Nadine Labaki, Caramel
As role models, few filmmakers are more inspirational than Nadine Labaki. On top of the inherent difficulty of succeeding as a writer-director, Labaki grew up in Lebanon’s war-ravaged capital, Beirut, in a Middle Eastern culture where women are essentially second-class citizens. However, Labaki’s passion for film drove her to overcome her obstacles, and in 1998 her short film 11 Rue Pasteur (her graduating project at Beirut’s Saint-Joseph University) won the top prize at an Arabian film festival in Paris. Back in Lebanon, Labaki honed her craft as a director by helming numerous pop promos and commercials, winning more prizes and accolades in the process.
A meeting with French producer Anne-Marie Toussaint in 2003 led to Labaki being sponsored by the Cannes Film Festival the following year to write her first feature script. Three years later, she returned to Cannes as the writer, director and star of Caramel, a vibrant depiction of a group of female friends in modern-day Beirut. The action is centered around Si Belle, a ramshackle beauty salon, where owner Layale (Labaki) and her employees and friends discuss and attempt to solve their problematic love lives. As well as being an effervescent celebration of sisterhood, Caramel explodes pre-existing ideas of Beirut, which here has the bustle and color of a European city, and is shot in a glossy, almost Hollywood style.
Filmmaker spoke to Labaki about watching Dallas and Dynasty while the bombs fell, using an entire cast of non-actors, and believing she was Disney’s Snow White.
Filmmaker: Where did the idea for this project come from?
Labaki: It was something very personal. It started with something I used to feel and am feeling sometimes, this contradiction between [the fact that] I live in a country that is very modern and exposed to Western culture, and at the same time I’m confused between this culture and the weight of tradition, religion, education and there’s always a lot of self-censorship, self-control. I’m a little bit lost between these two things, and I don’t know who I am exactly. I looked around me and felt that all women around me were feeling the same thing, and that’s why I decided to write this film, to talk about women now in Lebanon and what they are facing, and this contradiction between East and West and how we are trying to find our own identity.
Filmmaker: Was the film helpful in you finding your own identity?
Labaki: For me, it was something that I needed to talk about to understand more about myself. So I decided to talk about problems that I saw around me, or stories that I’d heard, or be inspired by people I see around me. It’s not like anybody is based on one person but they’re based on different people that you see, and then you summarize everything in one person. You cannot talk about all women in one film with five women, but you can give a big picture of what’s happening.
Filmmaker: Do you feel the film is representative of how Lebanon, and specifically Beirut, is today?
Labaki: Absolutely, yeah, because it seems to be like a very modern country. It could be anywhere else in the world, but at the same time it’s not — we still have a lot of issues to deal with. And it’s true to the fact that in Lebanon we live in a community: you don’t live on your own, you stay with your parents until you are married and you live in a family, a society. Lebanon is like a huge village where everybody knows everybody, so this creates a lot of pressure. We are also very much attached to our religion (whether we’re Christians or Muslims), attached to education, tradition. I think we are a mixture of both [Western and Eastern cultures] and trying to find our own identity between both. Until we have found this right balance, I think we’re going to make a lot of mistakes.
Filmmaker: It seems like you set out to change Western viewers’ perceptions of Lebanon.
Labaki: First, I wanted to change that cliché of a country that is at war. That’s it, that’s all you know about Lebanon or Beirut, it’s the only thing that you understand about this country. “Oh, it’s a place where there’s war.” It’s important that people know what kind of people we are and how we deal with everyday problems, and the nature of these people who are very warm-hearted, who have a good sense of humor, who have this strong will to live and who are very colorful, very warm. This is something that people need to know also. It’s not only a country where there’s a war, there’s so many things that people need to discover about this country.
Filmmaker: The film makes Beirut seem like a very happy, colorful, vibrant place.
Labaki: Because it is. It is a vibrant, happy, colorful place, in spite of everything. Lebanese people have developed this very strong way of adapting. It’s surprising and at the same time touching to see how Lebanese people have survived until now and how they keep surviving, and keep living. It’s this will that I wanted also to show in the film. This warmth that exists over there is something that is amazing, and people should know about it.
Filmmaker: How much of an impact did Lebanon being at war have on your childhood and the way that you view the world?
Labaki: I’ve lived [with] the war all my childhood: most of my childhood was spent at home because we couldn’t go out, there was no school for a long time, so I saw and understood the world through TV. That’s how I learned English, that’s how I decided to become a filmmaker. I learned that through films I could be able to create realities that are different from my reality, and worlds that are different from my world. That was my childhood, just me in front of the TV watching films.
Filmmaker: So TV acted as your education.
Labaki: Yes, my education about the world. Of course, we went to school but we spent a lot of time at home, when there was no school, when everything was closed. The only escape was watching TV. I used to watch everything: Egyptian movies, American movies, European movies, French movies, everything. These stupid talk shows, stupid TV series. I know everything about Dallas and Dynasty! [laughs] It was the 80s and TV was my real education.
