very precise idea of their physique, their personality, the words that they would use and I didn't want character parts. I had to look for them in the streets and shops and in friends' homes. That took some time but they are all very close to the reality of their parts.”

On her acting duties, she professed that while she was tempted to act, it needed a lot of convincing on her part. “I was afraid it would hurt the film. Luckily, I took that risk because it allowed me to direct the scenes from the inside. Since the actresses were non-professionals, I could drive the film along by being as close to them as possible. Especially since I wanted each one to keep her own way of speaking, I didn't give them any dialogue to learn.”

After the success of ‘Caramel', Labaki is bound to be one to watch for the future, not just as a director or actor, but perhaps also someone whom we can turn to for bringing change into society through her films. As they say, film is one of the most, if not the most influential cultural tool and the most powerful medium for communication. Labaki certainly has the power in her hands.

Source: Arabian Man
Posted: 06/10/2008

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