Celebrating Women: Nadine Labaki on al empire

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we’re bringing back our interview with Lebanese director Nadine Labaki on Al Empire, another Kerning Cultures Network show.

Nadine chats with us about how her love for film began, the years of preparation and work for her 2018 film Capernaum, and her journey to becoming the first Lebanese woman in history to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Note: This episode mistakenly claims that Nadine was the first Arab woman to be nominated for an Academy Award. That distinction goes to Jehane Noujaim, another brilliant director, for her 2013 documentary The Square.

This episode was produced by Dana Ballout and Tamara Rasamny, with editorial support by Hebah Fisher and Alex Atack. Sound design by Mohamad Khreizat and fact-checking by Zeina Dowidar. Original sting composed by Ramzi Bashour. al empire is a Kerning Cultures Network production. Search ‘Kerning Cultures Network’ to hear other podcasts like this one, and follow @kerningcultures on Instagram to stay in touch!

Support this podcast on patreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $2 a month.

Transcript

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DANA: Hey everyone, Dana here. As you might know, today, March 8th, is international women’s day. So we wanted to bring back one of our favorite episodes of our other show, Al Empire. This one features the Lebanese director, Nadine Labaki.

Al Empire tells the stories of exceptional Arabs and their journeys to the top, and we’ve interviewed lots of other amazing people for the show; people like Dina Shihabi, Bassem Youssef and Hatoon Kadi. You’ll find the show wherever you’re listening to this podcast, just search A-L space E-M-P-I-R-E. 

And, a quick note before we start. In the episode we incorrectly refer to Nadine as the first Arab woman to be nominated for an Academy Award. That is actually not true. She’s the first Arab woman to be nominated for an Academy Award in the category of foreign film. The first woman to be nominated for an academy award is Jehane Noujaim, for her film The Square. The Square took place in Egypt and told the story of the country’s uprising during the Arab Spring. So, we’re sorry about that mistake, and here’s the episode. 

[AL EMPIRE INTRO STING]

HEBAH: Today we’re featuring an award-winning Lebanese director, who last year became the first female Arab director to be nominated for an Academy Award. Which is also an Oscar, right, Dana? That’s what you taught me two seconds ago… They’re the same thing (yup) (laughs)

Dana, What was it like speaking with Nadine?

DANA: I find her to be so kind and generous with her time and then also her thoughts, so it was kind of a relief for me, because sometimes when you meet people that have become so famous, you expect that they might have developed an ego, but I actually didn’t feel that from her though.

I was in Los Angeles, and our producer Tamara Rasamny in Beirut met her at Mooz films studio and when we got into the room, she was ordering a birthday cake for her sister, which I thought was so sweet and very much something that I would do as well.

DANA: Yalla, you ready?

NADINE: I’m ready.

DANA: Okay great. So actually the first thing I want to start with is I want to play you a clip from an interview you did 12 years ago.

DAVID FROST: In time of the future, you are visiting film festivals around the world, and you’re on the list for what, possibly in consideration for the foreign Oscar next year, you’re on the first list, the London contenders list, that would be incredible if you could pull off one of these things, wouldn’t it?

NADINE: Yeah, but I don’t even dare to dream of it, because you know it’s a very big thing, and I’m scared, you know, of the disappointment, so I just say to myself no you are not gonna get nominated it’s very hard and it’s not easy, so I don’t even dare to dream of it. If it happens, it would be a great thing for me for my country, especially now in this very, you know, tense period for lebanon.. The political tensions really you know.. very…

DANA: So Nadine, that was 12 years ago (laughs). How do you feel when you hear yourself saying that an Oscar nomination would be a dream that you don’t even dare to dream?

NADINE: I feel the same, actually, I feel the same even though we go It, we got… we were finally nominated for an Oscar bass it says if it was now as if it I’m still the same I’m still in the same mindset. 

DANA: Why?

