Oscar-nominated filmmaker and actor Nadine Labaki talks of standing up to a broken system and raising a future generation who feel they belong
Nadine Labaki has no interest in speaking of her tremendous achievements as the most influential film director to hail from the Arab world. From the global recognition received for her harrowing Oscar-nominated film Capernaum (2018), to her much adored Caramel (2007), her accomplishments are colossal. Yet, she shrugs off accolades, partly because she has heard it all before and partly because she has no interest in fame and its associated frivolities, any more than she cares for convention.
What does concern Labaki is her country, Lebanon, and its forgotten people. She stands with those brave enough to confront the current socio-economic crisis, exposing the deep holes caused by a very broken system. These are not entirely unique observations; her body of work alone defends her actions. She cares, for want of a less saccharine notion, about making a difference. “It is my duty, for I know how much art can ignite a fire, and touch another human being on an emotional level. There is a responsibility that comes with my tool, so I must utilize my platform as much as I possibly can,” she says.
Born in 1974, on the eve of a bloody civil war in Lebanon, Labaki has conflict and fear running through her veins. She admits that the war impacted her considerably as a young child. “We tried not to speak about it too much and my parents did as best they could to create a world for us that was not as ugly as the one outside. Perhaps that is why life has always felt like an emergency of some sort for me, and maybe part of the reason why I always have the feeling that I have never done enough in this short life we have.” The filmmaker speaks slowly and methodically through a stream of tormenting early memories of being herded around different shelters in order to escape bombs, of life behind sandbags, and of never quite knowing if she and her family would survive to see another day. “I’m not sure exactly what age I was when I first understood the concept of death, but I know it was too young. I remember seeing a horrible explosion in a supermarket, but it wasn’t until they moved the body, that I realized it belonged to a child,” recalls Labaki. “Up until then, I didn’t know what death looked like. That lifeless body has stayed with me forever. There were so many things I didn’t understand, but I knew then, in that moment, that this was not the way it was meant to be.”
Regardless of the turmoil, Labaki, who is also a mother to two young children, has remained in Lebanon. At what stage does one decide enough is enough? “I empathize, of course, with those who have left for a better life; however, for me, leaving was never an option. There is a huge difference between wanting and needing. While I may have had different opportunities abroad, I feel like I belong here and that my mission is here,” she states. “What is happening now is nothing short of a human crisis and every person who can contribute to help drive growth who can be here, should be – we are at a complete loss without them.” While being honored for excellence at the Middle East Institute’s 73rd Annual Awards Gala in Washington DC, Labaki delivered a powerfully emotive speech, urging her compatriots to return home. “Lebanon needs you, physically, with your knowledge, your education, your energy, your talent, your goodwill,” she pleaded.
Sketched from afar, Lebanon faces further chaos and uncertainty. One asks, how has the system failed so demonstratively? The filmmaker abhors the word power, as much as she challenges its representation. “We have surpassed ourselves in turning the world into a very scary place, due to corruption, greed, and a complete misunderstanding of what power and leadership means,” she says.
“We have failed on every level in creating a system and the right structure to support people in need.” The Covid-19 crisis has only deepened an already raw and open wound in Lebanon and unearthed further absurdities. “People are living on the poverty line. They can’t stay home as they need to go to work in order to eat. Every human being has the right to have their basic needs met, no matter what their financial, educational, or geographic situation. We need to find solutions for everyone, not a select few. What is happening right now is only further proof that our current system does not work.”
Labaki is firm that the Lebanese people must look inward and tackle what has been destroyed, beginning with its land. She leads a national campaign, #Zarri3etAlbi, aimed at educating home agriculture initiatives. “We need to reevaluate our relationship with nature completely. We were running on empty and moving too fast, not only in Lebanon but on a global scale. Consumerism has made us forget how to be self-sufficient. By encouraging local farmers to produce locally, we can return to the rhythm that nature dictates for us so beautifully,” she comments. “Keeping something alive is a gift and there is nothing more beautiful than eating your own produce. It is not going to solve the overarching problem but it may be one way to lessen the burden.”
There is nothing light about Labaki; in an industry filled with safe, scripted, and well-armored celebrities, she stands out. Earnest, inquiring, and articulate, her speech is peppered with evocative fragments of art, sociology, history, and politics that she threads together in order to drive change. She believes that while the road will be long and arduous, change begins with nurturing the nucleus of society – its youth. “If we continue to raise a generation of children who feel they don’t belong here, things will never improve,” she considers. “There is nothing more beautiful than witnessing us gain a collaborative voice. Nothing has ever felt so important. I am so proud of the Lebanese people and their unwavering resilience. Our people may be stranded and we may feel paralyzed by an unfathomable situation, but our fight is not over.”
Originally published in the June 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia