Everything you need to know about Nadine Labaki’s Journey

The first female Lebanese director to be nominated for an Oscar is changing the Arab narrative

Director and Actress Nadine Labaki on the set of her 2011 film Where Do We Go Now?

By Ayesha Ifteqar and Staff Writer

Culture 5 February 2019

If we were Nadine Labaki we’d be on quite a high right now. The Lebanese director’s latest film, Capharnaumhas been nominated for a Golden Globe, a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTAS) award and an Academy Award. This makes Nadine the first Arab female filmmaker to have been nominated for an Oscar.

Let’s be clear. Nadine has already made history. But if she wins the Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category by beating Roma by Alfonso Cuaron, which is a popular choice by many, she’ll be exposed to a whole new audience in a larger scale in the West.

For those of you who know, Capernaum isn’t Nadine’s first foray into film making as a director. Nadine has been creating stories on the screen since the early 2000s which have since become groundbreaking films in the Arab world and also turning her into a household name.

Here’s Nadine Labaki’s backstory on her influences, art and  how her perspective is helping to change the Arab narrative.

Early Influences

Nadine was born in 1974, in Baabdat, Lebanon. At that time the country was in a state of civil war, which eventually came to an end in 1991 when she was seventeen. As a result of having grown up in and through conflict, Nadine’s films largely revolve around politics in the Arab and Western worlds, giving intimate portraits of characters and the human condition.

Career Beginnings

Nadine’s career began when she was a contestant on TV talent show Studio El Fanin 1990 where she won a prize on the show for directing various music videos. She then went on to graduate in audiovisual studies from the Saint Joseph University of Beirut. In 1997, she directed 11 Rue Pasteur as part of her degree, which won the Best Short Film Award at the Biennale of Arab Cinema at the Arab World Institute of Paris. Nadine is different from her Arab filmmaker counterparts in that she was trained locally, in Lebanon. However, after receiving success as a filmmaker and actor she went on to trained as an actor in France.

Body of work

Nadine Labaki in the film Stray Bullet directed by Georges Hachem.

Nadine began working as an actor in the early 2000s. She has appeared in various films, some of which she directed herself. She has appeared in Georges Hachem’s Stray Bullet and Laila Marrakchi’s Rock the Casbah. In 2003, she started directing Nancy Ajram’s music videos. The video for Ajram’s  Akhasmak Ah was hugely popular and gained Nadine a large fan base for its cinematic techniques while also getting criticism for its explicit content.

In 2005 Nadine participated in the Cannes Film Festival Residence for six months. During that time she wrote her first feature film Caramel. In the film, Nadine chose to portray a side of Lebanon not generally seen in mainstream media: the lives of everyday Lebanese women. Nadine also starred in the film. Caramel was received awards at various film festivals, and put Labaki in the spotlight as an actor and director to watch out for.

In 2011, Labaki’s second feature film Where Do We Go Now? premiered at Cannes. The film took a humorous approach at dealing with religious disparity. It won the glamorous Cadillac People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and received awards at numerous festivals including the San Sebastian International Film Festival and the Stockholm Film Festival. The film was also nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Critics’ Choice Awards in Los Angeles .

Capernaum follows the story of streetwise 12-year-old Lebanese boy who sues his negligent parents in protest of the life they have given him, which forced him in turn to follow a life of crime in order to survive.

The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on 17thMay 2018, where it won the Jury Prize and received a standing ovation for its poignant depiction of the lives of refugee children.

Mainstream Attention

Can you really ask for more if you get the Oprah seal of approval? Oprah Winfrey has praised Capernaum in a tweet with director Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time) replying to the tweet with:

In 2008 she was awarded the Insignia of Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. Given her broad mainstream recognition over the last decade – can we expect to see Nadine direct a massive blockbuster anytime soon? Perhaps, but Nadine has reiterated that despite it being “tempting” she doesn’t think she’ll be doing a Marvel movie as “it’s just not my thing. but if I see a script that I related to, that fits in with the way I see the world, then why not? It all just depends on the script and what life is going to bring.”

Film and Politics

Nadine Labaki on the set of Capharnaum directing the star of the film Zain Al Rafeea.

What makes Nadine and her work admirable is her passion for depicting real stories from the Arab world. She is one of a select few who are reclaiming the narrative on how Arabs are portrayed in the media. Where mainstream media focuses on conflict in the Arab world, Nadine’s work revolves around the everyday lives of Arabs and politics in the Arab world.

Nadine’s drive to ensure minority voices are heard resulted in her being a political candidate for the Beirut Madinati movement, which focused on social justice and wider representation of the community. Despite having won 40% of the popular vote, the movement lost. Nevertheless, Nadine continues to amplify unconventional yet relevant voices through her films.

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