Nadine Labaki on Casting Non-Actors, Using Cinema to Enact Social Change and Letting Life “Interfere With Your Film”

The Toronto International Film Festival kicked off its TIFF Visionaries talks, one-on-one discussions with leading figures in international cinema, with Nadine Labaki, the acclaimed Lebanese director of Caramel, Where Do We Go Now? and Capernaum. The Hollywood Reporter is the media partner of the TIFF Visionaries series.

Born in a small village in Lebanon in 1974, Labaki grew up during the country’s civil war — “which robbed me of my childhood” — where movies were her only escape. “The highlight of my day was the moment we had power so that we could watch a film,” she said, speaking onstage at the Glenn Gould Studio at the CBC headquarters in Toronto. “Very early on, I knew I wanted to become a filmmaker, to create stories that can allow me to escape my reality.”

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In a wide-ranging talk, Labaki traced her career path, first through directing advertising and music videos — “where I learned my craft” — until she was able to make features: Caramel (2007), Where Do We Go Now? (2011) and Capernaum (2018). The latter was Labaki’s international breakthrough. It premiered at Cannes, where it won the festival’s jury prize in 2018 and an Oscar nomination for Lebanon in the best international feature category. The film, which follows the struggles of a young boy living in the slums of Lebanon, was also an unlikely box office hit, particularly in China, where it grossed more than $40 million, becoming the most successful Arab-language film of all time in the territory.

Real life is always the prime source of Labaki’s films. It starts, she said, “as a theme, questions that keep coming to me…from a sort of frustration or an anger towards a social injustice that I try to turn into something positive.”

Caramel began with her questions about the social situation of women in the Middle East.

“What drove me in the first place was questions about the women I used to see around me,” she said. “I rarely saw around me women that were completely fulfilled or completely happy. I was always wondering why. I began to understand there was a huge contradiction between what these women were dreaming of becoming and what they ended up becoming because of social pressure, religious pressure, community pressure and family pressure. The pointed figure all the time…By making this film, I was able to understand these women.”

Where Do We Go Now? came from a deeply personal place when Labaki was pregnant and extreme sectarian violence broke out in the streets.

“I thought how absurd it was. It was a war that broke out in a matter of hours between brothers, between people from the same family, almost,” she said. “I thought if my son was at the time born and was a teenager, what would I do as a mother to keep him from taking up a weapon and doing what the others were doing and going and killing another son of another mother? That became the story.”

With her first two films, Labaki developed her method of working, including using non-actors to get “as close to reality as possible with as little fiction as possible” and a loose, almost documentary approach to filming, to allow “life to interfere with your film.”

“My process is to be as free while we are shooting as possible, to give very few specific instructions to the actors,” she said. “It’s about knowing how to grab the magic of the moment and to be as invisible as possible so you can grab the magic of the moment.”

This approach, Labaki admitted, takes time. “Most of the money for a film for me has to go to the most essential thing, which is time — time to spend with your actors, time spent researching, time for editing.”

It was, Labaki said, because she had so much time for Capernaum — three years of researching and writing, six months of shooting and then a further two years in the editing room — that she was, for the first time, able “to really go all the way and experiment the way I wanted to.”

The experiment included shooting a tremendous amount of footage. “On Capernaum, we shot 500 hours,” Labaki noted. “The first cut of the film was 12 hours long. I had to go from 12 to 2, which was very painful.”

But having enjoyed true creative freedom with Capernaum and seen the results and international success come with it, Labaki is reluctant to give it up. She acknowledged the challenges of working in Lebanon, “a country where it is very difficult to express yourself, especially in regards to political positions.” She also expressed concerns about self-censorship, “which becomes a part of your nature [where] you know what you can say and how you can say it in a way that is accepted…but up till now, it’s worked. I have managed to say what I want in the way I’ve wanted to say it.”

Her responsibility as a filmmaker, Labaki said, is as a catalyst for social change. “This is the responsibility of this art, of this tool, to really shake you to the core and make you want to change things,” she said, noting she hoped her films would ignite “a call for action.”

While she acknowledged it is often too much to expect cinema to change the world — “when you finish a film, you realize how small you are in the immensity of the problems we are talking about” — Labaki argued socially conscious cinema done right, with respect and care for the humanity of the actual people at the center of the events, can “change your perspective, or create a debate, or change something in you as a viewer.”

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