Nadine Labaki does not remember a Lebanon before the war; she was one year old when it started.
She does remember bomb shelters. She knows curfews and the sound of whizzing bullets, the queues outside bakeries, power cuts and water shortages and the rationing of gasoline.
She grew up watching movies, using stories to escape to safer places and happier times. In college, she studied film, then went on to direct widely successful music videos and commercials. The stories that truly interested her, though, were those she witnessed off screen: those about the real lives of ordinary people and their quiet emotional journeys.
There was and is injustice everywhere. One only has to look. Nadine did, at her own society, and decided to film what she saw:
Women whose paths would cross every week in the neighborhood hair salon. Their stories that unfolded as they got their hair styled and nails done; The other woman, waiting, still waiting, for her lover to leave his wife; the virgin bride who was not a virgin; the old woman dying to stay young. The pressure and rules and taboos associated with being a woman in Beirut.
“Cinema is not only about making people dream. […] It’s about changing things and making people think.”
Nadine Labaki acting in and directing her first full-length film, Caramel
With the amber-hued shots of her debut film, Caramel, Labaki called on the viewer to rethink the role of women in Middle Eastern society.
Her second film, Where Do We Go Now, took on another taboo: religion.
A fictional village, isolated from the rest of the divided country, in which Christians and Muslims coexisted and people were just people. A look at the humanity behind labels and the supremacy of a shared past and present over the differences that push the villagers to take up guns.
Last, Capernaum, her magnum opus, walks the viewer in the shoes of a young street beggar who befriends an undocumented domestic worker. It showcases the poverty, corruption, and inhuman labour practices that people prefer to ignore.
“I wanted to express my anger toward injustice, [and] turn this anger into something positive. I wanted to know why we allow for such injustices to happen, why our systems are so dysfunctional.”
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.”
IMDB photo from Labaki’s award-winning film, Capernaum
Nadine’ films are poignantly human and unapologetically real. Her mission is to launch the debates that lead to policy change.
When art imitates life this well, its message cannot be ignored; there is great suffering around us and it is our responsibility.
“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.”
Then, we need to act.
Nadine’s films have raised awareness and funds to help the groups portrayed in her films. She has changed people’s minds about “the other” by making the other human. Her goal for her films, however, is bigger still,
“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.”
And she wants unfair laws and failing systems to change.
“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.”
As a woman, filmmaker, and activist, Nadine has gone beyond the limitations set by the society in which she was born. From fleeing reality through the screen to facing it with a lens, Nadine has turned cinema into a tool to challenge and to change.