New model for Arab cinema

Labaki breaks down gender stereotypes to forge savvy career

Nadine Labaki just might be the new face of Arab cinema.

Blessed with model looks, the 31-year-old director has enjoyed a charmed career. Her short film “Eleven Past Thirty,” a thesis project in her final year at university, won first prize at both the Beirut Film Festival and the Institut du Monde Arabe’s Biennial Arab Film Festival in Paris, and was invited to festivals around the world, including New York, Liverpool, Algeria and Egypt.

After a brief stint working as a producer for advertising agency Impact BBDO, she turned her hand to directing musicvideos, in the process revolutionizing the Arab music industry.

It was her connection with rising star Nancy Ajram — the Arab world’s Britney Spears — that really saw her make a name for herself as the Arab world’s top clip helmer.

“It was the right timing. I didn’t like what was happening in the music industry. The way people used to perceive Arabic music was very negative. With Nancy, I wanted to come up with a new feminine character that was not scared of how people looked at her, that was very at ease with her body, the way she moves, the way she dances, and wasn’t scared of how men were looking at her,” says Labaki.

“It worked,” she adds. “People liked it.”

Riding the boom in Arab satellite TV that saw the emergence across the regions of satcasters such as LBC and Rotana, with their nonstop music clips, Labaki broke down stereotypes and boundaries along the way.

“Of course, at the beginning it was a little hard. I was very young and a woman, and they were not used to this in the business. But once people saw that I was good, they accepted me,” she tells Variety.

She recently made her acting debut in Lebanese film “Bosta,” which has been a sizable domestic hit, even beating the likes of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” at the box office. Not that she sees herself moving in front of the camera permanently.

“It’s exciting to be someone else from time to time, but I always had the feeling I was going to be a director since when I was a kid,” says Labaki.

Having been invited in 2004 by the Cinefondation in Cannes to take part in a five-month workshop, she is now preparing to go into production on her first feature film.

Though she is coy about announcing the title, she does reveal that it is a dramedy about Lebanese women.

“If I succeed in doing what I want, you’re going to be laughing and crying at the same time,” she says.

It’s no coincidence that her producer is also a woman, Anne-Dominique Toussaint, whose past credits include “La Mustache.” For Labaki, breaking down the barriers for fellow women is a key concern.

“This is why I’m in the business. Through cinema and media, you can make things happen. You can change things. It’s a very powerful weapon. Directors should take this more seriously,” she says. “I’m not in this business only for entertainment but also trying to change the way people think. In a film, sometimes there’s a sentence or scene that literally changes your life because you become aware of something you might not have been aware of otherwise.”

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