Oscar-nominated director Nadine Labaki may have physically been in the United States last week, but her heart was in her home country of Lebanon. The Middle East Institute, an American think tank dedicated to the region, honored the former Vogue Arabia cover star with the 2019 Issam M. Fares Award for Excellence at the MEI’s 73rd Annual Awards Gala in Washington DC on November 12 in recognition of her extraordinary philanthropic impact on her community and the world, joining previous recipients Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation and Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid of this prestigious award.
Although it wasn’t an easy decision for the Lebanese creative to leave Beirut amidst the nearly one month of protests of which she has been an active participant, Labaki used this renowned platform to share her emotional personal experiences from the ongoing revolution and urge Lebanese citizens living abroad to return home and “be a part of the birth of our new nation.”
“When I look back at the Lebanese faces here, I think that I’m also here on a mission. I’m on a mission to bring you back home with me,” she said during her acceptance speech. “Lebanon needs you. Lebanese here who have lost hope, who have surrendered, who have given up to find a better life and a better place, you need Lebanon now as much as Lebanon needs you. Lebanon needs you physically with your knowledge, your education, your energy, your talent, your goodwill.”
In a vivid retelling of security forces attempting to break up a peaceful demonstration she partook in, Labaki shared the powerful lessons she learned through that suspenseful situation.
“And those few hours while we sat there, I understood the power of unity,” she said. “The power of good. The power of will. The power of the mind. The power of peace. The power of love. The secret bond that connects us to each other in spite of everything. And most importantly, the power of fighting. Fighting for what is right. Not with arms, not with violence, but with flowers and will.”
The critically acclaimed filmmaker made history multiple times this year, becoming the first female Arab to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Oscars with Capharnaüm, a poignant story about children living in the slums of Lebanon she felt was her “duty” to share in order to “break the silence.” Labaki received not only a standing ovation after the premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival but also the Jury Prize, making her the first woman from the region to win such an honor. The film continued to gain international recognition with BAFTA and Golden Globes nominations as well.
Using her cinematic work as a springboard, Labaki established the Capharnaüm Association, a charity striving to improve the situation of homeless children in Lebanon, including those featured appeared in Capharnaüm itself.
Calling on her fellow people to make Lebanon a “true inspiration to the world,” Labaki concluded her speech voicing her support for the youth of Lebanon and hope for the future.
“The road will be long and full of obstacles, but the journey is worth it,” said Labaki. “When you see that determination in the eyes of the hundreds of thousands of people and students in the streets of Beirut, you will know what I’m talking about. It’s a whole generation that has decided to take its destiny into its own hands…And they won’t allow a future any less bright than what they deserve.”