As we start talking, I can’t help but feel I’m keeping Nadine Labaki from something more important – or many things, even.
I tell her about a mutual friend of ours who says hello – a classic bit of Lebanese name-dropping and relationship-building. I want us to start with some sort of common ground.
Labaki, one of the most successful Arab film directors of the past decade, has just returned from the Venice Film Festival. I soon find out that the important thing I am keeping her from: her family. The last few years of her life have been a whirlwind, and she plans on spending as much time with them as possible. You can’t help but feel guilty to be interfering with that mission now. To deflect, I ask if she is heading to the Toronto International Film Festival where Oualid Mouaness’ 1982, a film she stars in, will be premiered. “I probably won’t. It’s the week the kids go back to school,” she says.
The conversation starts in far more mundane territory than I expected it to. Her latest film as a director, 2018’s Capernaum, was nominated for more international awards than you can shake a stick at, including an Academy Award, a Palme D’Or and BAFTA (it won the Cannes Jury Prize). Oprah is a very public fan. The film grossed 55 million dollars… at the Chinese box office. These are numbers and accolades unheard of for any Arab film before it. But here we are discussing the kids going back to school.
“It’s difficult to manage. I wake up with panic attacks almost every morning. I like to be present with my kids. I can’t delegate. I’m not organised. I’m not strict. I’m all over the place. I’m trying to do everything at the same time, all the time.”
I know Labaki is talking about her home life, but I can’t help but think she is also talking about her creative process. “I manage. I manage. It’s OK.”
“I also had the blues when I finished the film. Not working on it anymore made me realise I’m happiest when I’m in the creative part of the film. That’s where I’m most fulfilled. Your mind is dreaming of something all the time.”
It’s not hard to sense that she doesn’t enjoy the promotion part of the filmmaker’s job. Another reason to feel guilty for cutting into her time with her family. “The year was very tough. You have to travel with the film, you have to do the promotion. Otherwise you feel you’re not accomplishing your mission,” she says. “What people think is glamorous, the red carpet and things like that, is the toughest part. It’s a role I have to play. It’s a game. It’s not something I necessarily like.”
It’s a striking statement. Dressing Labaki for the red carpet has become a favourite pastime of Lebanon’s crop of globally-recognised haute couture designers. Labaki and her husband, musician and producer Khaled Mouzanar, can be seen at red carpets the world over, stealing eyes and admiration.
“It’s the journey that makes me happy, more than the result itself. I’m happiest on the shoot, in the editing room, writing.” With so much of her happiness attached to being at the heart of an active creative project, I wonder if she knows what comes next, what keeps this feeling going. “I don’t know yet. It’s difficult to think about the next project. I have options, but I need to let the next obsession come to me. That’s usually how it works.”
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Labaki has found herself in an enviable position, with no shortage of people trying to influence her next obsession. She has been receiving scripts, offers and proposals in the US. “It’s very tempting to think I could work with a big studio, and big Hollywood actors, and have all those means. You know, working the normal way people work in the industry. Here in Lebanon, it’s always an alternative way of working.” She pauses. “But it should have a reason. Temptation is not enough. I don’t have this dream of working with an American actor. It could be great if it happens, but it’s not my aim. If it makes sense to work in the States, in English, with a big star, it should have a purpose. Otherwise I will fail.”
Capernaum, without doubt, was a special sort of obsession for her. Six months of shooting on Beirut’s streets, followed by two years of editing, and a lot of discussion around the film core’s subjects around injustice, poverty and the plight of the children at the margins of society.
“It ignited a lot of debate, and changed a lot of people’s perspective on things. No matter what you think of the film – and the film has flaws – there’s something else happening there. People live through the film as an experience.” And you sense that Labaki’s involvement with the story was, and continues to be, all-consuming.
“It should go beyond the film. Now, I need to start working on the part that comes after the film.” She has started a foundation to keep some of the child actors in school and she continues to follow lead actor Zain Al-Rafeea’s life as he settles as a refugee in Norway. She wants to lobby laws around child protection, specifically in Lebanon.
To some, this will seem an unsustainable level of involvement. The kind of involvement that makes you vulnerable, the kind that burns you out.
“People found ways to hurt me, no matter how pure the intention behind the film was. The intention was instinctive, and natural. I just wanted to do something around injustice towards children. But my intentions were sullied by some people.” She says she was hurt by people that said she had no right to tell this story because she wasn’t from this world, “As if only the people living those circumstances have a heart and are allowed to talk about it.” She was saddened by people who called the film “poverty porn”. I fidget, hesitate. I say I was one of the people who voiced concerns about it being “poverty porn” when I saw the trailer. I tell her those concerns dissipated when I watched the film, and I was moved to tears by it. Nevertheless, I feel guilty again. There is a wounded quality to Labaki that you mightn’t expect. In public, she is a commanding presence, almost regal. But speaking to her, you feel her decade-long career as one of the Arab world’s most successful directors has left her, in part, exposed and vulnerable.
