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Labaki aims to please and conquer

Middle East Filmmaker of the Year

Auds are sweet on Nadine Labaki, Variety’s Middle East Filmmaker of the Year, and it’s easy to see why.

In 2006, she made her acting debut in “Bosta,” a Lebanese musical comedy about a dance troupe that scandalizes the establishment with its modern reinterpretation of a folk dance. Pic was a smash at the Lebanese box office, outgrossing “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

It’s her helming debut, “Caramel,” however, that has made the bigger splash.

The movie, about five Lebanese women working in a Beirut beauty salon, has garnered more than 400,000 admissions in France and a further 100,000 in Lebanon since its mid-August bow. The infectious dramedy is on course to become the most successful Lebanese film of all time in both countries.

Labaki co-wrote, directed and starred in the project, which world preemed to a lengthy standing ovation in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at Cannes. Pic received its North American preem at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

It’s Labaki’s desire to entertain, rather than lecture, which endears auds to her pic. Despite being set and lensed in a country wracked by strife, “Caramel” leaves the turmoil aside to focus instead on the personal.

“Being a director gives me the chance to create worlds that I would like to see or live in. I wanted to create a world that has nothing to do with war because this is the way I see my country,” says Labaki. “When I finished filming and the war started I had a huge sense of guilt. How am I going to do any good for my country by not talking about the war? But then I realized that maybe this is my way of contributing or trying to say we are people who want to survive in all situations. Maybe giving an optimistic message is my own way of revolt.”

Born in Lebanon in 1974, Labaki studied media at Saint Joseph U. in Beirut, where her short film “Eleven Past Thirty,” a thesis project in her final year, won first prize at the Beirut Film Festival and the Institut du Monde Arabe’s Biennial Arab Film Festival in Paris.

She made a name for herself in the Arab world as a musicvid helmer, in the process revolutionizing the Arab music industry through her professional relationship with rising Arab popstress Nancy Ajram. The two of them helped to redefine the image of the modern Arab woman: feminine, sexy and in control.

It’s a theme she continues in “Caramel” with its bittersweet look at Lebanese women and their foibles.

“I used to see that Lebanese women go to extremes. They’re very excessive,” says Labaki. “When they put on sexy stuff, they put on very tight clothes. When they want to be conservative, they are too conservative. I started asking myself these questions, and I wanted to understand why. It’s like therapy for me.”