The plot of “Where Do We Go Now?” is so simple that it’s hard to believe no one had thought of it before and yet like the film’s director Nadine Labaki, it appears to be one whose time has come.
Set in a small, unnamed village presumably in the filmmaker’s native Lebanon, the film centers on the humdrum lives of the townsfolk for whom the introduction of a new (but well-worn) television in the town square is a major community event. However, in the village where a church and a mosque have resided peacefully next to each other for years as the neighborhood’s other most prominent venues for entertainment, the new airwaves have brought with it the reality of the outside world as a news report about a sectarian conflict between Christians and Muslims sends the women of the village scrambling to distract the men from seeing it, knowing the harmony they’ve enjoyed could come to an end at any second.
Just as the women of both faiths come together to distract their sons, husbands and neighbors with all sorts of trickery from mysteriously convenient signs from God to a busload of Russian strippers to baking pastries laced with hash, Labaki opens up a serious discussion about finding peace in the Arab world by sweetening it with song-and-dance numbers, clever dialogue and an overriding joy palpable enough to earn “Where Do We Go Now?” audience awards last year at the Toronto and San Sebastian Film Festivals. While in Los Angeles, the actress/writer/director took the time to talk about how her impending motherhood led to the followup to her 2007 beauty shop comedy “Caramel,” why she’ll gladly say hello to strangers and why the Arab world is suddenly a hotbed for filmmaking.
Was there a reason why you felt this was the right time to make this movie?
It coincided with the fact that in Lebanon we’ve always been on the verge of explosion. It’s been an ongoing situation for the last 30 years and it was a time where unfortunately some political events led to opposing political parties to fight again. We were watching the news and just saw people with masks, with weapons, and I went back 20 years earlier and thought can another civil war in Lebanon be possible? Because we had succeeded in living over 20 years of peace, then all of a sudden we saw neighbors, people who live together in the same building, the same neighborhood turn into enemies over hours. Luckily it only lasted a few weeks, but it was proof that it can explode any time.
At that time, it happened that I was pregnant with my first child and it does change your perspective on life. I thought of this baby and what kind of society is this where anything is an excuse to start a war. I pictured him maybe [at] 18 or 19 years old — if he was tempted to take a weapon and go down to the streets and do whatever the rest were doing because this is what was happening, what would I do as a mother? How far would I go to stop him? It’s really how the whole idea started and developed into the story of a village where women were going to do everything they can to stop the war.
You don’t specify the village this takes place in or at what point in time, though it feels contemporary. Did that make it easier or harder for you as a storyteller?
It does make things easier in a sense that I didn’t want this film or the events in the film to be related to any specific event or to any specific war in Lebanon. When you specify that this is Lebanon geographically, people start relating it – what war is she talking about? Because we’ve had so many wars. I didn’t want any of that. I’m just talking about evil in general, about wars [and] conflicts. This film could’ve happened between two different families or even two brothers belonging to the same family. And it’s not only in Lebanon that this is happening. This film could’ve happened between two neighbors here in Los Angeles.
You see when you go to a public place, when you go to take a metro or a bus, you feel the fear between people, how everybody’s afraid of everybody. For me, it’s more simple to get on the bus and start saying hello to everyone. It’s the complete opposite that’s happening. Everybody is scared. Your shoulder is touching your neighbor, but you don’t dare to even look at this neighbor and say hello. That’s why I wanted it to be more universal.
You’ve discussed how Lebanon may have lost some of its identity as a result of the many languages spoken there…
Yeah, the fact we speak English and French and Arabic and we mix everything together.
Which is why I wanted to ask whether it might’ve been an inspiration for a particularly great scene in the film where your character Amale asks Rabih (Julian Farhat), the man she is clearly falling in love with, to take in one of the Russian dancers. Through the different languages used at his dinner table, each of the characters is able to hide their intentions, though their emotions betray them.
