CANNES, France — For many filmmakers, the moment of inspiration can be difficult to pin down. Lebanese writer-director Nadine Labaki, however, has exceptional reasons for remembering exactly when the idea for “Where Do We Go Now?” came to her.
“It was the 7th of May, 2008. Interreligious conflict had led to clashes on the streets in Beirut,” says Labaki, jet black hair and outfit set off by silver jewelry. “It was a completely absurd situation, people who’d grown up side by side, who’d shared meals, became enemies and killed each other because of religious differences.”
But that is not the end of the story.
“I’d just learned I was pregnant, and as I was sitting with my co-writers wondering what the subject of my next film should be. I thought, ‘If my son was now a teenager, how far would I go to stop him from going into the street, to stop him from killing?’”
Premiering in Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, “Where Do We Go Now?” is a fable that shows what the women in an unnamed Lebanese village split between Christians and Muslims are willing to do. It’s a warm, humane film with a serious point, and it marks Labaki’s first feature since the international triumph of her debut work, “Caramel.” That movie, a bittersweet tale of love, heartache and friendship centering on a group of women whose lives revolve around a Beirut hair salon, premiered in Cannes in 2007 and went on to play in more than 40 countries.
“Of course that success surprised me, I did not expect it all,” she says. “A small film from a small country, in Arabic with nonprofessionals: It was practically impossible. Just to make it was like a dream to me.”
“Caramel” opened a lot of doors for Labaki, but she was determined to keep making films in Lebanon. “The offers were very tempting, but I want to keep on being true to what I know, to where I live,” she explains. “I want to keep talking about my people and my country in my own language. When people say to me, ‘You make us proud,’ it’s heartwarming to hear that.”
Like “Caramel,” “Where Do We Go Now?” is notable for its extensive use of nonprofessionals, a practice Labaki feels passionate about. “I do it because I want to believe in my story, to believe in its reality,” she says. “I think reality is more interesting than fiction, normal people deserve to be on the big screen.”
Labaki casts herself in her movies for similar reasons. “When I act with the people I cast, they feel more comfortable, they feel that we are all in the same boat, doing the same thing. I like to improvise a lot, and when I am in the film, it’s like directing the scene from the inside, which is easier.”
Labaki regularly teams up with her husband, composer Khaled Mouzannar, and her sister, costume designer Caroline Labaki. “I like to be surrounded by love when I’m working, so I choose to work with people who become family,” she explains. “I don’t like to be feared, and I can’t work in conflict, I’m very bad with conflict. I try to avoid it, it paralyzes me.”
As a girl growing up in Beirut, Labaki was influenced by repeated viewings of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
“Most of my childhood was spent at home because of the war in Lebanon, I didn’t go out, I didn’t go to school,” she remembers. “I used to identify with Snow White, she allowed me to dream. When I became aware that the director was the person who created those different lives, that’s when I wanted to direct.”
Labaki gravitated toward directing music videos and advertising because that’s all there was in Lebanon. She credits her “Caramel” breakthrough to an introduction to French producer Anne-Dominique Toussaint.
“She said to me, ‘I’m interested in you,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, sure.’ But she just pushed me to write ‘Caramel,’ to believe it was possible.”
Genial as it is, “Where Do We Go Now?” has an unexpected conclusion that Labaki acknowledges might “raise a lot of polemics. It might upset people who are a bit fanatic or too conservative. I hope they see the bigger picture. With humor, you can get away with a lot of things.”