Nadine Labaki: It completely changed me as a human being


When the Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki walked on stage to collect last year’s Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, it was not only recognition of a successful career, but an acknowledgement of the deep social issues that have been central to all of her work. With her on stage at the Palais des Festivals was Zain Al Rafeea, the young star of Capernaum, which tells the story of a 12-year-old boy who sues his parents for the life of misery and degradation they have given him. The film received a 15-minute standing ovation at its world premiere in May.

Ever since Cannes the whole world has wanted a piece of Nadine. An interest that has only intensified since she became the first female Arab artist to be nominated for an Oscar. As such she has barely had time for her own family, flitting from film festival to film festival and from premiere to premiere. Now the UAE has a chance to see what all the fuss is about, with Capernaum opening across the country on 14 March. A neorealist and unflinching depiction of the lives of street children in Beirut’s slums, it might not be easy viewing.

“For me it was a duty to talk about this subject, to try to see the world from their point of view,” says Nadine. “To try to understand how they see it, how they see this injustice, how they address adults when it comes to their vision of the world that they live in and the chaos they are going through.”

Nadine Labaki

The result is ‘compelling’ cinema, according to Oprah Winfrey, who has been busy championing the film online. It is also heartbreaking, with the young Syrian refugee Zain playing a 12-year-old fictionalised version of himself. “This was one of the most difficult and destructive and nurturing and life changing experiences of my life,” admits Nadine, who began her career making commercials and pop videos for the likes of Nancy Ajram and Carole Samaha. “I’m not the same person anymore. It completely changed me as a human being, and not only psychologically, even physically, and it changed everybody that worked on the film.

“In the beginning we researched for three years and it was very extensive research where we used to go and spend hours and hours in those very difficult neighbourhood, talking to people, going from one NGO to the other, talking to judges and lawyers, spending time in court, going to prisons, going to every single corner of those belts of misery that surround our cities and our lives. “

After that we shot for six months, spending so much time in those areas and understanding how difficult the struggle is for each one of those individuals who we were working with. Because we chose to work with people who are living that same struggle in their real lives. So you are, in a way, immersed in their reality, and it’s psychologically very difficult and even physically very difficult.”

Capernaum is Nadine’s third film. Her debut feature Caramel was both a critical and commercial success, while Where Do We Go Now? won the People’s Choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival and broke box office records in Lebanon. Both dealt with social issues – Caramel with adultery and perceptions of beauty, Where Do We Go Now? with the thorny topic of Lebanese sectarianism.

Nadine Labaki

Her acting career has also grown steadily since her feature length debut in Bosta in 2005. And while she had leading roles in her first two films and in 2010’s Stray Bullet, she took only a supporting role in Capernaum. “Cinema should be a need,” says Nadine, whose husband Khaled Mouzanar both co-produced the film and wrote its score. “It’s not a trend. It’s not something you do because it’s nice to be a filmmaker or it’s nice to make a film. It’s something you do because you need to do it, because there’s nothing else you can do, otherwise it won’t have this secret code between human beings.

“This code isn’t something you can really analyse, but it’s something people feel instinctively. They feel the passion, they feel the intention, they know why. And that’s why people connect with Capernaum so viscerally. It’s not like a normal connection. There’s something different. When I see people’s reactions, people don’t speak for a few hours, people are shaking, they are completely blown away. They can’t even eat for a few hours after watching the film.

“And for me I made the film to really ignite some kind of change,” she adds. “To really ignite a call for action, and to shock, because it’s the only way. And it’s doing exactly that. We were able to raise money for the actors, we were able to put kids in schools, Zain is now in Norway with all his family. He’s going to school and the rest of the street kids who are in the film are also now in school. So there is some kind of positive change in the lives of the actors that were in the film.”

Nadine and her team spent two years editing, cutting the film from an original 12 hours to two. It was a difficult and painful process. One that has had a lasting impact on the director. “Even now it’s still very difficult to just let go,” she says. “I’m always thinking about the edit. Did we do the right thing, did we take out the right scenes, maybe we should have done it differently. You know, you can’t get closure. You can’t let go.”