NADINE: I don’t know, I don’t know maybe because we come from a very small country. I used to personally hear a lot when I was a child at school. You know, every geography class used to start with the teacher telling us you see this invisible dot on the map, this is Lebanon. This is where you come from. So I don’t know why maybe we I’ve always felt invisible in that sense because I come from a very small dot on the map and you, you grew up thinking or feeling that every dream seems like an impossible dream.

DANA: Our guest today is Nadine Labaki. Nadine is an award-winning Lebanese director, screenwriter, and actress. She’s been a household name in the Arab world for her beautiful films like Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?” (Halla La Wen). The films tore down stereotypes around the Arab world, around women while still taking on issues like religion, war and sexuality. But today, Nadine is most known across the world for her film Capernaum, which she directed. The film was nominated for an Academy award, making her the first Arab female director to be nominated for an Oscar. I can’t tell you how much of a pleasure and honor it was for me to interview her. I hope you enjoy this. 

NADINE: I think that when you grow up during the war, first of all, I think this sense of injustice, this sense of not being able to live your childhood, or to be a normal child raises lots of questions in your heads and you start wanting to change the world. You start wanting to change the reality that you live in, because you know, there’s something wrong. You know, when you know when you lose friends, or when you lose neighbors, or when you lose cousins, you start asking questions, and I think those questions also make you in a way want to change this reality you want. It makes you rebel against that reality. And maybe it’s the sense of rebellion also that made me want to make films. And I was very lucky because I used to live right you know, above, we had a, there was a small shop that used to rent videotapes.

So I we used to spend a lot of time watching films and renting the same films over and over again, my sister and I, and we used to, I mean, for me having the power on in the house meant being able to watch TV or watch a film, it was like the highlight of our day. Because obviously, you know, most of the time there was no electricity. So when we had electricity for us it meant being able to watch a film or being able to watch TV. 

DANA: What were your favorite films to watch with your sister?

NADINE: Definitely Grease was one of them. I must have watched this film I don’t know thousands and thousands of times until that videotape was completely, you know,ruined or damaged and those films like Les Sous-doués, It was a French, very funny film. We used to watch Annie a lot.Annie, the musical, you know the cartoons like Snow white or Cinderella. I remember at some point, you know, when I was a little bit older Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was one of my favorite ones. 

And so I started wanting to create this different reality that has nothing to do with my own reality. So I decided very early, this is what I want to do in life. I want to make films, I want to change my reality.

DANA: When you told your parents, like I wanted to be a filmmaker and you knew very early on clearly, what was your parents reaction to you expressing this dream that you had?

NADINE: My parents were very, very supportive, especially my father. My grandfather used to have a small, very humble theater, cinema theater in my village in Baabdat.  I didn’t see this theater because it was destroyed before I was born, but my father used to tell me how much he used to love going there and spending time in the screening room, and he used to describe even the smell of the film rolls to me. He wanted to be a filmmaker, he was dreaming of becoming a filmmaker. He, you know, the first salary that he got, he went and he bought a camera, because he was also in love with pictures, with taking pictures and making films, but unfortunately, he wasn’t able to do that, also in the fact that I was also in a way making his dream come true or I don’t know how, but he was, you know, the first one to support us, my sister and I, because we both are filmmakers and we both dreamt of becoming filmmakers.

And… and so it was – there was no objection whatsoever even though it was like an impossible dream because when we started, when I started going to, you know, film school in Lebanon, there was no films being shot, there was nothing. It was right after the war and there was nothing, It was almost, you know, doing something that I will never end up being able to, you know, to do later on in life, but I used to tell my father you will see one day I will make a film and I will go to Cannes (laughs) I don’t know why I used to say that. 

DANA: If your father or mother were to describe you as a child, what would they say?

NADINE: I don’t know how they would describe me but I remember that I was uh very shy and very quiet child. but then later on I remember, you know, I remember the teachers in my school telling me to smile. Why don’t you smile? I didn’t – I don’t think I was hard for my parents to raise. I was – but then I think this rebellion started at some point. 

DANA: What happened during those times?

NADINE: I used to live a very quiet, very social, very you know normal life – I was doing what everybody else was doing.