“The world has become very mean and people have become mean. I’m not built to be able to handle all that. What frustrates me most is people who haven’t seen the film and pass judgement. Because in those cases it's a personal judgement on my personality. It’s fine, though. But it depends where you are at that moment in your life, how fragile you are. Sometimes it hurts badly. It makes you rethink everything. Even your intentions.”
I ask her about her trajectory as a filmmaker, from directing pop music videos for Nancy Ajram to her first feature, Caramel, in 2007, all the way up to Capernaum.
“On my first film, I pretended. I was very scared. I didn’t think I’d be able to tell a story for 90 minutes. I didn’t think I’d be able to lead a crew. I ended up creating my own way of working. I was really experimenting. I didn’t learn my craft by working on other people’s film sets. Ads and music videos were labs for me. I was luring people into thinking I knew I was doing. I pretended. But I often didn’t know. Then I started to slowly understand what my responsibility was as a filmmaker and an artist. It’s part of the way you mature as a human being – your art reflects that.”
Alongside her growing career, the Lebanese film industry itself has been doing relatively well. The year before Capernaum, Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult was also nominated for an Academy Award.
“We’re making our first steps. There’s no film industry in Lebanon. We were non-productive for such a long time. There wasn’t a single film being shot during the war. So the industry is still young. It’s still shy. These are baby steps. And because there are so few films, every film has far too much responsibility on its shoulders. We can’t expect to say everything in one film.”
I wonder if her films will always have a social mission and if that sense of responsibility will always be disproportionate. Has she boxed herself into a niche? Can she make a genre film just for the fun of it?
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“I might want to do a film without social responsibility because I’ll say, ‘I can’t handle the weight anymore’ – and it is a huge weight. But it’s difficult to decide.”
I turn the conversation to her husband, Khaled Mouzannar. He has been a music composer on all of her films. On Capernaum he also became her producer. There, a personal relationship evolved alongside a professional one.
“Khaled being a producer on the last film, he was my saviour. The fact that he understood exactly what the film needed, and that we had to work the way we worked. That I needed complete freedom. He gave me the freedom from stress about our financial situation. He protected me from it. From the knowledge of it… We were often completely overdrawn at the bank, but I didn’t know. He mortgaged our house. But he lived through it all alone, all that pressure, to allow me to be free in my process.”
I tell her he must have an immense belief in her. She softens more than she has since the beginning of our conversation and simply says, “Yes,” half-sighing, half-smiling.
It’s inevitable now, with the success, that Labaki will begin to be pressured to act as a guide, a mentor, for an entire region’s film industry. She doesn’t feel that need, yet.
“It’s a very individualistic community. We’re all a bit weary of each other. Not very supportive of each other. There’s jealousy.” She starts to tell me about a dinner Steven Spielberg invited them to. Around the table were Guillermo Del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Kathryn Bigelow.
“They were all talking about their work and it was shocking to me how involved in each other’s projects and careers they were. The community helps each other out. This is something you don’t see in Lebanon.”
Has she ever thought of hosting her own dinner in Beirut, bringing together a table of people that don’t normally talk to one another, and saying ‘Let’s chat’? She laughs.
“No, I haven’t thought about that. You just gave me an idea. But even if I do, I think there’s a long way to go. To convince people that every success helps the whole industry. There’s too much weariness.”
Her latest turn – playing a school teacher in 1982 – presents the counterbalance to Labaki’s directorial work: acting.“It’s a break from directing, and it allows me to be on a film set with less responsibility. It allows me to experiment on my other natures. We can be so many different things. And I like that. I like escaping my own personality. When I’m in my own films, I don’t have the confidence to challenge myself as an actress. I don’t have time either. So I play roles that are similar to who I am. That’s what I’m looking for with other directors: them seeing something different in me.”
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But right now, Labaki is content to be at home. Surrounded by family, and children interrupting her conversations.
“My biggest achievement in life has been my children,” she says without hesitation. And professionally? “Being part of Zain ending up in a different place, and sending the kids from the film to school.” Those achievements echo each other from either end of the night.
Before we leave each other, I steal one final, burning question: Is Oprah as amazing as she seems? Labaki bursts into laughter.
“Oprah is so cool. She’s so simple. Our relationship was simple. We hugged each other as if we’d known each other forever. She was so supportive. Her aura is amazing. Her wisdom. It was striking how simple her approach was.”
Isn’t it surreal, being raised from a village in the Lebanese mountains and finding yourself in Oprah’s living room?
“Sometimes it is. Sometimes not at all. I understand the hugeness of what’s happening. Coming from this dot on the map. The film was supposed to be such a small, intimate adventure. And it’s a miracle that it became that big.” She sits with the thought for a moment. And then, she repeats herself: “A miracle. A miracle... A miracle.”
Photography: Lou Escobar
Styling: Keanoush Zargham