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2:49 pm
Thu May 10, 2012

'Where Do We Go?' Lebanese Women Pave The Way

Originally published on Thu May 10, 2012 10:50 pm

Where Do We Go Now? is the brainchild of bloodshed. The film, which has been a megahit in the Middle East, is a bittersweet comedy about a group of women determined to stop their hotheaded men from starting a religious war. It's the second feature film from Lebanese director Nadine Labaki.

When violence erupted on the streets of Beirut in 2008, Labaki saw neighbors, friends, people who were practically brothers turn against each another. As the world around her spiraled out of control, Labaki discovered she was having a baby.

"I just learned that I was pregnant," she says. "And I think it does change your perspective on things, and you do think of this child that you're bringing into the world, and what kind of society is this?"

That was when her maternal instinct ran wild, she says. "I thought: What if now he was 20 years old and he was tempted to take a weapon? What would I do as a mother, and how far would I go to stop him?"

In Where Do We Go Now? Labaki imagines just how far she might go to stop a war. It's set in a remote Arab village where Muslims and Christians across the country are waging a modern-day crusade.

Some scenes are raw and emotional, but the film turns into a farce as Muslim and Christian women team up to try everything imaginable to distract their men from war — everything from faking a miracle to hiring Ukrainian strippers to baking pastries filled with hashish to burning all the newspapers in town so their husbands won't be able to read the latest war updates.

For Labaki, laughter is medicine with a message. "Laughter and humor is important to start the healing process," she says, "because it's really when you laugh about your flaws that you start understanding that maybe you should change something about it."

But Arab film critic Joseph Fahim says Labaki waters down the grim reality of war. "I think there was major dissonance between what she was trying to achieve and what appeared on screen," he says. "I think the subject matter being tackled in such a lighthearted way didn't feel convincing to me."

Mixing comedy and culture is tricky for this film, and another one opening next week. Sacha Baron Cohen's new movie, The Dictator, centers around Admiral General Aladeen, a tyrant who shoots his subjects on a whim. Some Arab-Americans say the comedy hits a raw nerve at a time when real dictators in the Middle East are slaughtering their citizens.

Labaki says her comedy is different. She mocks her own culture carefully. "Even if I'm making fun of some of the things that I find ridiculous, I'm doing it with respect," she says. "'Cause I'm there, and I'm entitled to criticize, I'm entitled to say: Look at our flaws, look at how we are. It's different when it's coming from someone not from there. It's perceived differently."

For Labaki, making movies in her native country is a labor of love. She says Lebanon doesn't have much of a film industry. "When I finished school, there was no opportunities ... I couldn't go and work on a film set," she says.

So she turned to music videos — which she made for Lebanon's top pop stars — and became a sensation overnight. Less than a decade later, Variety magazine named her one of the top 10 directors to watch for her first feature film, Caramel. The chick-flick is a sort of tame Arab version of Sex and the City centered around a Beirut beauty shop.

Fahim says Labaki's work is famous for challenging stereotypes of Arab women. "It feels like in many ways a celebration of the strength of the Arab woman," he says. "And the fact that these women are gluing together the fabric of this country — I found that very refreshing."

In the U.S, Labaki's films tend to play in small, art-house cinemas. But, in the Middle East, they're blockbuster sensations that show in multiplexes from Beirut to Cairo. So, if Americans want a little window into what's popular in the Arab world, watching Where Do We Go Now? is a good place to start.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Another big blockbuster opens this weekend, but this one has no superstars or super heroes. The movie is called "Where Do We Go Now?" And it's already a megahit in the Middle East. The feature film is the second from Lebanese director Nadine Labaki.

As NPR's Asma Khalid reports, the film is a bittersweet comedy about a group of women determined to stop their hotheaded men from starting a religious war.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: "Where Do We Go Now?" is the brainchild of bloodshed. In 2008, violence erupted on the streets of Beirut. Nadine Labaki saw neighbors, friends, people who were practically brothers, turn against each other. As the world around her spiraled out of control, Labaki discovered she was having a baby.

