The Reeler


January 31, 2008

Nadine the Conqueror

Caramel filmmaker keeps it real about her salon fantasia, beloved Beirut and winning over New York

"It's a society thing": Nadine Labaki in her acting, writing and directing debut Caramel (Photo: Roadside Attractions)

Looking out the window at the skyline, Nadine Labaki unclasped her hands. "I know it's not an easy audience," she said, replying to a question about her feature directorial debut, Caramel, opening Friday in New York. "But if it works here, it would mean a lot to me."

Then the Lebanese filmmaker straightened her back and her voice. "Also, we have been conquered by American films and an American way of life for such a long time," Labaki added. "If I am able to conquer with my film, it would mean a lot to have it the other way around."

Such is Labaki's spirit in art and in person: Idealist, realist, feminist, romantic and loyal ambassador to Home. In the case of Caramel, "Home" connotes everything messy, safe and ennobling about the 33-year-old's roots. Dedicated to "my Beirut" and centered in an urban beauty salon where owner Layale (played by Labaki herself) congregates with her closest friends, it's Labaki's blessing, her curse and her compound, alight like a sanctuary, built like a cage. (It's no mistake the mini-blinds masking the salon's picture window look like bars from a distance.)

Composed almost entirely of non-professional actors, Labaki's cast characterizes Lebanese women's struggles with a spectrum of social and sexual pressures. Indeed, the blunt metaphors that occasionally feel like weapons of choice -- the menopausal actress clinging to her youth, the Christian widow forbidden to love, the shamed non-virgin bride-to-be, the closeted lesbian (even the expressive title refers primarily to a depilatory blend of boiled water, sugar and lemon juice) -- can be just as disarming in the right hands, and Labaki treats each as persuasive testimony in a larger case.

"It's a contradiction," she told The Reeler in a recent interview. "You see these modern women -- dressed like any normal Western women, they drive cars, they go to work, they have their opinions and personalities. They don't seem to be imprisoned or anything. But at the same time you see that we have a lot of issues to deal with that might seem completely ridiculous for other cultures. You understand the contradiction for this other country that is exposed to Western culture, but at the same time you see they have the weight of tradition, education, religion -- whether we're Christian or Muslim. This creates a lot of confusion, and we have to find our identity between these two cultures."

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Labaki's Beirut is itself a contradiction -- not the "modern Beirut," she emphasized, with its newer, monied superstructures but rather the stories of narrow streets and small places in the embattled Jemmayzeh neighborhood. It's also a reaction to the reactionaries, the work of a filmmaker who, like her character, lived with her parents as a single woman in her 20s even as she made her name internationally directing commercials and music videos. It's a warm embrace and a sharp rebuke, perhaps best symbolized by Layale's purveyance to the woman with whose husband she's having an affair. At first driven by curiosity, then desperation, then reticent sisterhood, it's as sexually and politically defiant an act as any other in the film.

Labaki agreed -- to a point. "Our problems don't come from men," she said. "It's a society thing. Sometimes women are harder on other women then men are. I don’t blame men for anything. They are also confronted by this Western example of a man who is very free and open and lets his woman do whatever she wants. At the same time he [bears] the weight of tradition and education and religion and everything he was taught. He's as confused as we are."

In any case, Caramel wields cross-cultural resonance to spare, a phenomenon Labaki the Conqueror has observed in her travels with the film since its premiere last year at Cannes. "Human nature is the same everywhere," she said. "I make it a point to stay in every screening everywhere I go in order to see and hear the reaction. And it's amazing how everywhere is the same: They laugh at the same things with the same intensity. They're touched by the same things. I've learned that even though the problems are very specifically Lebanese, the way to deal with these problems is the same everywhere in the world. A lot of the questions are universal; there are secret codes between people. It's not about language or culture. It's something we share and don't know why."

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