But then there was a point where I–  it was very, very clear to me that moment, I was having dinner with the same friends with the same people I used to know for the past, I don’t know five years, and we used to hang out together, go out together, do the same things. And I remember very well, that moment where the conversation started becoming like a humming in my head. And I was thinking, I… this is not my place. I have something else to do somewhere else. Why am I here? Why am I sitting here with these people I have nothing to do with, I’m not even interested in the conversation.

I think I was bored for a very long time. But I understood that I was bored at that specific moment. And then I changed everything. I really changed everything. I just started living a different life, I started developing or trying to understand how far I can go in expressing myself. How I can use this tool – which is femininity, because at that point I was exploring the female image through whatever I was doing, whether a music video or anything, it was my way of experimenting and understanding how far I can go.

DANA: I wanted to talk about this image of the woman and how you came to focus on that throughout your many films. 

NADINE: I’ve always had problems with expressing my femininity, you know, or being ashamed of my femininity of my sensuality, you know,  I’ve always wanted to explore that or maybe create women that are not like that or women that I would want to be. And one thing I felt was in common is that contradiction between who they want to be in life or who they aspire to be in life, and what they end up being in life; because of the pressure of society, because of the pressure of the family, because of the pressure of this, you know, pointed finger at you, saying, you know, you should do that you shouldn’t do that – 3ayb, this word 3ayb, enno it’s shameful, it’s shameful to do this or that. So you start self censoring yourself in a way. And I wanted to, I wanted to explore and understand why.

DANA: In 2007 Nadine’s first feature film titled Caramel fulfilled a promise that she had made her father very early on, that she would premiere at the Cannes film festival. The film Caramel featured the lives of five Lebanese women navigating issues like forbidden love, conservative tradition, repressed sexuality, aging and lust. I personally loved the film because for the first time, I saw two things: first, conversations that I was having with my own girlfriends and that I had overhead among other women be depicted on a big screen, and second, it was the first time that I saw  portrayal of Lebanon outside the context of war and violence.

NADINE: So we ended up writing this film about those women that work in a beauty institute and that, you know, talk about life talk about things and, and I wanted to also understand the sadness that I see in almost every woman around me. There’s something in their eyes, I don’t know if it’s related to war, I’m not talking about the new generation, I’m talking about my generation and my mother’s generation and my grandmother’s generation. I don’t know if it’s something related to the fact that they didn’t, most of them didn’t really achieve something that they are proud of, except, of course, achieving a family life or having a family or having children. But most of these women did not get the chance to achieve what they wanted to achieve in life or to be who they wanted to be; And so there is the sadness, in every woman I know. 

DANA: Nadine would later revisit the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 for her film Capernaum. The story centers around a young boy named Zain, a street kid who flees his parents and somehow finds himself taking care of an Ethiopian worker Rahil and her baby son, Yonas. As Zain’s life events unravel, he finds himself in a courtroom suing his parents for giving him birth. The entire cast of Capernaum are non-actors, largely playing out experiences from their own lives.

In addition to the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year, it picked up dozens of awards at other international festivals. It landed a Golden Globe nomination for foreign language film and was of course nominated for an Oscar in that same category. It was an extraordinary moment for Arab film.

DANA: Another thing I know that you have cared deeply about is the topic of children and refugee rights. Why did this mean so much to you?

NADINE: I think there’s nothing more important than this. For me, this is the most – This is where you start. If you want to change something or making this world a better place, this is where you start. You start by giving children their rights, giving children – before anything else – love. For me an unloved childhood is really this source of lots of violence and aggressiveness and hate.

and living in Lebanon unfortunately, this is something that you encounter every single day of your life. You know, wherever you’re going, whatever you’re doing. You see children around you, either working or begging or, you know, children in very, very difficult circumstances, sleeping on the sidewalks hungry, cold, walking barefoot being beaten up. Unfortunately, we are adapting – we live with it. 

So we have to we have to really wake up to this reality that there’s, you know, generations of children that are going to be very angry. They’re going to grow up very angry, they’re going to be – they’re taking ticking bombs, unfortunately.

