Paris. First Sunday of September. An 11-hour photoshoot, followed by a five-hour dinner at Matsuhisa in Raffles’ Le Royal Monceau. Sunshine, sunset, sushi, and a shared bowl of quinoa soup. But Nadine Labaki gives it all away in the first three minutes.
“Whatever I’m thinking about becomes an obsession. And then it turns into a movie. Especially as someone who lives in the Arab world, in a place where you feel nothing is working and everything needs to be rethought and redone. And I think about the chaos we have created as human beings. I think of an alternative society. What if the world could function in a different way?”
To many people, Nadine Labaki already lives in an alternative society. After all, how many female Arabs have starred in 15 movies, directed two world-renowned epics and been nominated for and/or won 56 awards? Oh, and not forgetting the small matter of her becoming a social and cultural icon adored by millions thanks to her singular courage to tackle the difficult, often taboo subjects her movies encompass.
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Not that you’d know it by meeting her. No entourage, warm, friendly, humble, unassuming – at times even bordering on shy. Superstardom comes in many colours, but it doesn’t take long to work out that the prettiest of them have landed on Nadine.
There are so many sides to her that it’s almost impossible to convey them within just a handful of pages. She is a complex, intertwined web of roles and interests encapsulated in a hyper-sensitive soul; and in the 17 hours that I spent with her, all the sides make an appearance.
First there’s the humanitarian: “I feel so aware of my responsibility as a human being in this world. I know I can make a change. I’d rather turn my anger into something positive. The first step is creating a revolution within you; a rebellion against what we are living. I don’t think weshould adapt anymore.”
Then there’s the workaholic: “I would be miserable if I wasn’t working because I understand that my happiness isn’t really at the top of the mountain; it appears when I’m climbing it. When I’m doing everything to achieve my goal, that’s when I’m happiest.”
Next up is the actress, seamlessly transforming from one character to the next, including, of course, the red-carpet glamazon: “Every woman enjoys putting on a nice dress and feeling beautiful. It’s about flattering your femininity. I struggled for a while with this. I used to think it was something to be ashamed of because it’s shallow. But now I understand that it’s actually my duty to break this cliché. We can be everything. We have to be everything.”
And of course, the director; one that is responsible for some of the most captivating, universally respected movies of the past decade: “If it’s something that moves me, I make a film about it, it’s as simple as that. With my first film, Caramel, I was trying to understand women and why there’s so much contradiction between who we dream of being, and who we end up being because of pressure from society. It was my therapy and my way of understanding more.”
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Above all, though, there’s the wife and mother: “Khaled [Nadine’s husband] and I both have our projects and dreams. I think it’s crucial that we aren’t dependent on each other to be happy. The fact that we both work and live next to each other is good because we’re sharing the same dream in a way, and we make our kids live it with us.”
But let’s go back to where Nadine’s story begins, in 1974 Lebanon. She spent the first 16 years of her life in the war-stricken country, never truly experiencing childhood as most of hers was spent in shelters behind sandbags. “My parents knew how to protect my sister and I, but it was during the war, so we lived through so much tragedy.” Every day, as a child, Nadine found herself confronted with death, fear and the idea of not knowing what tomorrow would bring; or, in fact, whether there would be a tomorrow at all. She recalls the memory of not being allowed to play outside, and her neighbour, only slightly older than Nadine herself, dying in a bus explosion. Instead, she chose to escape the harshness of reality through cinema.
“We didn’t go to the cinema, but we lived above a store that used to rent VHS tapes. We used to wait for electricity and the power meant sitting down and watching TV. We’d watch the videos over and over,” Nadine remembers, explaining that she learnt English by putting Dynasty and Dallas on repeat. “I then understood that in order to create the realities that helped me escape my own, I simply had to make my own films!”
