Nadine Labaki: The Rising Star of Lebanese Cinema

The Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, winner of the People's Choice Award at this year's Toronto film festival, says that success comes with a sense of responsibility.

Nadine Labaki (Photo:Reuters)

Flush with the triumph of her latest film at the Toronto International Film Festival, Lebanese director Nadine Labaki is the toast of the town as she sits in a Beirut cafe giving interview after interview.

The movie "Where Do We Go Now?", about a group of women determined to prevent the men in their village from getting involved in a religious war, won best picture at the festival's People's Choice Award, seen as a bellwether for Oscar success.

Previous winners of the award including "The King's Speech" and "Slumdog Millionaire" went on to win Oscars at the Academy Awards, and should Labaki's film follow in their footsteps it would be a first for Lebanon.

"With success comes a sense of responsibility as you take on the role of spokesperson for your country," said the 37-year-old, clearly still overwhelmed by her film's achievement.

"When I am told 'you make us proud' or 'you are the pride of our country' I get teary-eyed," she added. "At the same time, I don't want to disappoint, and I certainly don't want to misrepresent the reality in my country."

Her first feature film "Caramel," about the lives of five Lebanese women working in a Beirut beauty salon, also won critical acclaim in 2007 and thrust Labaki, who stars in both her movies, into the international limelight.

She wrote the script of "Where Do We Go Now?" in 2008 while pregnant with her first child and as Lebanon stood on the brink of sectarian warfare. "In a matter of hours, people who had lived next to each other for years became enemies," she said, referring to the conflict in May 2008 that pitted mainly Sunnis against Shiites in Beirut.

Born on the eve of Lebanon's 15-year civil war (1975-1990), Labaki says she quickly became interested in film to escape boredom. "I lived between four walls as a little girl, with my days consisting of running down to the shelter," she recalled. "So television offered an escape from all this."

After earning a degree in media at Beirut's Saint Joseph University she began producing music videos, including for such stars as Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram, and got her first major breakthrough with "Caramel."

"I learned the trade in Lebanon on my own, where there are no famous directors to speak of, no reference," Labaki said. "I don't know if I'm good at what I do but the fact that my movies were well received at the Cannes Film Festival and in Toronto gives me reassurance."

Labaki baulks at critics who say that her movies are tailored for Western audiences, given her portrayal of Arab women as daring and set in a burlesque environment that mocks Lebanese society.

"I don't follow recipes, I just follow my instinct," she said, also brushing aside criticism that her message is too direct or even naive.

"I want my movies to be direct," she insisted. "I am sick of seeing women in mourning in my country, women who see their children die, stuffed into the boot of a car or killed in a bus bomb."

She said movie-making has become a sort of therapy for her, and she is keen on continuing to examine themes common to the region where she lives. "I want to explore the fear of the 'other' and show this constant search for a better world," she said.

Audio Interviews by Ramzi Salti