I don’t know if I will be able to change anything for these children. But the film, I mean, Capernaum, created at least it created the debate whether people liked the film or don’t like the film, that’s a different story, but it created a debate. And the debate is the first step for, you know, to start some kind of change. And my duty is to keep going, you know, we have to work on laws, we have to work on lobbying. We have to work on so many things to be able to truly change something, and that’s what I need to do.

For me, the film was very important– was a very important because it also allowed me to understand the problem so much more because there was so much research before the film. I was very judgmental obviously before starting the research, you tend to you know come up with theories, and then when you go on the ground and when you see the reality of things, it really I mean changes, and shakes you, it shakes everything within you, and you start seeing things in a different perspective. 

And the research process that I’ve learned now, when I’m working, has really changed me.

And that’s what I did in Capernaum. I mean, it took so much research, we researched for like three years. I used to spend hours in the courthouse just– just going there and randomly going into, you know, a court and just sitting down for hours and understanding and seeing how the justice system works. Sitting with people, talking to people, talking to social workers, talking to lawyers to judges, to try to tackle the problem from all the angles, so many different angles.

DANA: I don’t think a lot of people know how much research you did and how many years you shot, you know just preparing for this film. I saw that it was 600 hours of footage and your first take was like 12-14 hours.

NADINE: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, my first edit was 12 hours. Yes. And like 500 hours of rushes, yes. Six months of shooting two years of editing three years of research before. It was a very, very long process. Yes.

DANA: How did you find your actors, tell us more about that process. 

NADINE: I knew that it was very important that I don’t work with professional actors, or with actors, I felt again, I was not – I could not ask somebody to act, the situation I was talking about. It needed to come from somebody who’s living that situation.

I wanted to move away as much as I could from the make belief world. So I decided to work with people who are from that same experience, who are going through the same thing in their real life and invite them also to collaborate in the process. 

And so when we started looking for the actors, I knew that we were going to be working with people who are coming from that same experience. So my casting crew used to go everywhere and you know, look everywhere. And my casting director was really amazing also, and she… she found Zane on the street also, he was playing next to his house with his friends. And so she saw him and she interviewed him and you know, as soon as she saw him, I think she understood that we had something special. 

DANA: Was it difficult to direct non-actors? Like what approach did you take?

NADINE: It was very difficult, yes, you know, that’s why we decided to shoot for so long. We shot for six months and of course, the first take is always very, very bad. And you always wonder what you’re doing. And if this is going to work, or if you made the right decision, and you start doubting everything, but then take after take after take after take after, I don’t know 14, 15, 20, 40 takes, it starts becoming their story too. This is how, you know, the collaborative process works, you know, because take after take it starts becoming their story and they start being even more involved and even giving or telling their own story more and understanding why we’re doing what they’re doing and it becomes at the end the scene becomes really theirs, as if it was a scene from their own life. 

And, you know, if Zane decides to, to, let’s say, run around the block for an hour, we have to follow him in whatever he’s doing. Because there is something there that life is giving us and we need to really grab.

It was it was always like that. I mean it was a very intense and very organic process.

DANA: When we left off, Nadine was telling us about what it was like filming Capernaum.  

DANA: How was it for you I mean it’s a very intense process to be filming for 6 months, how was it for you as a mom already of one child and then you’re breastfeeding another child. Your editing room I heard is on the 1st floor and you’re living on the 3rd floor and I’m sure you had a bunch of people from your crew and your cast around you all the time. How did you manage that? As a mother, as a wife, as a director, as a professional woman and also on top of it on a country with a bunch of layers of tension, whether we like it or not, is constantly in a state of tension how did you manage that?

