The Lebanese filmmaker speaks from New York about her highly personal new film.
30 May 2012 - 12:49 PM  UPDATED 30 May 2012 - 12:49 PM

Where Do We Go Now? is the second feature film for Nadine Labaki. The film premiered at Cannes 2011 in Un Certain Regard, and later won the people's choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is now the highest grossing Lebanese film of all time.

It really is a message to my son. I hope that one day he will watch this
film and understand the uncertainty of conflict and the people who lead

The film is a highly personal one for Labaki, as she drew inspiration from the day she learned she was pregnant with her first child; clashes within Lebanon sparked fears of a civil war.

“It was a maternal instinct that made me want to share my point of view as a mother,” she recalls.“ I asked myself, what kind of society is this, where anything is an excuse to start a war? I imagined the story of a mother who was going to do anything she could to stop her son from taking a weapon. It really is a message to my son. I hope that one day he will watch this film and understand the uncertainty of conflict and the people who lead them.”

Labaki's personal instinct metamorphosed into an entire Lebanese village where women of both Christian and Muslim faiths take great steps to stop their men from fighting. Labaki uses her wry humour, familiar to fans of her debut feature Caramel, to deliver a strong message about the senselessness of war and the role of woman as a balance in Lebanese society. Like Caramel, Labaki both co-wrote and directs the film. She also stars as Amale, who,with the other women, provokes, strategises and employs unexpected tactics, including importing a troupe of travelling Russian dancers to distract the men from their escalating focus on war.

As an ensemble piece, casting the villagers was a vital component of the filmmaking process. “Most of the actors in the film are not professional actors,” Labaki explains. “It's their first time in front of a camera. I had a team of at least 20 people who went everywhere in Lebanon and filmed people according to the descriptions I had created. Sometimes you fall in love with the character because of how they answer the question or because of their accent. The way they talk or their gesture. That's how I chose most of the actors for the film.”

The role of chance played a part in what Labaki calls a “delicate” casting process. She gives the example of Yvonne, the mayor's wife (played by Yvonne Maalouf), a non-actor she met by coincidence. “We were location scouting in one of the villages and she came to greet us. In real life, she's the wife of the priest of the village. She was very happy we were going to shoot in her village and said if we ever needed anything we should come and have coffee. I wasn't listening to what she was saying. I was focussing on her eyes, her lips, the way she talks. I thought, this woman is amazing – she should be in my film! The character's name in the script was Yvonne. I asked her what her name was and she said, 'Yvonne'. I thought it was a sign.

“That's how a lot of the actors were chosen for the film,” she continues. “It was a whole village that needed to come alive. Sometimes I was in a scene with at least 100 people who do not act. It was a certain organised chaos that I appreciate. I like to believe that my actors are not acting. That whatever they are doing, or whatever has been said, would happen in real life. I improvise on the set. I do a lot of things I'm not supposed to do because I want to create these unexpected, precious, spontaneous moments from the actors. Sometimes acting with them makes it even easier because I can direct or keep the rhythm of the scene from inside and do unexpected things that maintain their spontaneity. I believe in cinema that is becoming closer and closer to reality. I believe that cinema can be a very powerful, non-violent way to make a change. When you show people on the big screen that could be our next-door neighbour or our cousin, it does have an impact on our lives.”

While Where Do We Go Now? is filmed and set in Lebanon, the director is keen to assert the universality of the story with what she calls its “fairytale” nature. Labaki realises this, in part, through both music and dance. “The film is a conflict between Christians and Muslims but it could happen anywhere,” she says. “Between two brothers, two families, two neighbours, two football teams.”

Labaki is married to the musical director of the film, Khaled Mouzanar, and it's a collaboration that strongly influenced the film. “This story started with my first film, Caramel. We met when I was writing the script and we decided to work together. I wanted to develop this collaboration further;to create lyrics and write songs and revisit Lebanese music in our own way. The fact it was a fairytale made it more universal. The music and the dancing helped in creating this fantasy world.”

Where Do We Go Now? will screen at the Sydney Film Festival before its June 21 limited cinema release (through Hopscotch Films).