Since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival last year, Where Do We Go Now? has become an international hit with audiences and critics alike. First a blockbuster in its native Lebanon, the film went on to show Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, win the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival, and receive a Critics’ Choice nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Where Do We Go Now? is the story of a remote village in the Middle East, where Christians and Muslims worship at the church and mosque that sit alongside each other. When news is heard of a religious war taking place between the two religions outside the village, the neighbors therein decide they must take up arms against each other. Wanting to keep the men from fighting, the women in the village take drastic measures to prevent war. In anticipation for the film’s release this Friday, May 11th in New York and LA, I enjoyed an in-depth chat with director/co-writer/actress Nadine Labaki during a recent visit to LA. Here’s what Labaki shared with me about filmmaking in Lebanon, finding comedy in times of war, and crafting Where Do We Go Now?
Jackson Truax: What’s the process of getting movies made in Lebanon? What are the biggest challenges?
Nadine Labaki: The challenge is to find the money. Because we don’t have institutions that help films… So when you want to make a film you don’t really know where to begin. You have a script, and then how does it work? Who should you talk to? Where are the producers? There’s no structure. So that’s why it’s hard to make films. [There’s] no money… We have crews, but they are mainly [accustomed] to working on music videos and ads… It’s very hard.
JT: How did you overcome all of that to get Where Do We Go Now? made?
NL: I did the first film Carmel. I met my producer [Anne-Dominique Toussaint]. She’s French. I met her in Lebanon. Because she knows all about this, she knew how to do it. How to find the financing. How to find the investors. I did my first film with her. This is my second film. Sometimes you do need help from abroad to be able to make your film. She was very helpful.
JT: What was the response to the film in Lebanon? How controversial was the subject matter?
NL: This film was very successful in Lebanon; it still is. We’re practically going to beat big American films like Titanic and Avatar which is great… When you talk about religion in Lebanon, it’s a very complicated and delicate thing. Because we have a very passionate relationship with religion. Whenever you talk about religion, you really have to…be very, very careful… When I decided I was going to tackle religious subjects, I knew that I had to be clever in the way I say the things… [The film] is a bit controversial. But we did not have a lot of very violent, aggressive reactions, which I was afraid of. There were rumors of people saying, “We want to stop the film.” But I think…when you watch the film…whatever was a bit edgy or was a bit off-putting in the middle of the film, when you get to the end of it, you’ll understand why. So people become more relaxed and calmer… They understand why we broke the statue of the Virgin Mary, why we put animals in the Mosque. Why [she spoke] to the Virgin Mary this way. These are subjects that are very delicate. Some fanatics might find it a bit insulting or too provocative. But if they do feel it, when they get to the end, they understand why. So everything is okay.
JT: The film deals with some very serious subject matter, but veers frequently into comedy, and some of the scenes are even farcical. How did you decide how funny the movie could be, and how to play which scenes?
NL: It’s something that comes naturally, the way that you balance your film. You don’t know why you do it this way, but you end up doing it. For me, humor is a very essential part of my [screenwriting]. Because sometimes the situation is so absurd, you have to laugh about it. So it becomes this laughing and crying situation… I think with humor, when you laugh about your flaws or your mistakes, it’s a way to start healing. When you see your worst flaws and you start laughing about them, it’s like you have this distance and you are able to analyze. You are able to see what’s wrong, and then maybe you will start a change… Sometimes…it’s so ironic, you can’t help but laugh about it. It’s also inspired by all these women that I know that have lived through so much tragedy because of the war, but that still manage to have a sense of humor and to laugh. Life is not black or white. It’s not good or bad, it’s both.
JT: The scene where the mom has tied up her son to prevent him from going to war, and when the other kid comes to visit him, she says he has mumps and he has to stand outside to door and talk to him from there. You could have played that scene for the comedy, but it feels more dramatic. How did you decide to play it that way?
NL: It depends on the situation and how delicate it is. And what you want the viewer to feel while [they’re] watching it. I’ve always wanted to take the viewer on this roller coaster ride, where at the same time [they’re] laughing…and crying. I’ve always looked for that in a film myself… I like to be taken on a ride of emotions. Sometimes a scene in a film will make me laugh or cry, and I won’t know if I’m crying because I’m sad or I’m crying because I’m happy. I like this confusion in emotions, and that’s what I try to do in my films.
JT: Where Do We Go Now? was inspired by a time of religious and political volatility in Lebanon, during which you became a mother for the first time. How did being a new Mom affect your choices in crafting the film?
NL: I wouldn’t have done this film if I was not going to become a mother or if I was not a mother… Very specific events on Lebanon between two opposing political parties make people take weapons again and go down to the street and start killing each other… We had succeeded in living over two decades in peace…and at that time I just learned that I was pregnant. I thought of this human being that was going to be born. What kind of world is this, where everything is an excuse to start a war?… Over hours…Beirut was a war zone. I saw neighbors, friends, that lived in the same neighborhood, or in the same building, that shared the same bread, breathed the same air, their children go to the same school, become enemies again over hours. So I decided, “This is very absurd.” I decided to write this film from the point of view of a mother. I thought, “How far would I go, as a mother, to stop my son from taking a weapon and doing whatever the rest were doing?” Because I pictured myself eighteen years later, and my son would be a young man and I’m sure he would definitely be driven by everything that was going on around him. This is how this story started. Then it became the story of a whole village where women are going to do everything they can to stop their men from fighting.