NADINE: I used to go home every day at lunchtime. You know, I was – okay, wake up very early in the morning, breastfeed my daughter, go to work, shoot until one o’clock, at one o’clock we used to break for lunch. I used to come back, sleep in the car, have my small nap in the car, come home, breastfeed my daughter, have this, you know, off time with her. It was like a meditation time for me. And it also allowed me to, you know, process whatever I was shooting that day and understand what needs to be done. It was my me time in a way, even though it sounds crazy. It was my me time. And then I used to go back, sleep again in the car, have a small nap for like 15 minutes and then get to work and be very not tired. It was on the contrary – sometimes even my assistant… because of I don’t know…  some kind of problem on the set, sometimes I used to not go back home because we were late or something so he used to push me to go home because I was a different person when I came back I was more calm. So sometimes he would go like go go go khalas we’ll fix it. Go, go go feed your daughter and come back I don’t want you on the set now.  

DANA: Why do you stay in Beirut and is this kind of the freedom of chaos, is that the reason why you also stay when you probably have a choice to live anywhere you want in the world?

NADINE: I think it doesn’t even cross our minds, Khaled and I, to leave Lebanon. You know, unless we are in a situation where you know it’s impossible to live here or our life is threatened. We will not leave. I don’t know, I feel it like a mission. I mean, this is where my inspiration is. This is where I feel I’m the most efficient and inspired. This is where I feel I can make a change. I feel like it’s my responsibility to stay. I don’t even have a choice….  but but you feel you feel like change is possible…and I feel it’s my duty to stay, especially now. And I’m very hopeful, you know, I’m very hopeful with everything that’s going on with the revolution, I feel that we have won already – the revolution that is is happening within each and every one of us, the potential that has unraveled and those discussions, the amazing discussions that we that you know is happening in each and every house in Lebanon right now, in each and every apartment. There’s a bunch of people sitting down together, thinking of a different Lebanon, dreaming of a new Lebanon – conspiring for a new Lebanon. And this for me is already a big win.  

DANA: Nadine, how has your life changed after being the first Arab woman to ever be nominated in the Oscar category of a foreign film, you’ve received so much attention, Oprah loves you and loves the film, I mean like every – how has your life changed since?

NADINE: It hasn’t changed a bit (laughs) I’m back in my – the same apartment, same building, same neighborhood, same life, same bubble. The only way it changed is of course, of course you get this recognition and you start being approached by so many people and so many important actors and producers and they recognize your work. And, and you receive lots of love from people here in Lebanon, this there’s a lot of love and there’s a lot of hate too, bass there’s more love than hate. But I don’t see my life changing – I mean I didn’t change my life there’s nothing changed really apart from the fact that you know, you have this recognition from people in the industry that you know recognize you as their fellow filmmaker, I’m part of the family now. I’m not anymore this small Lebanese director that is starting and doesn’t know where she’s going and, you know, I’m recognized as a filmmaker. That’s it. 

DANA: What’s been some of the hate that you’ve received? When you say hate, what has been some of the criticism. Like what kind of hate? 

NADINE: Um, you know, there’s lots of criticism regarding the film regarding the intention of the film regarding the fact that I don’t belong to this world and I talk about this world. Some people of course, don’t like the film. Even now with everything, hopeful that is going on, there’s also you know, this wave of criticism that sometimes paralyzes you. You know, I’m not shielded. I’m not somebody who doesn’t care what other people think, or what other people –  how other people see my work. It does get to me, it does hurt me sometimes when the criticism is too harsh or when they start criticizing me personally, not only the work. Some people think that, I don’t know, that I’m not entitled to be talking about this issue because I haven’t personally lived it as if they’re saying, you know, somebody who’s not lived it cannot feel for this problem and we cannot feel for those children.

DANA: What do you do in your hardest times in life, who have you turned to the most? 

NADINE: I have a very small circle of friends and family and it’s really them that I really rely on. Especially, you know, my biggest support is my husband, he’s really my partner, he’s really my collaborator in everything. Especially, you know, in this last film he was my producer on this film. We decided to produce it ourselves because we knew that we needed that freedom. Nobody was going to go into that crazy adventure with us not knowing what we will, you know, how much time it’s gonna take, he put our house on mortgage and, and without telling me, it was really difficult financially, for a while, until we found the right investors and the right producers and all that. And you know, I think he’s really really talented. Not because he’s my husband, but I really think he’s talented. So I rely on him on so many things.

