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Going for Gold

Going for Gold

Like in Caramel, Labaki’s power resides in her ability to speak frankly to the audience’s heart, hitting a note that transcends all countries and cultures.

January 18, 2012 3:27 by

On September 18, 2011, Nadine Labaki’s film, Where Do We Go Now? snatched the Cadillac People’s award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Selected according to the audience’s rating of each film on a scale of one to five, it was rather unexpected as a number of Twitter-sphere festival attendees reacted with surprise. “Has anyone seen the Lebanese film Where Do We Go Now?” Rose asked, covering the festival for her website Art Departmental. “I haven’t, and I can’t find one completely positive review,” Tweeted the film fan. Larissa, on the other hand, said she was “blindsided”. “Didn’t see this [film] mentioned as a favorite by anybody.”

To the masses, Labaki comes across as more of an outsider than anything else. Her film’s crowning at one of the world’s most influential film festivals took everyone by surprise, giving the 37-year-old an entirely new direction in her film career as a writer, actress,
and director.

Where Do We Go Now? had its international premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, under the category of “Un Certain Regard”. Labaki had already made headlines at Cannes back in 2007 with Caramel her first feature that turned out to be a global hit in addition to Lebanon’s most famous feature film to date.

Interestingly, after its first projection, Where Do We Go Now? hadn’t garnered the unilateral success of Caramel, which had earned unanimous consensus among the critics. But its Toronto win brought it under the spotlight, this time, as a people’s favorite.

The movie’s plot is fictional. The story takes place in a remote mountain village in Lebanon and counts the tale of the village’s women as they struggle to keep their men – husbands and sons – from taking their arms in sectarian, Muslim-Christian, strife. The feature, that opens as a musical and presents itself as a tale, oscillates between absurdo-comic situations and dramatic moments, leaving the audience wavering between laughter and tears.

Many critics have praised Labaki for her ambition and boldness as she tackles the delicate and controversial topics of conflict and civil rivalry. Like in Caramel, Labaki’s power  resides in her ability to speak frankly to the audience’s heart, hitting a note that transcends all countries and cultures. The sincerity of emotions offsets what some experts in the field may consider a weak script, a fact that might explain her Toronto win against a plethora of front runners such as Alexander Payne’s The Descendants or Michel Hazanavicius The Artist.

Not only is the Cadillac People’s Choice Award worth $15,000, but it has recently proved a pertinent omen for the Oscars. In 2010, winner of the award, The King’s Speech, went on to receive four Oscars, including Best Picture Award, during the 2011 academy, while  2009’s Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire was also the Cadillac People’s Choice Award favorite in 2008.

By conquering the people’s heart with an all-Arabic-language film about war and religions, Labaki has done a tour de force. By winning Toronto’s People Choice Award she has raised everyone’s expectations, starting with her own country’s. It didn’t take long, following its Toronto win, for Where Do We Go Now? to be selected as Lebanon’s official submission in the Best Foreign Language Film Category of the 2012 Academy Awards race. To take place next March, it will compete against motion pictures from 62 other countries.

But the movie’s success doesn’t stop there.

The San Sebastian International Film Festival confirmed that Where Do We Go Now? was on track for a strong international career. If it lost the People Award to France’s The Artist by a mere 32 votes (9,046 votes for Where Do We Go Now?) it still snatched the European Film Award, in addition to a $35,000 reward.

The film also won the hearts of the Scandinavians, winning an award at Norwegian film festival, Films From The South. Speaking after the win, Labaki explained how she dealt with censorship: ‘We found a way to say all of the things we wanted to say and keep everything we wanted in the film without hurting anybody’s feelings.’ She also touched on her awareness and responsibility as an artist, a woman and a mother: ‘We are a part of this world that is not always going right, and it’s not only the responsibility of men. I am aware of that responsibility and I want to try at least to make a change. If I don’t succeed, and more likely I will not succeed as a film does not change the world, at least I’ll have a clear conscious because I tried.’

In England, London Film Festival attendees Tweeting after the screening labeled the Lebanese flick anything from “funny, moving – a total charmer,” to a “Lebanese gem,” with one fan stating the picture’s selection restored her “faith in LFF.”

What’s more, the success has not been limited to festivals. When it hit the big screen in France, it earned $1.3 million in a mere two weeks, and in Lebanon, the Screen Daily website that tracks film success reported it to be the most successful Arabic-language production ever released in the country. The film opened in the UAE, Kuwait, Egypt, Qatar, Oman, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco on November 10.

We will have to wait ‘til January to find out if Where Do We Go Now? has snatched one of the five nominations in the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars. But prospects to date are looking good, and who knows, Labaki and her team might help Lebanon earn its first ever little gold-plated statuette.

By Nathalie Sejean

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