Interview With Lebanese Director Of ‘Where Do We Go Now?’

Nadine Labaki as Amale. (photo by Rudy Bou Chebel ©, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki speaks with Al-Monitor about her film “Where Do We Go Now,” which debuts in the US today.

Nadine Labaki directs and stars in her new film, “Where Do We Go Now.” It opened last year in Lebanon to perhaps the greatest buzz in the country’s recent cinematic history. Screenings were sold out across the country. Theatergoers had to buy tickets days in advance for evening screenings. One major mall showed the film in two theaters, and even then, the screenings were still sold out for nearly a month.   

“Where Do We Go Now” was successful because it breached the often unspoken divisions between the citizens of this country of four million people and 18 different religious sects. The film addressed those political and religious differences directly, and portrayed experiences and a reality that all Lebanese can relate to.   

Left to Right: Oxana Chihane as Katia, Yulia Maroun as Tatiana, Anneta Bousaleh as Svetlana, Oksana Beloglazova as Olga and Olga Yerofyeyeva as Anna. (Photo by Rudy Bou Chebel ©, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

It tells the tale of an isolated mountain village in a country that is at war. The war is never seen directly, and the village is never named, but the characters are quintessentially Lebanese: the majority of the cast are non-professional actors, some from the three villages where the film was produced.

In the film, the village is divided between Christians and Muslims. They seem to get along well, until news reports from outside bring news of violent clashes between the two groups. Tensions are inflamed, and the village’s men rally around their respective religions and threaten one another with violence.

Eventually they clash — but only with fists. The village women see what’s coming — they’ve already lost sons, brothers and husbands to previous flare-ups. So the Christian and Muslim women conspire to distract their men so as to avoid a religious war. Their antics involve everything from drugging their men with hashish to hiring a troop of Ukranian strippers.

Nadine Labaki spoke with Al-Monitor this winter when her film was still showing in Lebanon.

Al-Monitor:  Where did the idea for “Where Do We Go Now?” come from?

Labaki:  It’s really very specific events that happened [in Lebanon] in May 2008, that again, because of political issues and political problems, people took weapons again, and went down to the street, and Beirut … became a warzone over hours.  

I saw people that belong to different political parties, and also to different religions, become enemies again. I have seen them succeed in living together in the same neighborhood, breathing the same air, their kids go to same school, they go to same grocery shop, they eat same bread, and I’ve seen them become enemies overnight, over hours .. Of course they were enemies but we have succeeded in the last years to live in an apparent peace. 

These events proved to me that this peace was only apparent — that anything can become reason for us to take weapons and to start killing each other again.

So that’s why I decided to write this film. I was also pregnant — I think there’s this motherly instinct that makes you look at things in different way, to have [a] different perspective on things, to be less selfish, and think about this human being that is going to born. It makes you wonder what kind of society is this, when anything is a reason for people take weapons and start killing each other.

So that was mainly the inspiration for the film. But the ignition of the idea was in May, 2008.

Left to Right: Back row: Anneta Bousaleh as Svetlana, Oxana Chihane as Katia, Olga Yerofyeyeva as Anna and Yulia Maroun as Tatiana. Front row: Antoinette Noufaily as Saydeh and Layla Hakim as Afaf. (Photo by Rudy Bou Chebel ©, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Al-Monitor:  How many months pregnant were you at the time?

Labaki:  I had just learned that I was pregnant, maybe a few days. And I was with my co-writer, and we were here [at my apartment]. We were thinking of the next film, and what we were going to say, the theme. All of a sudden, the roads were blocked. We couldn’t go out, he couldn’t go back home — it developed very rapidly. So this is how it inspired us to make this film. 

Al-Monitor:  You came up with the idea while you  were hearing explosions and gunfire a few blocks away? 

Labaki:  It was literally a few blocks away. We thought that we were going to be again … you know … it reminded me of 1975 [when the 15-year Lebanese civil war began], we were again in this kind of war. We found this completely absurd. It was absurd. Because how can we manage to live together for so long, and then anything can be an excuse for us to kill each other again? 

And it started with the story of a mother, one woman, who was going to do anything, everything she can, and maybe go to the extreme, to stop her son from taking a weapon and going down to the street to do whatever the rest were doing, because outside it was a warzone, in the name of protecting his building, or his family, or his ideas, or the political party he belongs to. That’s how it started. 

So it developed into the story of a village that for me is Lebanon, where women were going to do everything they can to stop the men from fighting.

Al-Monitor:  How did you find the location for the film, and the actors? 

Labaki:  The place was hard to find, because unfortunately the invasion of towers and tall buildings, concrete is everywhere. We wanted a village that could be isolated from the world, so modern life has not invaded this place yet. So it should be a little bit traditional, very humble, we shouldn’t feel that this place is exposed to the modern world. So we ended up choosing three different villages. We sorted it out that it looks like one village.

As for the actors, it’s not that I like to work with non-professional actors. It’s that I like to work with personalities that are very close to the characters that I wrote. So what happens usually is I start looking in real life for people who look exactly like the characters I wrote, because I like to give you the impression, as a viewer, like you are watching people who look like you. 

So yeah, I ended up choosing a lot of people that have never acted in their lives, because I like their characters in life, I like who they are. And there are some professional actors in the film, but I chose them also because I like who they are in real life.  

Al-Monitor:  Some of the main characters in the film are non-professional actors? 

Labaki:  Yes, some of them. Like out of the five [main] women, there’s only one woman that’s an actress. 

Al-Monitor:  And one of the actors was the wife of one of the village priests? 

