“I feel so aware of my responsibility as a human being in this world. I know I can make a change. I’d rather turn my anger into something positive. The first step is creating a revolution within you; a rebellion against what we are living. I don’t think we should adapt anymore.” – Nadine Labaki
Nadine Labaki – prominent Lebanese filmmaker, actress, and humanitarian – is the personification of a woman whose drive and passion make change happen.
Nadine Labaki – prominent Lebanese filmmaker, actress, and humanitarian – is the personification of a woman whose drive and passion make change happen. Today, Labaki is one of the most consequential public figures in Lebanon not only because of her artistic achievements in film, where she has been shining a spotlight on various social and economic issues in Lebanon, but also because of her persistent political activism.
As Lebanon remains mired in political and economic crises after widespread anti-government protests broke out last October, Labaki has been an engaged and active participant in the demonstrations. She also has used her stardom to lobby Lebanese expatriates to help their native country.
Labaki even tried to enter politics as a candidate of a new political movement focused on social justice issues called Beirut Madinati in the 2016 local elections. However, the movement lost to its opponent, the Beirutis’ List, which was backed by Saad Hariri, former Lebanese prime minister.
Above all, Labaki is an artist before being a politician, a one-of-a-kind artist, whose genius transcends Lebanon and leaves hardly anyone indifferent to her poignant point of view. She derives that power from her own life experience.
A one-of-a-kind artist, Labaki’s genius transcends Lebanon and leaves hardly anyone indifferent to her poignant point of view.
Born a year before the 15-year-long Lebanese civil war, Labaki grew up being surrounded by war, poverty, hunger, and suffering. She spent most of her childhood living in shelters protected by sandbags. Not allowed to play outside for fear of being killed, the future for young Labaki seemed like a faraway dream as even surviving one more day was uncertain.
Perhaps one of the brightest spots of her childhood was escaping her harsh reality through cinema, which eventually ended up defining her adult life. Living on top of a store that rented VHS tapes, she and her sister (also a filmmaker) repeatedly watched the same movies and TV shows when the electricity was on. When she told her father that she wanted to become a filmmaker, he laughed at her and pointed out that Lebanon did not have a film industry.
With a degree in audiovisual studies at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, and post-war experience in producing music videos for a popular Lebanese talent show while acting in short films, Labaki made her directorial debut by making bold, and at times controversial, music videos for popular Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram. Labaki’s first cinematic success came after her first feature movie “Caramel” was released in 2007 and won numerous international prizes.
While her subsequent movies enjoyed acclaim and awards in prestigious film festivals, her 2018 feature film “Capernaum“ propelled Labaki into international stardom after it won the 2018 Cannes Jury Prize and was nominated for an Oscar in the foreign-language category. She is the first Arab woman filmmaker ever to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.
The recognition was well deserved. With “Capernaum,” Labaki created perhaps one of the greatest masterpieces of her time. Indeed, the heartbreaking film, with its astonishing child performances, taps into the viewers’ deepest empathy and sense of helplessness.
The movie tells the story of Zain, a 12-year-old boy who lives in the slums of Beirut and sues his parents for child neglect. The most dramatic part of the story is that it depicts real people’s lives as Zain Al Rafea (his real name) is an actual refugee from Syria. In the movie, Zain befriends Rahil, an undocumented Ethiopian immigrant woman, with her baby Yonas who are also real undocumented immigrants from Africa. None of them are professional actors.
A strong believer in cinema as a vehicle with great social impact, Labaki made sure that “Capernaum” (which means chaos in Arabic), at the very least, forces people to think and empathize with the dispossessed around them.
“I think a film or a poem or a piece of art can be so much more powerful than any political speech because it talks to your emotions as a human being, it talks to your inner vibration so it’s a different level of dialogue,” she said in an October 2019 interview with The National, an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper.
After watching “Capernaum,” it is impossible not to feel an overwhelming sense of compassion and sorrow toward orphaned, homeless, and invisible children and refugees. Labaki’s genius lies in weaving the plight of the weak, the poor, the neglected and forgotten people in Lebanese society into a slice of cinematic art with a powerful political statement. In numerous interviews she insisted that it was her duty to make the film, not the least because the children behind the characters shared similar hardships to the ones she lived through as a child during the Lebanese civil war.
When asked if she would now pursue her career with prominent American actors after the Oscar-nomination for “Capernaum” elevated her status as a filmmaker on the international stage, Labaki replied that whatever she does needs to have a higher purpose: “The next project really needs to be coming from the heart and be faithful to this instinct; this very deep faith in what you do.”
Global stardom has not changed Labaki. She remains grounded, humble, unassuming, and ever so committed to her artistic passion even as she tackles difficult, often taboo, political and social justice issues in Lebanon that others may shy away from. She feels that “Capernaum” is not finished yet and that she still has a duty to do more for street children in Lebanon.
While her films are awe-inspiring masterpieces, the life of a little girl who, against all odds, rose from a war-torn country to become a resilient, strong, compassionate, confident, and influential woman and a world-renowned filmmaker, is the biggest inspiration to girls and women everywhere.