Filmmaker: One of the characters, Jamale, is almost like a comic character from a soap opera.
Labaki: [laughs] Yes. But it’s also reality, this woman is real. In the film I didn’t use actors, I used ordinary people and I asked them to be themselves, to exist the way they are. I didn’t ask them to become someone for the film, like go through the process of some actor and become someone else. I just chose people from life — and it took a long time, a year of work [to find] people that look exactly like the way I imagined them in the script.
Filmmaker: Did you rewrite the script at all to tailor roles to the people you’d cast?
Labaki: I didn’t rewrite it, but when we were shooting I just adapted it to the people, and the fact that I was acting with them really helped me because I was inside, and I could react really quickly to what was happening. Many times, we went in directions that were not even written because I was using non-actors. They couldn’t memorize the text — they don’t have the discipline, don’t have the rhythm — so it was a huge work of editing afterwards, because every shot was a different shot.
Filmmaker: How much of a challenge was it to not only write and direct your first feature, but to act in it also?
Labaki: For me, it was easier. It might be surprising to people, but it was easier because it created a very strong bonding between me and my actors. I was not anymore the director who is giving them instructions, I was their friend and we were just having fun, we were just being ourselves in a certain situation. [For] some scenes where I was not acting and only directing, it was much harder, it was much more tiring for me to get there.
Filmmaker: How much rehearsal time did you have?
Labaki: Not a lot. I didn’t want to lose the spontaneity and the freshness, so I didn’t do a lot of rehearsal because I saw them a lot before starting to shoot. We just hung out together and we became friends, and this real friendship shows on the screen.
Filmmaker: What are your influences for this film? There’s almost a Hollywood aspect to it, in its tone and visuals.
Labaki: I don’t know, because when I was writing the film, I didn’t have the thought of one film. I am inspired by everything I see. I saw so many different things, like I told you, so there are many influences but not one thing in particular inspired me. There’s no plot in this film, it’s just describing slices of life. With no plot. That’s why it’s different from an American movie where there’s a plot, a beginning and an ending. I don’t really know what my influences are, I just try to be as close to reality as possible. I am giving people the impression that they are observing other people’s lives that look like them, act like them, are like them. I am really inspired by ordinary people. I think there’s a lot of beauty in ordinary people. I don’t like heroes, so that’s maybe why I chose people who aren’t actors, and chose them from real life.
Filmmaker: As soon as the movie wrapped, Beirut once again became a war zone and was being bombed. How difficult was that for you?
Labaki: Very hard to deal with [laughs] because I’ve made a film that has nothing to do with war — it talks about life, love, friendship — and then my country was at war again. It was something unimaginable to me, I couldn’t believe it was happening again. You have a very big sense of guilt because you’re a filmmaker and you don’t know how you can help and how your art can do something for your country. So it was very hard — but then I understood that maybe it was my mission to make this film that shows something else of my country, a new image.
Filmmaker: How difficult has it been working as a woman in the film industry in Lebanon?
Labaki: I’ve never felt the difficulty because I’m a woman, it’s a hard job anyway. It’s difficult for a man also, so I’ve never felt that because I’m a woman it’s much more difficult. That’s the contradiction: this country [Lebanon] allows you to do things, but at the same time you have this self-control, you’re scared of hurting people’s feelings. You have all these issues that are not solved and at the same time you’re working in a field that’s not easy for women. You travel a lot and you do what you want, but still you don’t leave your house unless you’re married. I’m in that situation. That’s the contradiction of this country.
Filmmaker: Do you see yourself making films similar to this in the future?
Labaki: I think I want to do something different. I’m going to start writing again in April but it’s still not very clear yet. I have a theme, but it’s too early to talk about it. I still need some time to become obsessed with it.
Filmmaker: If Caramel is very successful in the U.S., would you consider working in Hollywood?
Labaki: Because the film was in Cannes, there’s a lot of people who came knocking at my door. [laughs] I still don’t know. I have to think about it, I have to think about it. I just feel like I want to keep making Lebanese films in Lebanon with Lebanese people. You never know. It’s really tempting, I must say.
Filmmaker: There’s certainly a universality about Caramel that has given it mass appeal.
Labaki: Of course. I hope that I would keep making Lebanese films that would go and travel and become universal.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Labaki: Maybe Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I used to identify with that woman that had, you know, black hair and white skin. I used to think I was her and dream of her life and dream of the day a Prince Charming was going to come and kiss me. [laughs] Yeah, it made me dream and it’s one of my favorite films.
Filmmaker: Finally, which actor would you pay to see in anything?
Labaki: I love Meryl Streep. I love also Robert De Niro.
Filmmaker: So are you a fan of Falling in Love?
Labaki: I love that film, I love it! You just hit it spot on! One of my favorite films, really sensitive.