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Femmes find Mideast funnybone

Female filmmakers discover humor, success

While their male counterparts have delivered a slew of serious, commercially underperforming pics about war and conflict, femme helmers Nadine Labaki and Marjane Satrapi have found humor to be a more successful path amid the turmoil.

The Lebanese Labaki and French-Iranian Satrapi have spent much of the past few months wowing auds and critics alike with their debut features “Caramel” and “Persepolis.” Now the two are hoping to get a shot at representing their countries in the foreign-language category at the Oscars in February.

The success of “Persepolis” — the animated pic has brought in well over 1 million admissions in France and is Gaul’s official entry for the Oscars — is perhaps less of a surprise given that it was based on Satrapi’s bestselling graphic novel about her experiences growing up during the 1979 Iranian revolution and was backed by Sony Pictures Classics.

But “Caramel” is something of a Cinderella story.

Labaki’s dramedy about a group of women working in a Lebanese beauty salon, which is being released in the U.S. by Roadside Attractions, is very much a family affair. Her sister Caroline designed the character’s costumes while husband Khaled Mouzannar composed the score.

The majority of the film’s cast was making its feature debut, including Joanna Moukarzel, who plays a quiet salon assistant who finds herself falling in love with one of the salon’s glamorous female visitors.

Such is the soft approach taken by Labaki, however, that even the lesbian subplot — usually a taboo topic in the Middle East — largely has gone unnoticed in the region. That’s unlike the film itself, which has become the top-grossing feature at this year’s Lebanese box office, with 120,000 admissions. The pic also brought in more than 500,000 admissions in France, a record for a Lebanese film.

“Caramel” has given Lebanese auds an all-too-rare opportunity to celebrate, given the political turmoil embroiling the country, split down the middle between supporters of the Western-backed government and its opposition, who get support from Iran and Syria. Lebanon has been hit by high-profile assassinations and bomb blasts, most recently on Dec. 12 when Gen. Francois Hajj — seen by many as the next head of Lebanon’s army — was killed in a car bomb attack in a Beirut suburb.

“Caramel” is notable for finding the light among the darkness. “Movies give you a chance to escape and let you dream of a better world,” Labaki says. “This is still a very real film, but there is hope in it. People go in depressed but leave happy.”

A similar feeling is likely to hit auds coming out of “Persepolis,” which opened Christmas Day in Gotham and Los Angeles.

While the black-and-white animated pic covers a number of potentially harrowing subjects, including the suffocation of personal freedoms as the Iranian mullahs consolidated their power in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, as well as the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war in which more than a million people died, Satrapi more often than not imbues the pic, which she co-directed along with Vincent Paronnaud, with deliciously black humor.

“I don’t believe you can fight fanaticism with another form of fanaticism,” Satrapi says. “We have to use logic and pragmatism and ask a question without necessarily giving an answer. If the goal of fanaticism is to push a button and produce an emotional response, the goal of anti-fanaticism should be the exact opposite: to ask people to think and be pragmatic.”

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