Lebanese helmer uses humor to battle war

Tackles women's issues from a mother's viewpoint

DUBAI — With her second film, “Where Do We Go Now?” Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki is once again tearing down stereotypes about women in the Middle East.

The pic has a $5.5 million budget, and is Lebanon’s biggest production yet. It tells the story of a group of women determined to prevent the men in their village from becoming involved in a religious war, and the helmer uses humor — like she did in her debut, “Caramel” — to explore serious topics.

When Labaki began writing the script, she was pregnant with her first son. With guns on the streets, roads blocked and the airport in Beirut closed, her motherly instinct took over. “I decided to make my film from the viewpoint of a mother.”

Conditions weren’t that different from those when Labaki was growing up herself. Born on the eve of Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil war (1975-1990), she says she became interested in film to escape boredom.

“As a little girl, television offered an escape from the war realities,” she says. “I went to school of course, but I spent a lot of time at home, when there was no school, when everything was closed. The only escape was watching TV. I decided that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to be able to create a world different from my reality.”

After college in the late ’90s, Labaki started directing commercials and music-video clips for Arab singers before deciding to make the first step into filmmaking.

Her breakthrough was “Caramel” (2007) about the lives of five Lebanese women working in a Beirut beauty salon. The film was a hit and played to critical acclaim on the fest circuit. Labaki was named one of Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch.

“Caramel,” which was cast with non-professional actors, was lively and full of humor, but it also touched on taboos in Arab societies, including virginity, homosexuality and infidelity.

“I believe in the power of cinema,” Labaki says. “It can change things around us. Sometime, a line in a film, or a scene, makes you think about yourself, about your decisions. By touching your hearts, films can offer hope more than politics.”

Like “Caramel,” “Where Do We Go Now?” has been pleasing auds on the fest circuit, taking the Toronto Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award, and is Lebanon’s submission for the foreign language film Oscar. Labaki admits it’s a nomination she wants very badly.

“Film awards are very important for me. When you come from a place with no cinema industry, you have to learn things by yourself,” she says. “I need the appreciation from others to know that I am doing things right.”