Nadine Labaki may be considered an exotic celebrity in Western cinema circles but the director and actress feels she is on a "mission" for Lebanon when she shows her films at international festivals.Her second full length feature film, recently premiered in Cannes. It follows Caramel, her first internationally acclaimed feature that appeared in 2007.Lebanon is not particularly well known for its cinema. Other countries in the region, such as Egypt, Turkey and Iran, produce many more commercial and art house films.But Labaki, 37, is one of a handful of talented Lebanese filmmakers who have risen to prominence since the 1975-1990 civil war. They are considered the heirs of such directors as Maroun Baghdadi, who raised the profile of Lebanon's cinema before and during the war with films such as Beirut Oh Beirut.Despite the small scale of Lebanon's cinema industry, its films have generally been well received at international festivals. Their themes usually deal with war and sectarianism, which remain the country's biggest problems.The successful releases include Ziad Doueiry's West Beirut, Gassan Salhab's Terra Incognita and The Last Man, and Danielle Arbid's In the Battlefields.
Labaki holds the record at the box office with Caramel, which has played in more than 40 countries. It tells the story of five Lebanese women who work and meet in a beauty salon. They suffer from the contradictions of a traditional society regarding religion, love, marriage and sex behind the façade of an open society."I felt this contradiction in my personality. I was a director, doing films, travelling, but I was not married and lived with my parents," she says, sipping lemonade in a Beirut pizzeria.Labaki, a "Christian Lebanese", as she describes herself, admits she has not overcome these contradictions in her personal and professional life.As a single woman, she had to live with her parents until a few years ago. Now married, she does not feel easy about Hollywood standards should she ever decide to act there."I don't think I would feel comfortable doing a nude scene or being seen that I make love to somebody," she says.She insists that she is not obsessed with Hollywood and that she will pursue her ambitions in Lebanon.
The ideas for her films, which she co writes, stem from personal concerns. Where Do We Go Now? was born of her frustration at seeing another religious conflict erupt in May 2008.At the time, she was pregnant and thinking how she would have felt if her son chose to resort to weapons.The film, to be screened publicly in September, shows how the Christian and Muslim women in a village behave in the face of sectarianism.She is not sure what project she will pursue next, nor how long it might take, given the nature of the Lebanese film industry. She finds the fact that it lacks the necessary funds and institutions both a blessing and a curse.While it is difficult not having an established structure to follow, this nevertheless gives her "the freedom to create the magical moment of truth".The incentives for domestic producers to invest in feature-length films in a country with a population of only 4 million are not strong.Lebanon's cinema is also overshadowed by a thriving advertising business and video art sector that dominates in the region."It's as complex as cinema in language but in practice and economically you can be one person and your computer," says Christine Tohme, the curator of Ashkal Alwan, a leading non-profit association involved in education and production of video works.