Nadine Labaki is a woman of character and a thoughtful filmmaker. Building on her rich experiences, she’s crafted a provocative film about the difficulties of tolerance, and how much sacrifice must be made for peace. Sitting alone with Working Author in a spartan room with little more than a small table and two armchairs, Labaki leans in close and opens up about her film Where Do We Go Now?
“That’s a long story,” she begins after being asked about how she got into filmmaking. “It has always been an aim – a dream – of mine ever since I was a kid.” With just a tinge of wistful regret in her voice, Labaki delivers a cursory Lebanese history lesson, recounting the country’s war filled past. “When we were kids, sometimes we wouldn’t go to school, we couldn’t play outside…we were stuck, either at home or in the shelter. So for me the only way to live something different was through the TV set or through the films we used to rent, because we had a video rent store right next to our house.” These movies were an escape from her reality, and Labaki wanted to create more alternate realities. To do that, she had to become a filmmaker. “I decided very early – I was about 10 or 11 or something like that – this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to create other realities with images.”
Where Do We Go Now? is Labaki’s second film, and she wears multiple hats that include director, co-writer and actress. The film is set in an unidentified village in the Middle East where the villagers belong to either one of two conflicting religious beliefs. While peace has existed for some time, the men of the village seem ready to fight at even the slightest perceived offense. As such, it’s up to the women to keep heads cool and prevent unnecessary bloodshed. Not surprisingly, considering Labaki’s past, the idea for the film has roots in reality. “It was some point in 2008 where, unfortunately, some political events in Lebanon led people to take weapons again after having succeeded in living over two decades of peace. You know, for stupid reasons, people took weapons and went out in the streets and started killing each other again.” She wondered if Lebanon would fall into civil war. “At that point I just learned that I was pregnant and I think that does change your perspective on life and does make you want to express yourself differently. And I thought of this child and what if he was a young man and he was tempted to take a weapon and go down the street and do whatever the rest were doing. How would I react?” She wondered how she would stop her son, and that introspection evolved into the plot of Where Do We Go Now? where the women make more sacrifices than is fair to stop all-out war.
For Labaki, war is “evil” and “absurd”, however, war is simply a tool used to achieve a goal. It’s the reasons behind war that should be scrutinized. In the case of this film, the reason is religion, and Working Author was curious to know if Labaki felt the same sentiments towards faith as she did for one of the tools of faith. After all, if the villagers didn’t have religious beliefs, there would be no conflict. “For me, it’s not about religion,” she says, “it’s about two parties – could be two football teams, could be two families, could be two friends – who live in the same country or neighborhood or family or live on this Earth. And who cannot find ways to accept the difference of the other. It’s about how you do not tolerate the difference of the other. It could have been anything.” Labaki confesses that she and her crew thought about creating new religions in the film, but ultimately decided that clarity was paramount for her message of tolerance to come across. In the end, the message behind Where Do We Go Now? is not homogeneity, but rather live and let live.
Audiences will be impressed to know that many of the cast members are non-professionals, since everyone’s performances are serviceable throughout. “It’s a very delicate process,” Labaki says, regarding her direction to achieve such consistency in the performances. “I don’t really like the word ‘acting’. As a filmmaker, I’m at this phase in my life where I need to believe that whatever is happening is true. Because of maybe the subjects I’m talking about, because of the fact that I want you as a viewer to really relate to the characters – to come out of the theater thinking, ‘You know this could have been me. This could have been somebody I know.’” She wants performances and dialog to feel realistic rather than scripted. “I don’t ask [the cast] to act; I just ask them to be exactly who they are…. So what happens usually is I become very good friends with them before we start shooting so we really become very close.” Once Labaki knows them, she begins to dig into their histories and personalities to make the cast understand what they need to do for their scenes and what their motivations are. “In Lebanon, you don’t know one person who hasn’t had a tragedy related to war, so everybody relates.”
As the interview wound down, Labaki expressed her hope that American audiences would have the same positive reaction that film festival audiences had around the world. In these political, religious, race, lifestyle and class polarized times in the United States, a message of tolerance is sorely needed. A film like Where Do We Go Now? can’t get here soon enough.