Where Do We Go Now at Toronto Film Festival

By the Director and Actress
Nadine Labaki

Nélida Nassar  10.11.2011

The Toronto Film Festival is held each September in Toronto, Canada.  It is a publicly attended film festival and one of the most prestigious in the world. The Festival, which has earned a reputation for forecasting Oscar contenders, is a popular venue for Hollywood film premiers. The relatively inexpensive costs (when compared with European festivals) and the Festival’s unique distinction of not awarding jury prizes, creates a draw for enthusiastic, film-fluent audiences and studios, alike.

Perhaps, unlike the juried Cannes and Berlin festivals, the non-competitive nature is what gives the Festival its relaxed atmosphere. There is a major prize awarded to a feature-length film, the Cadillac People’s Choice Award, but, as its name suggests, it is earned by receiving the highest ratings, as voted by the festival-going viewers.

This year’s winner, Where Do We Go Now, is the second long feature by the Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki. The film premiered at the Cannes film festival and won the ecumenical prize section of  “Un Certain Regard.” The film is in good company.  Last year’s winner, The Kings Speech, went on to win four Oscars at the 83rd Academy Awards.

The film is set in the remote Lebanese village of Taybeh, in the vicinity of Baalbeck, where a mosque neighbors a church and where both Muslims and Christians live harmoniously side-by-side. The village is isolated and can only be reached by a bridge surrounded by land mines.  Other Lebanese towns are also featured such as Meshmesh, Douma, and Jeita, with its distinctive Sayde Church. The film follows the women of the village who are dismayed at the interreligious strife that erupts after a household installs a television.

Heartsick and determined to safeguard their community, the women attempt to distract the village men – be it their sons, husbands, brothers or neighbors – from war.  First, they sabotage the television set and subsequently continue to use a variety of ploys and strategies. They hire Ukrainian strippers, concoct a mixture of hashish and spread it onto a sweet pastry, remove the men’s weapons from the village, and even fake a miracle.  When all the ploys fail, their last resort is to threaten that each one of them will convert to the religion of the other, Christians becoming Muslims and vice versa.

The filming was done with a limited budget and in video form, completed in two months from October 18, 2010 to December 18, 2010. Labaki’s husband, Khaled Mouzannar, composed the music. Nadine’s film is fundamentally embedded in Lebanese society and its reality.  With a keen eye, good observations and social intelligence, Labaki peels away the various layers of survival skills , social pressures and clichés one by one. The narrative has two distinct positions: local and global. The dialogue, with its acerbic, but genuine tone remains indelible in one’s memory. One particular line, “we can only count on foreigners,” offers a multilayered observation.

On the surface, it may allude to men marrying foreigners because Lebanese women may be too proud, too demanding, or too ‘expensive. On a deeper level, the remark is politically loaded and describes a nation that, despite its immense creativity and sense of innovation, is always relying on foreign powers to steer its destiny. Another delicious moment is the footage of a woman cutting the line in front of several of her compatriots.  As a nation often plagued with lack of discipline, we have difficulty standing in line. It is almost a national sport, or a shahtara. Actually, cutting off and moving ahead of someone else is deemed a kind of prowess.

The global narrative is about war, land mines and how countries, such as Lebanon, are sensitized and torn apart by the uncertainties it provokes. Elliptically, Labaki touches upon Lebanon’ s long civil war and the one million cluster bombs the Israeli army dropped in 2006 after its withdrawal from the South. The refusal of big powers, including the US, to sign and ratify the convention on cluster munitions only heightens the diminishment of goodwill and helps define Labaki’ s global message.

Nadine, with a great sense of humor, films with emotional gravitas that is at once artful, immersive and accessible. She brilliantly casts a tender, indulgent look at our Lebanese foibles. She is critical but with leniency, forbearance and patience towards her compatriots’ frailties.  Above all, she brings to the fore the resilience and tolerance of the Lebanese people towards themselves and others.  Her criticism stems from an indulgent eye tempered with generous forgiveness.

The film has been announced as Lebanon’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2012 Academy Awards. It already has garnered eight prestigious international awards in Europe and Canada and is well positioned to take home the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Sony Classics has acquired all of its US rights, making Nadine Labaki proud to be part of the Sony family. In a recent l’Orient-le Jour woman of the week interview she exclaimed: “I am savoring the moment and letting tomorrow unravel itself”. She also reflects on the infancy of the Lebanese film industry and her hope for it to grow and flourish. She is enjoying a well-deserved success.

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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