In the opening sequence of Et maintenant on va où?, a huddle of multi-denominational female mourners walk and sway in gracefully choreographed harmony towards their village’s communal graveyard. It is the film’s aesthetic peak. The women rhythmically beat themselves, tilt their heads to the side, and almost dance before parting and heading to separate Christian and Muslim cemeteries.
“This was my tribute to all the women I’ve seen in my life, whether on TV or in my family or neighbours or cousins; women who are still wearing black two decades after the civil war,” says Lebanese film director Nadine Labaki. “I’ve seen these women act in a very brutal way with themselves because of the loss of a child or of somebody dear during the war, in such absurd and frustrating and unjust ways. They hit themselves, they tear their clothes apart. I’ve seen this ritual so many times that I think I’m obsessed with this image. All of these movements that we’ve created are inspired by this lamentation, this way of walking. So tired, so beaten by life.”
You can see snippets of Labaki’s Et maintenant on va où? (Where do we go now?) in ‘Keep Walking Lebanon’, Leo Burnett Beirut’s campaign for Scottish whisky brand Johnnie Walker, for which Labaki was chosen to be the first ever female aspirational role model at the tail end of last year. The movie acts as a parallel success story to the campaign, with the brand and brand ambassador combining in an attempt to not only inspire via an individual’s professional success, but also to create an allegory for Lebanon itself. The defining message is one of achievement, and of combating emigration from the scarred and often brutalised country. It’s a lofty goal, focusing on collective as well as individual progress. “Lebanon has seen many wars, and lately, I felt that new troubles lay ahead,” says Labaki in one of theTV commercials.“I believe this country is a message of coexistence. I felt a responsibility as a mother, a citizen, and a director to convey this message before it is too late. I decided to tell the stories of my people in a movie that shows what brings us together, and doesn’t shy away from sensitive topics.” She adds: “If we as a small group can make the world hear us, imagine what an entire nation can do.”
But is it possible for an individual, let alone a brand, to inspire a nation; to make a difference?
“It’s not easy to make a film in Lebanon,” replies Labaki, the darling of Lebanese cinema ever since the international success of her directorial debut Caramel in 2007. “So when you do make a film, you have this feeling that you have achieved something. That’s why I thought of linking the fact that I did achieve something through my film to the advertising itself. Somehow it did make sense. Also, the message of the film: it’s a message of peace, of co-existence; it’s a message of wanting to make a change in this world where things aren’t always going right.This feeling of wanting to make a difference, and wanting to give your opinion, and if politics are not going to be able to change everything then I tried to change things in my own way. Maybe I will never change anything, but at least it made some people think about the situation and look at things in a different way. I’m trying to think of an alternative way of thinking. And in that sense it is the same aim as the ‘Keep Walking’ campaign.
“But also the motto. That’s why I said yes to Johnnie Walker. I knew I was going to be the first woman, so it means something. It’s about empowering women, about giving this voice to women. It’s not about being related to a whisky brand. It’s much bigger than that.”
Johnnie Walker chose Labaki to front the new campaign – which follows on from the previous ‘Keep Walking Lebanon’ work with architect Bernard Khoury – for reasons that are obvious. She is one of Lebanon’s most famous daughters, and one whose creative origins lie in the advertising industry. Her story is one of determination and so far the integrated campaign has picked up gold at the Dubai Lynx, with the work also entered into Cannes. Whether it will garner further success is anybody’s guess, but Labaki herself is no stranger to endorsements, having signed up as the brand ambassador for Olay and Hoss Intropia at various points in her career.
“Each person has a different path and I’ve followed mine,” says Labaki, whose sister Caroline directs the commercials, and whose husband, Khaled Mouzanar, composed and produced the score. It is his Danse Funèbre that the black-clad female mourners dance to in Et maintenant on va où?. “But I also consider myself to be very lucky, because it’s not only about a lot of hard work, it’s also about knowing how to grasp the right opportunities and not being scared to dream big; not being scared of pursuing exactly what you have planned for. I chose this path because for me it seemed like the most natural.”
The road to Caramel began with a chance meeting with French film producer Anne-Dominique Toussaint at the Beirut Film Festival in 2003. They kept in touch and Labaki sent Toussaint the first few pages of the film shortly after their initial meeting. Toussaint then suggested she apply to the Residence du Festival de Cannes, a forum that allows young writers and directors to work on their scripts in a creative environment. It was there in 2004 that Labaki wrote the film after being picked from more than 100 candidates. Toussaint co-produced the film with a budget of $1.6 million and filming took place from May to July 2006, ending nine days before the July War with Israel broke out.
“It’s not the fact of telling a story that interests me, it’s the fact that I need to understand through my work a lot of things about society and how it works, about human behaviour and human feelings and why we behave the way we do. Human nature is something that fascinates me. But because there’s no film industry, I needed to start experimenting, so the only place for me to experiment was through advertising. It was the only place where I could be close to a film camera, where I could take this camera and experiment and tell stories in a short time. For me, this was the only way. There were no films that were being shot where I could go and learn and see other directors work.”
Born in the small village of Baabdet, Labaki studied media at Saint-Joseph University in Beirut before becoming a successful director of TV commercials and music videos, making more than 70 ads and more than 25 pop videos for the likes of Nancy Ajram and Carole Samaha. Her acting career has also grown steadily since her feature length debut in Bosta in 2005, with leading roles in her own films and in 2010’s Stray Bullet. Et maintenant on va où? has also pro- pelled her on to the world stage once again, winning last year’s ‘People’s Choice’ award at the Toronto International Film Festival and breaking box office records in Lebanon.
In the past, however, Labaki has been critical of the ad industry that provided her bread and butter for many years, arguing that it portrayed a fake world with limited ideas. But a wider issue was that of bravery of thought. “What we lack, I think, is courage,” she said. “Being in an Arab country, we’re not bold enough with our ideas, because we think that we’re going to be judged.” It is a personal problem that she still faces.
“As Nadine, I’m scared to express myself. Not scared – maybe ‘scared’ is too heavy a word – but to express yourself as you is hard, because there’s a lot of judgment in this part of the world. I feel this weight of how people look at me. I find it hard to express myself through me, so I express myself either through a character that I’m playing or through a film I’m directing. People take you more seriously that way.”
The barriers to free expression, however, are slowly crumbling, and now perhaps more than ever – a cinematic platform is needed for young talent spurred on by the Arab Spring and continued hardship.
“There’s a lot to say in this region. There are so many people who have so many things to say: people who are suffering. And suffering creates a need to express yourself, to say things. We need to start encouraging them. We’re on the right track, but there’s a vicious circle, in Lebanon at least. There are no examples, or very few examples, of films that make it outside the Lebanese territory. Lebanon is not enough. You can’t make money, get your investment back, if you only count on the Lebanese market. So we need more and more examples of films that make it abroad, are financially successful, in order to make people believe that Lebanese films can make money. This is how we are going to start having an industry and make more people interested in financing films.
“It’s a challenge for me to make films, Lebanese films in the Lebanese language, and to travel with it abroad. But I want to continue this challenge. It would feel like a betrayal to my language, to Lebanon, to the Lebanese people, if I went and did an English language film. A lot of people send me scripts to make films abroad but I’ve never felt a need to do it. I want to make films in my language, about my culture and in my own voice.”
* Published in Campaign, April 2012