By Dan Persons
[Photos: Nadine Labaki in “Caramel,” Roadside Attractions, 2007]
When the world looks at Beirut, what’s visible most often is a war zone. When Lebanese native Nadine Labaki looks at the city, she sees women dealing with a universal set of pleasures and difficulties, leavened with the unique religious and social complexities of her country. Set in a beauty parlor where the fractured front sign speaks volumes about the daily challenges faced by its customers, the gentle comedy/drama “Caramel” (the title refers to the use of melted sugar as a depilatory) focuses on four women: owner Layale (Labaki), who’s carrying on an affair with a married man; Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), an employee nursing an infatuation with a beautiful client; Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), a Muslim bride-to-be fearing the ramifications of revealing that she’s no longer a virgin; and Rose (Siham Haddad), a seamstress who has put her life on hold to care after her senile older sister (Aziza Semaan).
So this is your first feature film, with you in the lead and a non-professional cast.
All except the policeman.
Why take that on?
Because there’s so much beauty in ordinary people, in ordinary life. It took me, like, a year, searching for these people I saw hundreds and hundreds of them. They were the people you see everywhere on the streets, in our families, friends, people with no experience.
Any thought of, “Maybe I’m crazy doing this?“
Yes, all the time, but at the same time, I had a gut feeling that this is the way to do it. I wanted the film to be as realistic as possible. I wanted to give the audience the impression that they are observing other people’s lives, and not watching a fiction where you have an actor being someone for that film and then becoming somebody else for another film. I wanted to audience to feel the closeness, and so it is told by people who look like [my actors]. It’s also about getting out of this vicious circle where a film does not get funding or does not work unless it has a name in it. I think we should get out of this vicious circle and start thinking differently about moviemaking.
In the press notes, you mention Lebanese girls being instilled with the concept of aayib, literally, “that’s shameful.” Did you have to face that attitude as a woman director working in Lebanon?
There are a lot of contradictions. As a director, I am someone working in a field that’s not easy for a woman, I’m traveling a lot. On the other hand, I am someone who lived with my [family] until I got married. I grew up with this word [aayib] all the time: “You shouldn’t do that…” But you grow up, and you can be free and be applying this freedom, and still you have a lot of self-censorship and self-control because you don’t want to hurt the people around you, your family, your education, your religion. You are confused: Are you this free woman who’s doing what she wants, or are you a more conservative woman? You are searching for your identity.
I have to admit, watching this film, I realized I know squat about Lebanon. Yet I got the sense, for all the turmoil, that there’s an aspect about Beirut that matches up with other cities, in that there’s a willingness to embrace a more open social structure.
Of course, it’s much more open. But we still have lots of issues to deal with. The whole of Lebanon is like a huge village: Everybody knows everybody, and the problems come from the fact that we live in a community, we don’t live on our own. We live in a family, in a society, in a neighborhood, in a community where everybody knows everybody, whether you’re in the village or the city. And it’s this proximity with other people that creates this pressure. Even though you’re in the city, it’s not like it is here.
You live in a community, you don’t live on your own. It’s very hard to see someone eating alone in a restaurant. It’s very rare. And if you see someone eating alone in a restaurant, you think he has a problem. At the same time, this proximity has its advantages and its disadvantages. It creates a lot of pressure.
Is this a universal story or more specific to your country?
When I was writing the script, I thought it was going to be specific. Now, I’m discovering what’s happening with this film. Everywhere we go, I make it a point of staying and watching the screening, because I like to see how people react in different places. It’s surprising to see how people react the same way: They laugh at the same places with the same intensity at the same sentences. So now, I’m discovering it’s not specific, it’s more universal. I’ve discovered that human nature, human reactions, human emotions are the same everywhere in the world.
“Caramel” opens in limited release February 1st.