Academy Award-nominated director Nadine Labaki is a triple threat poised to take the world by storm. Continuing her quest to reinvent the film industry and transform the way mainstream media perceives Middle Eastern cinema, the Lebanese director, actor, and writer has become a beacon for change. For more than a decade, Labaki has used her award-winning creative work to shed light on universal societal issues, such as child poverty and women’s empowerment, in the hopes it will spur action across the world because, to her, “art is the only medium for change.”
“The objective of my films cannot be only artistic, it has to be placed at the service of a greater social cause,” shared the former Vogue Arabia cover star. “Cinema is the means through which I can best express myself. I use it to limit the effects of the destruction all around us, and to assume my responsibility as a member of this society but also as an artist. I believe equally in the importance of the artist’s commitment to defend her society’s causes as I believe in cinema’s ability to effect change. If a film succeeds in influencing its viewers, this impact might reach various levels, and this is what pushes me to explore deeper and more important topics after every cinematic experience.”
In celebration of Labaki’s birthday today, February 18, we take a closer look at four of the female filmmaker’s features you must add to your watchlist for hours of thought-provoking content and unforgettable characters.
Why you need to watch it: The movie that started it all, “Caramel” is Labaki’s critically-acclaimed directorial debut that thrust her in a burgeoning spotlight back in 2007. Also co-writing the script and playing a lead role in a female-led cast, the Arab star portrays the everyday trials and tribulations of life and romance through the overlapping stories of five Lebanese women from different backgrounds who largely spend the length of the film talking in a Beirut beauty parlor. With most of the characters’ conversations revolving around problems often deemed taboo by cultural and societal norms, Labaki sparked an unprecedented dialogue on the female identity in the region. After premiering in the Directors’ Fortnight at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, the film received global success and was shown at other renowned festivals worldwide, hinting at the future success that would soon follow.
Her inspiration: “Lebanon is not only burning buildings and people crying in the street. When you say Lebanon, especially to foreigners, that’s the first thing they think of,” Labaki explained to Reuters. “For me, Lebanon is about other things … we live love stories like any other person in any country all over the world. That’s why I wanted to talk about an issue that has no relation to the war and which shows a new picture of Lebanon, specifically that it’s a people with imagination, who love life, people with warmth, people with a sense of humor.”
Where Do We Go Now?
Why you need to watch it: This 2011 box office-records-setting film about a group of women who take it upon themselves to achieve peace amongst the religious strife threatening to overtake their village was a symbolic snapshot of the sectarianism dividing Labaki’s native country of Lebanon. Once again starring a strong cast of women, the film’s feminist subplot cannot be ignored and neither can Labaki’s talent for bringing to screen the very real and widely unknown roles of Arab women in times of conflict.
Her inspiration: “On May 7th, 2008, fighting broke out between two opposing parties,” Labaki told The New Yorker. “Beirut turned into a war zone in a matter of hours. We were stuck at home, the roads were blocked. I was watching TV and saw people with masks, weapons, and grenades. I thought, ‘Is that really possible? Could we be here yet again? And go into civil war one more time?’ I thought if my son was now eighteen years old and he was tempted to join the fight and take the burden of protecting his family—because it’s always tempting especially for young men—what would I do as a mother to stop him?”
Rio, I Love You
Why you need to watch it: A global ensemble of star-studded creatives, including Labaki, united in the third chapter of the fan-favorite Cities of Love anthology—this time heading to the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro to depict 10 separate narratives steeped in humor, tragedy, and romance. Labaki’s segment, titled “O Milagre” or “The Miracle” in English, explores a pair of tourists who meet a young orphan boy waiting for a call from Jesus and the unrivaled joy a child exudes in the light of hope.
Her inspiration: “I don’t know how I understood this culture or why I understood it so quickly…but I’m a big observer usually in life and I am fascinated with human behavior and the fact that you [Brazilians] are such an open culture and such open people and I feel like I can read a bit the people and the personality because I don’t feel like there are too many layers, it’s sort of what you see is what you get,” Labaki said during a video interview with Judão. “I think there’s a lot of similarities also with the Lebanese culture and something about the personality that is very similar.”
Why you need to watch it: Although it may seem overexaggerated, all the hype surrounding this 2019 Oscar-nominated film is true. Likely Labaki’s most recognized film, Capharnaüm features an unlikely protagonist in the form of a 12-year-old boy in Beirut who takes his parents to court for the suffering life in poverty has caused him. The heart-wrenching storyline captured the hearts of critics around the world, garnering nominations at the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and Critics’ Choice Awards 2019 ceremonies. However, Capharnaüm receiving a 15-minute standing ovation at its Cannes Film Festival premiere and winning the prestigious Jury Prize is an anecdote that will not soon be forgotten, especially since this recognition made Labaki the first female Arab film director and fifth woman to claim the coveted award. Labaki didn’t stop making history there, becoming the first female Arab to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.
Her inspiration: “I wanted the movie to trigger public policy debates that lead to legislation affecting the lives of marginalized children. NGOs are undertaking tremendous efforts, but the load is huge, and a more concerted effort is needed, Labaki shared with Vogue Arabia, asking the million-dollar question, “How can I witness this injustice and turn my back to it?”