When Nadine turned 12, she told her dad that she wanted to be a filmmaker. “He laughed at me and said there were no films being made in Lebanon, but my grandfather had a small movie theatre in Ba’abdat, a Day’Aa (a Lebanese village)… something very humble. Before I was born my father used to spend time there, and used to tell me how much he loved the smell of reels and how he dreamed of escaping to a different life. He wanted to be a filmmaker but he could never really afford to study abroad. I think my sister and I inherited our love of moving images from him.”
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Sitting across the table from Nadine as she shares this deeply touching tale, it becomes apparent why she chooses to hide behind a pair of signature black smoky eyes. It’s her armour. A way of protecting herself from exposing her vulnerability to the world. But if the eyes are the windows to the soul, I was one of the lucky few who was allowed to see through to what lies inside. Her sophisticated yet grounded aura is undeniable, no doubt shapedby humble beginnings that fortified the core values which drive her to this very day. “I didn’t really understand the power of this tool,” she says of the impact of film. “I didn’t realise the effect it has on people. At first I was trying to dream through my work; to escape, to create.”
“I started by crafting these feminine figures through the music videos I made – figures that were revolutionary, that you could look up to in a way. Women who are free with their bodies, who are beautiful and at the same time strong and fragile and mysterious and not scared of how men or society looks at them. Free from self-consciousness. I tried to create these icons in my head because maybe I wanted to be them.”
Nadine may have begun her journey by escaping the outer world and running towards the solace of inner reflection, but that dynamic swiftly shifted to one where she now tackles things head-on, grappling with topics that some wouldn’t dare address, let alone dedicate five years of their lives to.
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Yes, Nadine took a deep-dive for her most beloved project yet; one that moves and angers her at the same time. Capernaum comprised three years of research, six months of casting and an intense 18 months of filming and editing.
“When we were writing the film… you know, sometimes you’re lost and you have so many ideas and themes you want to talk about. One day we were sitting with the directors and Khaled said, ‘Why don’t you write on a board all the things you want to talk about?’ So I started writing: child labour, migrant-worker situations, the absurdity of borders, the absurdity of having to own a paper to prove you exist, the refugee crisis, hunger, deprivation. All these. And at some point, I looked at the board and thought ‘C’est ta capernaum.’ This is capernaum (chaos). We are living in capernaum.” And this is how Nadine came up with the title before she’d even started writing the script.
“The title was very important,” she tells me of the word that was also once the name of a town in Palestine. “It was like my North Star, my fuel. And, symbolically, it’s also the place where they say Jesus performed his first miracle. So the entire film – the way it was done, how we found actors, found Treasure… it was a miracle. Every single day of my life. For me, that’s what it was – chaos and miracles. That’s why I insisted on keeping the title even when people were telling me it was too complicated, or that no one would know what it means. But I knew it. I knew it was difficult, but I stuck to my gut, and I was right.”
She explains how she was shaking intensely for four years, how hard it was to work with real people who have had the same experience as her. This really hit home, making her realise that this was not just another film. “You’re actually putting a magnifying glass on their struggles. The camera lens is the magnifying glass, and it shines a light on the real behind-thescenes story of their life. It humanises the problem instead of just hearing statistics and numbers in the news. When you’re following a person through their battle, discovering their own personal war – especially when they have no papers and nobody knows anything about them because they’re in this standby mode – they’re invisible.”
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Those harsh realities have left the heavy weight of responsibility on Nadine’s shoulders, even after the phenomenal recognition and success of the movie. “I just need to find peace. I don’t want to say ‘let go’ because it’s not easy to let go of Capernaum, but there’s this feeling of something unfinished or unachieved. The film is out there and it did well, but there’s still a lot to do. There’s still the problem of how we get children off the streets. I don’t feel like I can move on to something else. There’s still work for me; I have a duty to push it further. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do anything, but at least I’ll try. For Lebanon. I want to see what I can do.”
Nadine has proven that she can and already has done a monumental job, directly impacting both the lives of her cast members such as Zain – the riveting 12-year-old star of Capernaum – and his family resettling in Norway, and also society as a whole. The film ignited a global conversation; starting a debate and changing people’s perspective on matters they never would’ve paid attention to otherwise.