Labaki:  Yes, of Douma [one of the Lebanese mountain villages where the film was shot]. This was a very, very interesting story, because she’s the wife of the priest of the village. And she just came to talk to me, to greet us, she was happy that we were going to shoot in Douma, and if we needed coffee, or water, or to eat, she was there, and I thought this woman is amazing, she should be in my film.

Her name was Evan, and I wrote the film for Evan — the character’s name in the script was Evan, so I thought you know, this must be a sign. So I asked her if she would be interested in acting. And she was completely shocked, out of the question for her. And it took a while for me to convince her. And she’s one of the stars of the film, and everybody remembers Evan. I was really lucky to find her.

There’s a lot of stories like this. Another woman in the film, Ta’ala, the mother of Yassin, she just came because her daughter wanted to do the audition. She never thought that one day she was going to think about being in the film. But it was her daughter who pushed her. And her daughter told her “I will be really sad if you don’t do it.” So she did it for her daughter. And I loved her, and loved her personality. So it’s like this: either coincidences or fate that makes you meet the people who end up being in the film.

A seen from the movie’Where do we go now’ by Nadin Labaki. (Photo by Rudy Bou Chebel ©, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Al-Monitor:  And what was the cast’s reaction to the film, and its success? 

Labaki:  They are very happy, because they have a mission now. It’s not only a film, it’s not only a story they are telling; this film has become a symbol of the whole country. People have debates about the film. I’m invited to do talks everywhere — in universities, in schools, in prisons. This film is creating a lot of debate. And it’s getting people involved emotionally. And so it’s not only another film — there’s something more. And I love this. It’s proving to me, further and further, that making films can have a mission.

Of course you are not going to change the world. But at least you can make people think. And at least you can achieve small changes. And this is my aim — I want to have a meaning to whatever I’m doing, and it’s giving me this meaning.

Al-Monitor I saw the film at a theater on the old front line between predominantly Christian East Beirut and largely Muslim West Beirut. It was a mixed crowd. Nearly everyone in the theater broke into one point or another during the film — especially during your character’s speech: You say to group of men who are fighting “It’s enough. We don’t give birth to boys so we can bury you.” Did you intend to elicit that kind of reaction from your Lebanese audience?

Labaki:  I think this feeling of “we’ve had enough” — I’m not the only one feeling it as a woman or as a person. I think that there are a lot of people feeling the same. I have the chance to express myself widely because I’m into filmmaking. And for me, it’s really me, it’s not Amal, it’s me, Nadine saying “we have had enough.”

I’ve had enough of seeing mothers cry, their children. I’ve had enough of seeing mothers in my family, in my neighborhood, mothers I know, wearing black until now, and I wonder: “Where do they find the strength to keep living?” I’ve had enough of watching women on television hitting themselves or tearing their clothes apart. 

[Lebanese] have a way of expressing suffering that is so violent. You cannot stay neutral about it. And yes, I wanted this to be sort of an explosion, like a cry for help.  Because how can we make ourselves heard? Because yes, we’ve had enough. I think that men, or our children, or our brothers, or our husbands, sometimes [men] don’t measure the hugeness of this loss, of what you’re doing. Of what these men are doing. I don’t know if I succeeded or not, but this was my intention, to say it out loud … to make it more understood.  

But some people find it too cliché, or some people find it a bit too much. But I wanted it to be too much. I wanted it to be straight to the point. I wanted it to be very direct. I wanted to say, yes, “as if we were born just cry over you? Do you want us to wear black all of our lives?”

Al-Monitor I understand that your love of film stems partly from being trapped inside your home during the Lebanese civil war?

Labaki:  Yes, because of the war, we used to spend a lot of time at home. We couldn’t go to school, we couldn’t go out, we couldn’t play outside. I think the only way for you to escape was watch television. I used to watch anything. I developed a very intimate relationship with the TV set. And I think that my sister and I used to spend a lot of time watching TV. I had the chance to live above a sort of video store … and we used to rent a lot of films.

Where Do We Go Now?. (Photo by Rudy Bou Chebel ©, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

It’s strange how I could go through walls of sandbags to go this place and for me it was my escape to the outside world, where I could rent films from everywhere. I used to watch anything. I discovered the way to create these worlds that have nothing to do with your own world was to become a film maker. I decided to become one very early, and I decided this is where I belong, this is what I want to do in life: create stories, tell stories through images.

Al-Monitor:  In the film, violence is eventually averted when all the women switch religions — the Christians become Muslims and the Muslims become Christians.  A Lebanese acquaintance who is a card-carrying member of one political party said the movie’s theme is nice — but it is no solution for Lebanon’s problems.  He said that people hate each other for not just religious reasons — but  many others too.  What do you say to people like him?

Labaki:  Of course nothing that happens in the film will happen in real life. But I like to explore an alternative way of thinking — an alternative society. You cannot stop men from fighting because you bring a blonde, or because you put hashish in their cake. This is all a fantasy, this village is a fantasy world. It’s about a different way of thinking. 

What we try to propose or explore is: what if you became this other person. This is what we’re trying to preach here. Go to the extreme in the sense that you tolerate the other person to the point that you become this other person in everything, in their rituals, in the religion. And so one of the mothers tells her son [after she has converted]: “Now you woke up with the enemy, because I am the enemy. Now what are you going to do?” 

This is what we’re trying to explain here. The solution is not to convert: because then you have the same problem again, and this is why at the end they ask the question: “Where do we go now?”

Nadine Labaki’s film, “Where Do We Go Now?” premiers May 11 in New York and Los Angeles, and on May 18 in Washington.

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