LOS ANGELES — Nadine Labaki uses the word “naive” a lot. As in “Maybe that’s naive,” or “I might be naive but . . . ” Which she is and isn’t, considering that she grew up in war-torn Lebanon and is now gaining international acclaim as a director.
What Labaki refers to as naivete is actually an unironic optimism unusual in Los Angeles, or the movie industry at all. But Labaki, whose sophomore directorial effort, “Where Do We Go Now?,” opens Friday, has so far had the sort of fortune that lets her live in a world where anything is possible, even peace in the Middle East.
That’s the theme of “Where Do We Go Now?”, a semi-satiric, semi-somber rumination on the ridiculousness of war and how far mothers will go to keep their sons safe. Set in a Lebanese village, it’s the story of a dispute between Christians and Muslims who are sometimes friendly neighbors, other times enemies. It’s also a musical. Labaki, who stars, co-wrote the script, too, in 2008, when Lebanon was erupting in violence again after two decades of relative calm and she had just learned she was pregnant with her son.
“It was the absurdity of the situation,” she said in a recent interview, curled up in an overstuffed chair in a fancy hotel, incongruously talking about violence. “And then you think of this child who will be born and that’s how the whole thing started, with the story of a mother who would do everything she could to stop her son from picking up a weapon. It developed slowly into that metaphor about this village that, for me, is the whole Middle East, with all the conflicts going on.
“That’s why it’s in the form of a fable that starts with the voice of a narrator saying, ‘Once upon a time,’ ’’ she said. “Because I needed it to be more universal. It’s not only about a war in Lebanon. . . . It’s about a war between any people.”
Like almost all Lebanese her age, Labaki, 38, is intimately acquainted with war. It’s one of the reasons her English is impeccable. She spent much of her childhood shuttling between Lebanon and other countries (Canada, France, Cyprus). In a shelter in Lebanon, the lone distraction against boredom was a TV set powered by uncertain electricity. Labaki, who also lived next door to a video rental store, was riveted by “Dynasty,” “Dallas,” “Moonlighting,” and “Magnum P.I.” Even then, she says, she knew what she wanted to do: make that sort of magic.
First, though, she made commercials and music videos. Then she acted a bit. Finally she made “Caramel,” an unheralded romantic comedy about five Lebanese women that put her on the international film circuit map. “Where Do We Go Now?,” celebrated at film festivals in Cannes, Sundance, and Toronto, has kept her there.
Labaki seems genuinely surprised by all of it, from her small-country-girl-does-well story to the power it has unquestionably brought her back home.
“It’s a battlefield to make a film in Lebanon,” Labaki said, noting that it’s no more difficult for a female filmmaker there than for a male, because it’s impossible for everyone. “There’s no film industry, no structure, no funding, no nothing.”
Later, she added, “I had a dream of making a film. I never thought it would be possible, to make it or to travel with it. So everything that’s happened, it’s a dream. I come from a very small village. Lebanon is a dot on the map. . . . You grow up thinking you will never get anywhere because we are a small country, we’ve been at war our whole lives, because we are Arabs. You grow up with all these limitations and you believe nothing good will ever happen to you . . . and then you don’t just make this dream happen, you go beyond your dream.”
Producer Anne-Dominique Toussaint has helped Labaki make her dreams come true, first with “Caramel,” now with “Where Do We Go Now?” Speaking on the telephone from France, she said she met Labaki at a Beirut film festival in 2003 and was taken by both her presence and her passion.
“At the end of a screening, a very beautiful woman came up to me and said, ‘I would like to make movies, it is my life,’ ” Toussaint recalled. “At the time she was doing commercials and videos and she said, ‘That is good, but it is not my life, my life is cinema, how do I do it?’ She was so charismatic I gave her my e-mail. She wrote me and sent pages [that became ‘Caramel’].”
Still, Toussaint said she wasn’t certain at first that Labaki entirely knew what she was doing. Labaki wanted to — and did — cast non-actors in “Caramel” and again in her latest movie. She also wanted to act, which Toussaint agreed to allow on “Caramel” only if someone better couldn’t be found. Labaki’s performance was good enough that she didn’t have to persuade anyone that this time she should play Amale, a single Christian mother who pours out her suddenly forbidden love for a Muslim man in song.
The second time around, Toussaint told Labaki, “ ‘You have to play in it.’ I really needed her in the movie. I knew she was great and I knew she was very good at directing the other women when she is acting. It is easier for her that way.”
Labaki, who has long dark hair and dark eyes rimmed in charcoal, is a presence on screen and in person, with her eight bangle bracelets, three rings, and dangly earrings. She looks both normal and like somebody, that indefinable quality that indicates a star. In Lebanon, she’s a staple of the gossip columns and recognized wherever she goes.
Labaki calls casting herself risky and other unknowns near impossible. But this is where that naivete, or innocence, rears its head again. Labaki says she “needed” non-actors in “Caramel,” and again in “Where Do We Go Now?”
“I need to believe that every word that is said could have been said or the person would have reacted that way,” she said. “Cinema is a very powerful nonviolent weapon to make change. . . . You start believing this could have been me. This could have been somebody I know. This could be a situation I was in. It does have an impact on your life when you start thinking, ‘It’s not a fiction. It’s reality.’ When you work with nonprofessional actors, you get that.”
She added, “Those two hours spent in a movie theater are precious. . . . I’m waiting for something to change me. I’m waiting for emotions. I’m waiting to be shaken. I’m waiting to be touched. I’m waiting to identify. I expect so much from these two hours, even if it sounds naive.”
Labaki said she’s “obsessed” with women in mourning. Not all women, just the ones who rend their clothes and tear their hair out and wail like wounded animals. They inspired the opening scene of “Where Do We Go Now?” In it, a dozen women march/dance to mournful music, stepping in time to the beat as they strike their chests, an aggressive expression of the agony that comes with losing sons to violence. It’s an image that haunts Labaki on behalf of her little boy.
“This film is a message to my son,” she said. “I want one day when he grows up, I want him to watch it and understand the absurdity of conflict and wars. I want everyone who sees it to understand.”