Interview: Nadine Labaki, director, co-writer, and star of Where Do We Go Now?

In Lebanese film maker Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now?, the Muslim and Christian inhabitants of an isolated village co-exist peacefully. But when violence breaks out across the rest of the country, the village women from both religions go to extreme, often amusing lengths (including hiring a troupe of Ukranian strippers and drugging homemade pastries) to keep their men from being drawn back into bloody conflict.

Where Do We Go Now? is the second feature film from Labaki, an actress and former music-video director. Her first, 2007′s Caramel, used humor and heartache to chronicle the lives and loves of several women living in Beirut.

Her latest work tackles a heavier, often more tragic subject: the cycle of religious and political violence and revenge. However, Where Do We Go Now? is far from a dour, depressing treatis–it’s full of humor and music even as it bounces quickly between comedy and tragedy.

In addition to directing, Labaki co-wrote Where Do We Go Now? with Rodney El Haddad, Jihad Hojeily, Sam Mounier, and also co-stars as Amale, a Christian cafe owner falling for a Muslim house painter.

I sat down with the film maker last month in Chicago to talk about Where Do We Go Now?

Where Do We Go Now? is playing in select theaters across the country.

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When you show a film like this or Caramel in America, do you find the audience has preconceptions about Lebanon?

Nadine Labaki: Sometimes they are little bit surprised because it’s not exactly the image they expect to see. They are mostly surprised by the fact that we are funny, warm, beautiful women. Unfortunately because of what you see in the news, because you hear of so many problems and wars going on over there, I think you have a completely different conception of that place—you’ve never seen Lebanon or Beirut on a sunny day.

Where Do We Go Now? fits into the peace-movement philosophy that says the best start to solving many conflicts is to have individuals with political or religious differences just talk to each other, one to one.

Labaki: I do believe in that when a person talks to you—even if it’s your enemy—when you are in the same room, and you’re sitting down next to that person, and at one point you decide that you are going to talk about it, it is solved sometimes.

This film was inspired by real events in Beirut in 2008, when differences between two political parties led people to take weapons and go out to the streets and start killing each other again. These were people who used to live together in the same neighborhood, in the same building, who, because of political differences, turned into enemies over hours.

So I just needed to say, “Look at how absurd you are acting.” I was going to become a mother at the time, and it changes your perspective on things. You do think of your children, and you do think of this child that’s going to be born, and what kind of society is this? And you want to be able to share the responsibility. I’m saying “Okay, what if we decide we don’t want this anymore? How would we react as women and as mothers, and how far would we go?” That’s how the whole story started.

Both your films stress that while family is very important and provides strength and support, it’s also a link to traditions and history that can drive revenge and retaliation. Some characters in Where Do We Go Now? seem motivated by the idea that if they don’t respond to pain inflicted on them, then they are being weak and letting down the past, their family, and their history.

Labaki: There’s a sense of revenge, yes. Because there has been so much, too much blood. We Lebanese did not talk and have reconciliation after the civil war was over. And we pretend that everything is okay, that we are living together normally, but any reason is a good enough reason to take up weapons again because we need revenge. This sense of revenge is everywhere, and you do feel it. Like the guns in the movie, the revenge is boxed up and put away, but it’s not completely eliminated—it’s still there whenever we need it.

But your film also nicely presents these ideas about male aggression and the painful absurdity of cyclical violence with humor and entertainment.

Labaki: I think with humor you can get away with a lot of things, and you can say things that you’re not supposed to say. I think it does create this distance, because when you laugh about your flaws it’s a way to start healing—you see it’s ridiculous. It was important to make the way we make wars feel ridiculous, to laugh about that, to laugh about our problems, our flaws, our way of dealing with things.

Are there certain film makers or styles of film making that influence your tone?

Labaki: I am very fascinated with a lot of Iranian film makers, films that reflect reality. I am more into those kinds of films where you don’t know if this is real or a documentary or if this fiction, are these actors? I think it’s the only way to make change, by entertaining people but at the same time showing things that are real.

I am aware of how much impact I can have on people—I can have 200, 300, 500 people in the same room watching something I have done, or something I am saying. And when you’re from this part of the world, it does give you a lot of responsibility, especially when there’s no film industry in Lebanon. I really believe in the power of cinema, I believe in how big of an impact it can have on people. I want to change something in my country in the way we are and the way we think, why we are and who we are, and how we can think about it and maybe make a change in our own life.

So that’s why I make films that are very close to reality and work with non-professional actors. I don’t like the word “acting”—I just try as much as I can to make them be exactly who they are and not make them act.

The film borders on magic realism, with flights of fantasy and musical interludes. When you’re writing, do you struggle with that balance between fantasy and reality? Do you worry about the tone tipping too far in one direction?

Labaki: No, because it comes naturally. I’m not a very analytical person, so I go with what I’m feeling—I go with my instinct. There are books written about how to write scripts, about how on page 54 something should happen and on page 63 something should happen. I’m not at all into that, I just go with the flow and do whatever I feel, and it happens that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work.

You’ve now had two increasingly large successes in Lebanon with your first two films. This one is a little more serious than Caramel, so do you know what direction you want to go for your next film?

Labaki: Who knows? I think of course in whatever film I do next you will still feel it is me making the film, you will still feel my soul in it. These two films have been successful, but I know that they’re not perfect—there are so many things that I could have done better or differently. With the first film, you don’t have enough money, you don’t have enough time, you’re still a bit shaky. So I want to make an even better film next time. I just go with the flow, but I do think I should make more films that make more sense and have more impact.

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf
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