DANA: I wanted to ask how your reaction was when you found out your husband Khalid had mortgaged the house without telling you. 

NADINE: I thought he was crazy, of course. I thought he was crazy but at the same time I had this faith during the whole process that nothing is gonna – nothing bad is going to happen. No matter how big the risk is. You know, even my actors were arrested. You know Raheel, was arrested during the film, the father and mother of Treasure, the small girl, Yonas in the film, got arrested. And I had the faith that nothing was going to stop us, that we were going to be able to get them out that we were going to be able to, you know, that this film was going to happen, because it needed to happen and, and, even though I thought he was crazy, I was not scared. I was confident. You know, sometimes we even, you know, have to think twice big for going to the supermarket (laughs). We were not able to pay my son’s tuition for a few months. And still, I was confident I don’t know… I had faith. I had faith that this film had to be, had to exist.

Even, you know, when I saw Zane, you know he came to my office the first time, and as soon as I see him, I knew in my –  I don’t know, I had this faith that this kid is going to have a different destiny. He cannot– it’s impossible for this child to be destined to the street. It’s impossible that Zane’s future is on the streets. And now he’s you know, he’s in Norway he’s learning, he’s going to school finally, when we… when I met him… he didn’t know, even know how to write his own name. And now, he just finished shooting a film with Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek, it’s called The Eternals. It’s a Marvel film. And it’s a beautiful story, but it’s not as beautiful with everyone. You know, one of the other girls in the film is now back on the streets because her parents wouldn’t allow her to go to school even though we were helping them financially and everything, they didn’t want to, they… they pulled her out of the school and put her back on the streets. So it’s not easy, it’s not easy… it’s not always a happy ending for everyone, but it’s like that, you know, we win some battles we do some battles and it’s like that.

DANA: Yeah… I want to ask you, what legacy do you want to leave?

NADINE: Ah, what legacy? (laughs) I don’t know. She was not that bad. (laughs). Or something like that. She did okay. She was okay. (laughs)

DANA: She smiled. She ended up smiling in the end. (laughs)

NADINE: She ended up smiling. I don’t know. Yeah.

DANA: Can I ask you – I struggle a lot with coming back to Lebanon. I was raised there and I’m in LA now trying to do documentary and I wonder a lot whether I should come back or not. And sometimes when I talk to you and people like you I think, I don’t know what I’m doing in LA. Do you think I should come back?

NADINE: I think so yeah. (laughs) I mean, in my heart deep down in my heart I think yes but of course it’s a huge also responsibility to say that with the situation now in Lebanon, I mean there’s so much to give to this country, there’s so much you can do so much you can change – your voice has a different resonation here than somewhere else in the world. Um I don’t know, I think there’s so much to do here, so much to change. I mean if all the people with potential leave this country, I don’t know what’s left. So deep down, I think you should come back but I mean, I can’t really say it because it’s a big responsibility, especially now with the situation… Yeah.

DANA: Thank you so much. I appreciate this. And I’m so so proud that you come from the country where I come from. So thank you anjad for existing.

NADINE: No, thank you thank you and yes please do call me or come visit if you come to Beirut. (laughs) I enjoyed our chat too very much.

HEBAH: This episode was produced by Tamara Rasamny, Alex Atack, Dana Ballout, and myself, Hebah Fisher. Sound Design by Alex Atack and mixing by Mohamad Khreizat, // Sound design and mixing by Mohamd Khreizat, and fact-checking by Zeina Dowidar. Our original sting was composed by Ramzi Bashour, and Al Empire is produced by the Kerning Cultures Network. If you’re liking Al Empire, please subscribe to the show so you’ll never miss an episode. Also leave a rating and review on whatever podcast app you’re listening to us from. It really helps boost our rankings, so that other listeners can find out about us in the podcast libraries.

 Thanks for listening.

***Dana sneezes

I don’t have Corona I swear..

HEBAH: That’s the cutest sneeze…. (laughs)