I don’t know what it is, but even in my first film “Caramel,” I’ve always treated any love scene or anything that evokes love in that manner…it’s never really said. It’s always either through somebody or through music or through a song or through a dream. In my first film “Caramel,” it was through an imaginative phone conversation. There’s something about not revealing secret feelings because most of these relationships are taboo. It’s a relationship between a Muslim and a Christian. It is a taboo relationship. Of course, it does happen. In Lebanon, there’s a lot of interreligious relationships and marriages, but it’s always a taboo. There’s always something secret about it. It’s always very complicated for the families. It’s very complicated to tell the families. So it’s mainly because of that. I needed to express the impossibility of this love through complicated ways of communication. So this was one of them.
You treat religion in a respectful way, but show how a wrong interpretation of it can make it easily exploited. Is that reflective of your own beliefs?
Absolutely, because I’m not pointing a finger at religion. I’m not saying religion is bad. I’m saying it’s the way we interpret it that is bad. Everybody is free to believe in what they want to believe in. I just have to respect it. That’s it. And this is what I’m preaching in the film. Why don’t we become the other? Why don’t we embrace the way that the other lives and maybe put ourselves in their shoes for a while and see what happens? Believing in whatever it is, God or in goodness or in the good, this is what every religion teaches us.
You cast many nonprofessionals from the actual villages you shot in – did you actually talk to them about their experiences to somehow incorporate it into their characters?
Not really because they come later after I have finished the script, so what I take from their experience is their personality. I adapt the script to who they are. I don’t impose anything on them. Sometimes they will discover the scene the same day [of filming] because I didn’t want them to memorize anything. Because they’re not professional actors, it doesn’t come naturally to them when they are repeating a sentence. So I try as much as I can to make it theirs, the way they say it and to put them in a certain situation and see how they would react because I’m still at that point where I have to believe what is happening is true, even if it’s a film.
I have a problem with acting — the fact that somebody becomes somebody else for the film. Of course, I don’t deny actors’ work and craft, but I want as much as I can to be very close to reality. So I do rely on their own personalities. I don’t ask them to become somebody else for the film. I want them to be exactly who they are in a certain situation.
In both your films so far, there hasn’t been a central character to follow so much as a group. Is that a way you find your way into a story – through a cacophony of voices rather than just one?
I’m very obsessed with human nature. I’m very interested in human nature and sometimes I don’t want to tackle a subject from one single point of view. You cannot generalize. You can’t say all women would react this way, whether it’s in this film or in the first film [“Caramel”]. I need to explore how [people of] different personalities or different backgrounds could react differently in certain situations. That’s why I always imagine a group where somebody would do this and somebody else would do this. I don’t know why it’s like that.
To that end, you have an intriguing set of co-writers, including “A Prophet” writer Thomas Bidegain. What was the collaboration like?
I wrote the film with two friends of mine [Jihad Hojely and Rodney Al Haddad] who are Lebanese guys – one of them is an actor, one is a photographer. They’re very good friends of mine and then we needed an exterior point of view — somebody who has nothing to do with Lebanese culture, doesn’t what goes on there. I needed this distance from somebody who had experience in film, who of course is clever and can see the film with a different eye because it’s not a film that is intended only for the Lebanese audience. [Thomas] saw the film, which changed a little bit [in] the structure, but not really anything in details, but mainly we worked on it to be more understood.
While I wonder if we’re just catching on in the West, you’ve remarked before on how the floodgates have opened for cinema from the Arab world. Has something been unlocked for these stories to be told?
When it comes to Lebanese [films], we’ve been through a war for such a long time that it’s only now that we have started really to build an industry. We have a few adventures, but we can’t really talk about an industry. And apart from Egypt where they have a big movie industry, in the rest of the Arab world, there’s no real film industry. Only now things are starting to happen and unblock because we have a lot to say. We have so many things we need to express.
It’s coming out now because also the Arab world is opening up to the West and we’ve had help from the West. Because we don’t have industry, we don’t have institutions that finance and now you hear a lot of collaborations between Europe and the Arab world or even the U.S. This is helping us a lot and we are becoming more confident about what we’re doing.
What’s it been like for you to take this film around the world?
I’m happy because no matter what the quality of the film is, what stays is the intention. And people are getting the intention of the film. Sometimes it goes beyond the film — the discussions that we have afterwards all over the world with students, even talk shows. It’s going beyond the film. This is what’s important for me.
“Where Do We Go Now?” opens on May 11th in Los Angeles at the Landmark and New York at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas before expanding on May 18th.