GQ&A: Nadine Labaki
Nadine Labaki’s work is intensely political. But put away the images of wiry young men sporting flared trousers and Kalashnikovs that may spring to mind when you think of films featuring Beirut; Labaki’s films instead amplify the emotional journeys of people whose stories aren’t splashed across the lurid front pages of global newspapers.
Her latest film, Capharnaüm, follows two children and an undocumented Eritrean domestic worker through the shadowy margins of Beirut, in an unrelenting tale of grinding poverty, institutional injustice, and desperation.
It’s dark stuff, but the film’s future seems bright: Capharnaüm won a 15-minute standing ovation at its Cannes debut this year, as well as the festival’s Jury Prize. The film is also Lebanon’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards in 2019.
Labaki’s other work is substantially more light-hearted, which makes its disruptive impact all the more subversive.
Labaki got her start shooting music videos and commercials in a Beirut struggling with reputation management after the end of the Lebanese civil war.
Her music videos with Nancy Ajram – in which the glam pop star plays working-class characters, including an Egyptian villager washing clothes by hand while scolding a pesky stalker – challenged the Arabic music video norm of glossy beauties preening on yachts. They also helped cultivate Ajram’s sexy-yet-relatable persona that propelled her to superstardom.
Labaki’s first feature, Caramel, is also gently radical in its realistic portrayal of Beirut and its women. The film lovingly follows its main characters (Labaki herself is the star) through universally relatable experiences of love, friendship, aging, and disappointment; it’s shot through a sort of proto-Instagram filter hue of amber that perfectly captures Beirut’s dusty light. Caramel debuted at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and became the most widely distributed Lebanese film, screening in 40 countries.
Film posters and stills from production sets line the walls of Labaki’s office in Beirut’s Achrafieh district, alongside hundreds of Post-It notes and charts planning the next few months. The culmination, according to a marked-up whiteboard calendar? An Oscar win in February.
The characters in your films – Arab women of all ages, children, domestic workers, refugees – are people whose voices are rarely amplified. Does this feel like a radical statement to you?
No. It feels like a normal way for me to express my anger toward injustice, whether it’s paperless children, child labour, domestic workers, the sponsorship system in Lebanon, the fact that people without papers are not allowed to love or have kids or have a life, the fact that we completely dehumanise them. I wanted to turn this anger into something positive. I wanted to know why we allow for such injustices to happen, why our systems are so dysfunctional. How did we get to a point where a human being does not exist unless they have a piece of paper? Why do we allow such absurdity? These are people that exist, who are here in flesh and blood – why do they become completely invisible if they don’t have a piece of paper? This is how it all started, trying to reflect and talk about these problems. I know how to make films, so I decided to make a film about these issues.
The Beirut depicted in Capharnaüm is very different from that in Caramel – or is it? How do you think the city has changed in the past 10 years?
The city has changed a lot. But you don’t see it if you don’t want to see it, if you don’t want to look at it. We go about our lives not looking at the places on the borders of our cities, we pass by them every day, but we don’t want to see. Of course, with the refugee crisis the problem is even bigger, but Lebanese families are also facing the same challenges. The family in the film is a Lebanese Christian family.
In Lebanon there are thousands and thousands of children growing up with no education, who are angry and numb. They’ve been through so much neglect, abuse, rape – there are hundreds and hundreds of girls being married at 11 or 12, thousands in child labour.
We need to talk about and face these problems, even though they might seem so huge we want to look away. But we need to see them. As a viewer, I want you to be stuck in your seat and see what I’m showing you. I’m making you watch even though it’s uncomfortable.
Capharnaüm is clearly much more than just a compelling story – the film’s unflinching view of unspeakable darkness feels like it comes from a very personal place. Can you talk about that?
I think I feel responsible for all this chaos, as a human, as a Lebanese person, as a mother. I’m part of the problem and I need to acknowledge it. Even if the problem seems too big, we can all have an impact as individuals to address it. As a public figure, I can have an impact. I should use my knowledge, my influence, my tool – which is cinema – I should use everything I have to make this change. Even if it never happens, at least I want to try because I’m aware of this responsibility. Even if it’s too naive to think we can make a change, I want to still believe that it’s possible. This is my fuel, this is what gets me up every morning.
There’s a saying that I love: some people see things the way they are and ask ‘why’, some people see the way things should be and ask ‘why not?’ That’s stuck with me.
If you could screen the film for any three people in the world, who would they be?
Definitely my son. He’s almost 10. He saw it, but I don’t think he saw it in the way I want him to see it, because he doesn’t have the maturity. My daughter, who is two and a half. Do they count as one person?
Beyond that, I want to show it to decision makers. Maybe the United Nations. I don’t want to show it to just one person. I’d like to show it to the decision makers of the world. People who can make a change, and who can then actually apply that change and make a difference.
No one in Lebanon?
I don’t think anyone here can actually do anything. I want to show it to the people who can really make the change.
What about Trump?
That would be a waste of time, I think.
What has been the most meaningful feedback you’ve gotten from Capharnaüm?
People come up to me and say they don’t look at street kids the same way, they don’t look at migrant workers the same way, they see them as humans now. They see Zain [Capharnaüm’s main character] in every child on the street. Re-sensitisation is the film’s mission. We’ve gotten so used to these kids, they’re part of the decor of the cities. We dehumanise them, say they’re part of a system. We don’t wonder, how does this child look at us, how do they look at society, what do they feel inside? Where does the child go when they disappear around the corner? If they were to describe me, what would they say? I can tell you, because I’ve talked to them. At the end of our conversations I would ask them, “Are you happy to be alive?” They’d say, “No, I’d rather be dead. I don’t want to belong in your world. I didn’t even ask to be here. Why did my parents give me life if they’re not going to love me?” These kids have seen horrific things, beyond what we can even imagine.
