Following on the heels of the commercially successful Caramel (2007), a film about the lives and loves of five women in a Beirut beauty parlour, director Nadine Labaki’s second feature is an attempt to tackle the more serious issue of sectarian violence in Lebanon.
Where Do We Go Now? – on general release in European markets and the US – is set in an unnamed Lebanese village populated by a peaceful community of Muslims and Christians. Tucked away in the mountains, villagers have no access to television until a spot is located on a nearby plain where reception can be found and the community congregate for evenings of food, drink and soap operas.
However, a news broadcast informs villagers of sectarian violence in another part of the country. Suspicions are raised, and the once peaceful village becomes divided on religious lines. Labaki’s film follows the women of the village, as they try to prevent violence between their husbands and sons, using every comic ruse they can – from feigning miracles in church to inviting a group of Russian belly-dancers to take the men’s minds off fighting.
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“I found out that I was expecting a baby on May 7, 2008. On that day, Beirut once again slipped into war mode, with road blocks, the airport closed, fires and so on,” said Labaki. “I said to myself, if I had a son, what would I do to prevent him from picking up a gun and going into the street? How far would I go to stop my child from going to see what’s happening outside and thinking he had to defend his building, his family or his beliefs? The idea for the film grew out of that.”
Although occasionally clumsy in the way it conflates comedy and drama, Where Do We Go Now? follows in the vein of Jocelyne Saab’s Suspended Life, released in 1985 at the height of the Lebanese Civil War. Both films deal with how women confront sectarian conflict, but whereas Saab produced a work that was heavy on metaphor and light on narrative, playing to an audience of film critics at Cannes, Labaki’s film is directed towards more down-to-earth audiences in the Middle East which made it become Lebanon’s highest grossing Arabic language film ever. It has also performed well internationally, winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The film is strongest in its depiction of memorable female characters, and as with Caramel, some of the wittiest and most emotive dialogue takes place not in moments of drama, but in those often overlooked moments in between as women go about their daily chores. Through strong, likeable female characters, Labaki explores sensitive topics; her first film touched on lesbianism and extra-marital sex, while this work pokes gentle fun at religion and ritual.
But we find that behind the film’s lush production values, the message is hazy and opts for romanticism, and the use of a nameless village in an undefined period allows the story to avoid any of the really difficult questions posed by the violence either in 2008 or now that the Syrian conflict has spilt into Lebanon. And how about the women who silently buried the crimes of their husbands and sons in the Lebanese Civil War? Now that would be an interesting story to tell...