JT: In comparison to the events in the film, looking in the future, what would you see yourself doing to prevent your son from going to war? Would you hire a bus-full of strippers, or tie him up to keep him from leaving the house?
NL: I can see myself doing even more desperate things. These women react out of despair. Not everything they do is very clever. Most of the things they do are maybe a little ridiculous. But this is what I wanted to show…the ridiculousness of despair. These women are so desperate, they do sometimes completely ridiculous things out of despair.
JT: The film feels as though it’s about two groups of people who are fighting because it’s expected of them, or because it’s what they need to do to fill these decades-old roles. Was that in the forefront of your consciousness when making the film?
NL: Of course… It’s absolutely true. Unfortunately, it’s also the idea of how the outside can influence the inside. Because they’ve heard rumors that there’s a war happening outside between Christians and Muslims. I always wanted to keep it very vague, very general. You don’t know which war I’m talking about. You don’t know where we are… I wanted to talk about this drive that makes us take weapons…that is very much influenced by what’s happening outside. We are very much capable of living together for years without anything happening between us. But it all [comes] down to hearing that something is happening between Christians and Muslims outside that it becomes inside also. So this…situation, I find it completely absurd. And I wanted to show that it’s absurd. It’s true, that sometimes you feel like they have to, because this is the way it is, even though they’ve been living together and apparently everything is good.
JT: The film also says a great deal about religion, and how people both use religion to justify war, but also different ways people interact with religion in times of war. What made that something you wanted to explore?
NL: It’s very important for me to explore, especially when I’m talking about the situation in Lebanon. Because unfortunately, most of our problems come from the fact that we feel that we belong more to a religion or to a political party or to a certain way of thinking than to a country. I am talking about the war between brothers. I am talking about the war between people who live in the same country. But they are capable of killing each other because they have different beliefs and because they do not tolerate this difference. I had to make this difference tangible by saying that this difference in this particular instance is religion. I could have created two new religions… This film could have happened between two football teams. Or two brothers. Or two families. It’s not only about problems between religions. It’s about problems between two people belonging to two different ways of thinking. And that do not tolerate the difference of the other.
JT: You talked about your producer who worked on your first film. Your husband Khaled Mouzanar wrote the score and your sister Caroline Labaki designed the costumes. In addition, it sounds like you had had a lot of previous friends and colleagues working on the film. Did that create a sense of community? And what did that add to the film or the experience of making it?
NL: Absolutely… I’m someone who does not know how to function in conflict. Some directors need conflict. They need to create this conflict with the actors, with the crew. I don’t know how to work in conflict. I have to create this warm atmosphere for people to work. You feel this warmth within people in the film. You feel it because it’s true. It is. I am surrounded by people that love what they do. Who love working with me. Because it’s not every day that we are able to make a film in Lebanon. So when we do make a film, it’s like the whole community is working for this film to happen… Even now, Lebanon is involved with everything that’s happening… You feel the whole nation is behind you. It’s not only about making a film. It’s about putting a country on the map and saying, “Lebanon is here. And we can achieve things. We can be heard outside. We can be international.”
JT: It sounds like during the production of the movie, everyone’s personal and professional lives blended together, and making the film became a 24/7 enterprise.
NL: Absolutely. It is 24/7. Especially that we all lived together when we went to shoot. We didn’t shoot in the villages right next to our houses where everyday we would go back to our homes and everyone would sleep in their own house. We went [and] lived in these villages where we shot… We lived in a community for two months. It [was] like a 24/7 kind of work.
JT: I know it was important for you to find a location you could keep as natural as possible and not have to impose a lot of your own Art Direction. How hard was finding such a location?
NL: It was hard. Not because this does not exist. There are a lot of villages where you have a mosque [next to] a church. Unfortunately in Lebanon, the invasion of concrete is everywhere. So it’s very hard to find a village that looks untouched, isolated, and at the same time is beautiful. And…you don’t have buildings around the small, traditional houses. So we had to shoot in three different villages… It would important for me not to build a set, but to shoot in a real place where this is real. Because I have to believe in what I’m doing… I have to believe this story could have happened in this village. I’m not [just] creating a fantasy that does not exist. Even though the film is somehow a fairy tale, with this voice that tells you in the beginning, “I’m going to tell you a little story,” I wanted it to be a fantasy. But a very realistic fantasy.
JT: When you’re making a film in a country with no film industry, how hard is it to find actors and then work with your cast?