“People tell me, ‘I don’t look at those children the same way anymore,’ or ‘I’m a changed person, I want to do something.’ The film struck a chord. People experienced something, and now my job is to take it further.”
As people express their fundamental desire to support the cause – one which has been pushed to the sidelines for too long – Nadine looks only to one other person as her main source of support: her husband of 12 years, Khaled Mouzanar.
Her relationship with Khaled started in Paris around the same time he signed his record label, and on the exact same street that Nadine was writing Caramel, her directorial debut. Some would call that destiny. But this is how Nadine recounts it: “So we met and we started, you know, sympathising, and spending time together. I remember we were in Paris and After Shave, directed by Hany Tamba, was on TV one night. It won the César Award for Best Short Film and Khaled had composed the music for it. So we sat down and watched it together, and the entire time I was thinking, ‘He’s so talented. This guy that’s sitting next to me is actually a genius.’ We finished watching the film and I asked him, ‘Do you want to work on Caramel?’ And he said yes!” And they lived happily ever after…
Well, not quite. But it’s not too far from the truth, either. “We got married two days after the film was released in Lebanon. So in a way the music that he wrote for Caramel was a love letter to me. Every single note. That’s why his music moves me so much, no matter what it is. There’s not one single note or song that doesn’t really shake me emotionally.”
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Although they’ve had their share of battles – as two visionary creatives naturally would – what keeps their bond so tightly bound is the unquestionable knowledge that they hold nothing but the best intentions for one another.
“I take his opinion very seriously and I think he takes mine very seriously. We fight a lot… about our work, the music and the films [which he now helps direct]. But there’s something that we both know deep down: no matter how bad things get, it’s only words. He knows how much I love him and I know how much he loves me. So that’s what we go back to every time. Fighting is something that’s part of a couple’s life, and even if it gets too bad and you can’t handle it, you still ultimately know the real intention of the person who’s in front of you. That’s it. Everything is forgotten.”
No stranger to holding a strong opinion, Nadine’s fiery conviction translates to the political sphere, too. She voices her concern about the politics today, but elects to participate in her own unique expression of them. “When you know how we’re dealing with children’s rights, women’s rights, migrant’s rights – I mean – our systems are a huge failure, and the human isn’t respected enough right now.” She continues, “I don’t think I’m built to handle the pressure [of politics] or bad faith. That’s why I’ve decided to do politics my own way, through my art and cinema. It’s a different way of approaching it.”
“Artists have a very important role to play in the future and how the world will evolve. And I think we need to be more involved politically because art is really one of the only ways to change political perspectives. It needs alternative thinking to progress in the right way, so I think it’s our duty as artists to be involved in the way the world is going. It has to be defined in a different way for me, because we’ve been so failed by politicians. Not just in Lebanon, but the entire world. The examples we have are not ones we can be proud of.”
When asked about the relationship between power, art and politics, Nadine replies, “Who decides who’s powerful and who’s not powerful? And what does it mean to be powerful? I don’t take it very seriously, but at the same time, it’s a responsibility if people consider me powerful. If I’m able to change your perspective in a positive way, or create a connection with something I’m doing that will influence your decision – that’s power.”
And she’s right. Once in her presence, few can deny the visceral power and strength of compassion that emanates from this self-proclaimed
‘hypersensitive’ beauty. One of a kind. And making a difference.
Styling by Anna Castan
Photography by Vladimir Marti at Magna Productions.
Make-up: Manuel Losada at Art Factory. Hair: Annesofie Begtrup.
Producer: Laura Prior. Manicurist: Sylvie Vacca. Stylist’s Assistant: Tifaine Ribouleau. Seamstress: Charline Gentilhomme. Studio Manager: Benedikte Chesneau. Videographer: Sara Lomas. Digi Tech: Richard at Studio Daguerre. Photography Assistants: Laura and Louise at Studio Daguerre. Lighting Assistant: Romain at Studio Daguerre. Agent: Cynthia Sarkis.