NADINE LABAKI: I had just learned that I was pregnant and I think it does change your perspective on things and you do think of this child that you are bringing to the world and what kind of a society is this?

KHALID: And then her maternal instinct ran wild.

LABAKI: I thought, what if now he was 20 years old and he was tempted to take a weapon? What would I do as a mother and how far would I go to stop him?

KHALID: In "Where Do We Go Now?" Labaki imagines just how far she might go to stop a war. It's set in a remote Arab village. Muslims and Christians across the country are waging a modern day crusade. In one scene, some Muslims take off their shoes to enter a mosque. Their shoes are stolen and they blame their Christian neighbors. A brawl ensues. Amale, played by Labaki, tries to break up the fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WHERE DO WE GO NOW?")

LABAKI: (as Amale) (Foreign language spoken).

KHALID: You think we're just here to mourn you, to wear black forever, she screams. The scene is raw and emotional, but the whole movie isn't that intense.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALID: The film turns into a farce as Muslim and Christian women team up to try everything imaginable to distract their men from war, everything from faking a miracle to hiring Ukrainian strippers to baking pastries filled with hashish to burning all the newspapers in town so their husbands won't be able to read the latest war updates.

LABAKI: Sometimes, the situation is so tragically absurd that you cannot help but laugh.

KHALID: For Labaki, laughter is medicine with a message.

LABAKI: Laughter and humor is important to start the healing process because it's really when you laugh about your flaws that you start understanding, maybe, that you should change something about it.

KHALID: But Labaki waters down the grim reality of war, says Arab film critic Joseph Fahim. He's outside a movie theater in a Cairo mall.

JOSEPH FAHIM: I think there was major dissonance between what she was trying to achieve and what appeared on screen. I think the subject matter being tackled in such a lighthearted way didn't feel convincing to me.

KHALID: Mixing comedy and culture is tricky for this film and another one opening next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DICTATOR")

SACHA BARON COHEN: (as General Aladeen) I am for free press, fair elections and equal rights for women. I can't say that.

KHALID: That's Sacha Baron Cohen in his new movie, "The Dictator." The film centers around Admiral General Aladeen. He's a tyrant who shoots his subjects on a whim. Some Arab-Americans say the comedy hits a raw nerve at a time when real dictators in the Middle East are slaughtering their citizens.

Labaki says her comedy is different. She mocks her own culture carefully.

LABAKI: Even if I'm making fun of some of the things that I find ridiculous, I'm doing it with respect because I'm there and I'm entitled to criticize. I'm entitled to say, you know, look at our flaws. Look at how we are. It's different when it's coming from somebody who's not from there. It's perceived differently.

KHALID: For Labaki, making movies in her native country is a labor of love. She says Lebanon doesn't have much of a film industry.

LABAKI: When I finished school, there was no opportunities. You know, I couldn't go and work on a film set.

KHALID: So she turned to music videos like this one for Nancy Ajram. She's kind of like the Beyonce of Lebanon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALID: Labaki became a Lebanese sensation overnight. Less than a decade later, Variety magazine named her one of the top 10 directors to watch for her first feature film, "Caramel." The chick flick is a sort of tame Arab version of "Sex and the City" centered around a Beirut beauty shop. Film critic Joseph Fahim says Labaki's work is famous for challenging stereotypes of Arab women.

FAHIM: It feels like, in many ways, a celebration of the strength of the Arab woman and the fact that these women are, like, gluing together the fabric of this country and I find that very refreshing.

KHALID: In the U.S., Labaki's films tend to play in small art house cinemas, but in the Middle East, they're blockbuster sensations that show in multiplexes from Beirut to Cairo. So, if Americans want a little window into what's popular in the Arab world, watching "Where Do We Go Now?" is a good place to start.

Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.