NL: The biggest challenge…in the beginning [was] to find the right actors… They’re…non-professional actors, most of the cast. So it’s a very long and hard process. I have a crew of at least twenty people that go everywhere in Lebanon. They filmed everyone. In public places, restaurants, their family, their friends. Then we put ads in newspapers. People came randomly. Then some people I met randomly, also on the street. It’s very interesting. But it takes a long time. It’s not like when I’m writing I say, “I want this actor or this actor in my cast.” I don’t know who I’m going to find. Then I see all these tapes and I…ask to see the people that really interest me. There’s something in their personality that I like… Then I see them. And I see them again and again and again. Then it goes down to these people that I choose. This is one of the biggest challenges. Then later on, to work with non-professional actors was really hard but very interesting also. The fact that I’m acting with them is even a bigger challenge. Because I’m [acting and directing]. At the same time, it’s good because I am directing the scene from within. I’m close to them…. They are a lot of things that are improvised in this film. Of course, it’s very scripted. At the same time, it’s very improvised. It’s very important also to keep this freshness of the reactions. The fact that I’m acting with them also allowed me sometimes to take the scene in a different direction. It’s hard for the crew. Because sometimes they were wondering what I was doing… “Is she acting or is she giving instructions? Why is she changing the scene?” The fact that I am in the scene with them, it allowed me to be very receptive and reactive. All the challenges of shooting in Lebanon, because we are not used to shooting films. We don’t have the reactions. We don’t have the discipline. But we end up finding a way.
JT: The most powerful line in the film is “Did we get away with it? Down here maybe, but up there, I’m not so sure.” It gets a laugh, but there are so many powerful ideas behind it. What did that line mean to you when you wrote it?
NL: The priest and the sheik in the film represent the authority. So when the women did what they did, of course they are trying to help the sheik and the priest. But at the same time, they cannot be completely okay with it, because [the sheik and the priest] have another kind of authority, that is the authority of God, that does not allow them to do this. So that’s why they escape at the end. They cannot face what they did. Especially they cannot face the men. Because if they stay, the men are going to make them either reverse what happened…or kill them. So they escape, knowing that there might be a different kind of punishment. But at the same time it’s funny, the fact that they escape with the prostitutes.
JT: Sony Pictures Classics is releasing the film in America and around the world. If the film were to get a massive audience in America and around the world, what would that mean to you and to Lebanon? And what is the ultimate impact you hope the film might have?
NL: This film and the one that I did before, I did them personally not knowing if what I was doing was right or wrong… Lebanon is a small country [and] doesn’t have a film industry… There’s no reference. It’s not like I finished school and then I went on to work with other film directors and…saw how other directors work and I learned from them. I’m really learning from my own mistakes. I’m learning as I’m doing films… To be here, to be able to go to all these great festivals. To be able to be among all these great directors who have so much experience and have done so much. Big names in the industry… What are the odds that a small Lebanese film would win the [Audience] Award in Toronto? When I am with all these great directors of all these huge international films with huge budgets with great actors, this is just overwhelming… [The acclaim] is not only for me. It’s a whole nation being recognized for their art scene and what they are trying to say. It’s also good for the message of the film because of what this film is trying to say. We want peace. We want to live in peace.I don’t know if this will change anything, but it’s really, really important… It’s about a whole nation being on the map and trying to say something. Very few people know what Lebanon is about and what we look like. And who we really are, and how we speak, and…our language, how do we dress. Most of them have such a deformed image. It’s important to have such a big exposure and be able to show this part of the world…
This film ultimately is a message to my son. It’s a message to…maybe to the new generation. Just saying how absurd conflicts and problems are at the end of the day… Most of the time we have very, very stupid excuses for [starting] a war. Or even for fighting. Most of the time it’s either pride, or greed, or…looking for power. These are all…things that don’t give you an excuse to kill someone else’s son… So for me, this is a message to my son, simply. I want him to grow up believing that conflicts aren’t inevitable. We can find a different way. We can find an alternative to our differences…or our disagreements. We can find a different way than taking a weapon and killing somebody. I might sound a little bit naive, but if I am able to change something in someone else’s mind or…something in the way a random person feels about his next door neighbor…because he didn’t take out the garbage or left his bike in the hallway, maybe to find a different way to think about that than being in conflict.
This war that I’m talking about in this film between Christians and Muslims, this is a war between human beings every day. I feel it when I take a cab in New York, and I’m scared of the taxi driver, and the taxi driver is scared of me. And we don’t know how to be together or how to talk to each other. I feel this conflict when I take the metro in Paris and I am next to my neighbor and I have my shoulder touching his shoulder, and I’m scared to look at him. I’m scared to say to him, “Hello. How are you doing?” For me, this is the way it should be. But now, if you see somebody going into the metro or in a bus and saying “Hi” to everyone and just shaking hands with everyone, you would say, “This is a crazy guy.” You would say, “What the hell is wrong with him? Why is he saying hi to everyone?” For me, this is the right way, it’s not a crazy way. He is right and I am wrong, because it’s very simple to just say, “Hi” to everyone. Why not? So this is my message. And if does make people think this way, I would be a very happy person. At least if it could made one person think this way I would be a very happy person. Because I believe very strongly that cinema can be a very powerful, non-violent way to change things. Because through cinema people can identify. They can be amused. They can be entertained… It’s not as constraining as listening to a conference about peace. It’s different. It’s a different way of saying things that is for me more powerful, more impactful.
Filed under: LiC Interview