You’ve been very successful in drawing astonishing performances from non-professional actors, including the children in the film [played by Zain Al Rafeea and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole]. How have you managed that?
It’s being aware that we need to be at their service, and not the other way around. I can’t ask Zain to memorise text. He can’t even read! I can’t ask him to act. I need him to be who he is.
How did you meet him?
Zain is a Syrian refugee. The casting director, Jennifer Haddad, saw him on the street playing with his friends. It’s a miracle that we found him. I truly believe that Zain is not in this film out of coincidence – he was destined to be in it. I completely fell in love with him the first time I saw him. Jennifer sent me a video on WhatsApp as soon as she interviewed him, and we all knew it was him.
Was the dialogue improvised?
Yes. Well, of course there was a script – we spent two years writing it. But I allowed myself the freedom to not be paralysed by what had been written. I knew what the scene was supposed to achieve, where it would start and end, and we would guide the actors toward that. You don’t hear the word ‘action’ on my set, ever. We would start filming the actors without them even noticing. We were grabbing their reality. We weren’t inventing anything that wasn’t already there.
Where is Zain now?
Zain is now in Norway. He has a beautiful life, a beautiful house. He’s going to go to school and have his childhood back.
Why is film an important medium through which to tell these stories? What do you hope that your film accomplishes in terms of systemic change, in Lebanon and more broadly?
The fact that this film will be seen by so many people is turning an international light on this matter. Hopefully it will help. I want the film to go beyond being just a film. I hope to work with civil society, with NGOs working on children’s rights, with the UN and its agencies, to come up with a plan to address the problems you see in the film. I’ve done so much research, I know how the systems are failing and where the weaknesses are. In the judicial system, we should be helping children out of their delinquency, but we’re doing the opposite, making criminals out of them. No child who has committed a crime should end up in jail.
Would you ever consider directing something that wasn’t intensely personal to you?
I would find it hard. It wouldn’t be interesting to me. That’s not why I do this. I might as well do something else.
Your films have gained an audience outside the Middle East. Do you feel a responsibility to represent the Middle East, or Arab women, as a whole group, rather than just yourself?
I don’t feel a responsibility. I don’t feel it as a weight on my shoulders. I am who I am. I do hope that I’m not representing Arab women the wrong way, but I don’t need to be up to a certain level – you just have to be true to yourself and let life take care of everything else. Nothing is ever overanalysed, it’s just instinct; instinct as a woman, as a mother, as a human being in this world.
Which artists have been your biggest inspiration?
I’m inspired by the Iranian school of filmmaking. I’m fascinated by how it works with actors. You don’t feel like they’re acting at all. The stories are about human nature and human behaviour. There isn’t one specific director or actor, it’s more the methodology of cinéma vérité that I respect. That being said, I do love French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche’s films.
The Cannes Film Festival has been an important part of your career. Does it feel like an artistic home?
Maybe. I feel part of the family in a way. I was part of an artistic residency organised by the festival, and all three of my films have been selected. I feel part of the family even more now after our official selection to compete for the Palme d’Or, and after winning the 2018 Jury Prize. I never dreamt that we would be there. My co-writer Jihad and I used to go to Cannes as students. We used to beg people for tickets to attend a film. I can’t believe we’re actually there on that stage.
Cannes has drawn particular attention to the #MeToo era, with Asia Argento openly describing the festival as Harvey Weinstein’s ‘hunting ground’. What was it like to be at Cannes this year considering the seismic upheaval that the film industry is experiencing at the moment?
I arrived late at Cannes this year, so I didn’t notice any difference. The #MeToo movement is a healthy movement, it has started a conversation and that is how change happens. The fact that people are talking about what has happened to them is a good thing.
Do you think things will change in a meaningful way for women in the film industry?
You can already see the change, how women are gaining more power in the film industry. They’re there, they’re present, they’re able to express themselves through their films, and through just being there. I’m sure in a few years we won’t even be talking about this anymore.
Have you ever felt victimised by toxic masculinity in the industry?
Personally, no. It might sound strange, but I’m sure a lot of other filmmakers will tell you the same. I’ve never felt difficulty in my job because I was a woman. It’s a difficult job anyway. I’ve never felt threatened being surrounded by men, I’ve never felt shaken or fragile because I’m a woman. Maybe this is because I was projecting a certain attitude. I know this is not the case with many other women. My personal experience has nothing to do with other experiences, and I know how much women have struggled and are still struggling. I know how they are marginalised, and I recognise the problem.
Do you have hope that the government will be able to take meaningful action toward change?
Yes. This is what keeps me going. You set a goal, and you set another goal, and you try to make it happen. I’m sure it won’t be easy; it’s hard to make things happen in Lebanon. I’m also betting on the humanity of people. Even in this corrupt government there are some good people who want to make a change but don’t know where or how to start. They need guidance. I won’t be the guide, but I’m going to work with people to try to come up with solutions. Some people think I’m naive and that nothing’s going to change, but what do we do? Do we just live with the problem? I don’t think that’s the right way to exist in the world.
From the October issue of GQ Middle East