Where Do We Go Now? -- a film opening Friday -- centers on a group of women who are fed up with the absurdity of war and who work to distract their husbands and sons from engaging in battle.
Nadine Labaki's simultaneously comedic and heartbreaking film is set in a remote Lebanese village where Muslims and Christians coexist peacefully until conflict breaks out. The themes explored are not limited only to Lebanon: Where Do We Go Now? captures the experience of living in war-torn countries all around the world.
The film was inspired by what took place in Lebanon on May 7, 2008. Violence erupted after the government announced that it was shutting down the telecommunication network used by Hezbollah, a Muslim militant group.
That same day, Labaki discovered that she was pregnant. The thought of how far she would go to protect her children from the perils of warfare led her to develop the film. Where Do We Go Now? is a bold and distinct cinematic venture, incorporating elements of American musical theater and Italian satire.
The International Business Times had the chance to speak with Labaki about being a Lebanese filmmaker, her message of peace, and how movies can perpetuate social change.
As a woman living in Lebanon, how challenging was it for you to break into the film industry?
I've never felt that my job was difficult because I'm a woman. It's a difficult job regardless, and it's even more difficult in Lebanon because there's no film industry. There's no structure, funding, or institutions for filmmakers. There's nothing that would make you believe that dream is possible. Still, there was something in me that made me think it could happen and that I could make it happen.
Over there, it's as hard for a man as it is for a woman. Maybe it's confidence or just ignoring the challenges that makes it less difficult for me. I just go with the flow and do whatever I feel is right. It takes common sense, believing in your dreams, and hard work. You get there somehow by refusing to tell yourself: I'm a woman, I'm weaker, and people will not take me seriously. I refused to think this way.
How did you manage to give Where Do We Go Now? a comedic tone?
It was natural for me because sometimes the situation gets so absurd that you can't help but laugh about it. Humor creates a distance, and when you look at your flaws or laugh about your flaws, it's the way to start healing. This film is coming from a mother who's addressing Lebanese people, but it's also intended for a broader audience. It's saying: Look at how ridiculous we behave. Look how ridiculous human nature can be.
The film is broader in the sense that it's not just about Christians and Muslims. I'm not only talking about that. I'm talking about our inability to tolerate difference. This is happening everywhere in the world. It's not solely a Lebanese problem. When this theme is your starting point, humor comes naturally. It was about making the reasons people fight so ridiculous. So humor was an important element of this, even though the story is very tragic.
How did pregnancy and motherhood affect the project?
It changes your perspective. Unfortunately, the day I learned I was pregnant Beirut had turned into a war zone again because of political differences. There were problems between two political parties, and to solve it people took to the streets with weapons and started killing each other. On TV, there were men with masks holding rifles and grenades, and I thought: This cannot be happening. We've been living peacefully for two decades. We thought that it was behind us. We never thought that civil war was going to become a reality again.
You want to know what kind of a world your child is going to be brought into. The situation at that time literally unfolded over a few hours. You suddenly saw neighbors turn into enemies and become violent toward one another. These are people that live in the same place, their children go to the same school, they eat the same food -- and they turned into enemies over political and religious differences. It made me think about my child at 18 years old. I wondered if he would be tempted to pick up a weapon because he was determined to protect his family. I wondered what I would do as a mother and how far I would go to stop him. That's how the story started, and it developed into a film about women doing everything possible to stop their husbands from fighting.
How have people in Lebanon responded to the film? Has it helped them heal?
People are scared of one another and unable to tolerate their differences. You see that here [in New York] and all over. Maybe the film won't change that, but it does make people think. The film has allowed me to give talks at schools and universities. I'm trying to convey a message. It's not about the film anymore; it's gone beyond the film. The film is creating a major debate.
The film has the biggest box-office return in the history of Lebanon, so it's becoming the film of a whole nation. People are very emotionally attached to the film, and they want it to be seen.
Where Do We Go Now? seems to have been influenced by a variety of different genres and styles. Where did you derive inspiration from?
I've been influenced by everything I've seen. When I was a kid, I used to spend a lot of time at home because of the war. We couldn't go out and play or go to school. Boredom was a big part of my life. TV became a big part of my life because it was the only way that I could learn about the world. I was lucky because I used to live right next to a video-rental store. I used to spend so much time watching films. So I've seen a lot. I used to watch Dynasty and Dallas and have seen every kind of film. I've been influenced by everything I've seen.
It's interesting that you gravitated toward art in the midst of chaos and destruction.
Films can make you dream. They allow you to imagine a different world. It's why I decided to become a filmmaker. I wanted that even though it seemed impossible. In school, they show us how small Lebanon is to the rest of the world. We learn to recognize ourselves as a small dot on a map. You realize that you're coming from a country that's so small, at war, and has no film industry. You don't know how far you can possibly go, and you wonder if your dream is even possible.
Although your films have been shown all over the world, including the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes, you have turned down offers to direct outside of Lebanon. Do you see that changing?
If I come across something that's really interesting and that I feel a deep connection with, I will. I don't want to deceive myself as a human being. I want to make something that counts. I'm not going to ever make a film just to tell a story or just to entertain. I want to believe that I can make a change somehow. I truly believe that cinema is a very powerful and nonviolent way to make a change. It's must easier to get people's attention when you're telling a story with images than when you are holding a conference. Watching a speech about peace has less of an impact than watching a film about peace. Filmmakers need to understand how much films unify people.
A graduate of the NYU Media and Communications program, Justine has studied film and journalism in...