"I certainly didn't make it for the hell of it." Electra meets Oscar nominated director Nadine Labaki
Amidst the annual frustrated disappointment that yet again, women were lacking in the Oscar directing and writing categories, there she was - Nadine Labaki, up for a Best Foreign Language Oscar for Capernaum, which started its journey with a 15 minute standing ovation at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and left many of us in the audience weeping.
Nadine, a Lebanese actress and director who debuted her first film Caramel more than a decade ago, is getting her due finally. When I meet her, she’s in between London and LA, hopping backwards and forward for the Globes, the BAFTAs, and then finally the Oscars this weekend. The film, she says, “has done everything. I don’t care about the money, it’s about the hard work and ending up with a piece of art.”
“It’s a huge thing,” she adds, “but I’m even more happy about the Oscar nomination because of the subject of the film. It needs the spotlight to make the invisible that we are trying to talk about visible.”
The invisible is child deprivation in Lebanon where Nadine lives: Capernaum recounts the journey of 12-year-old Zain, who decides to sue his parents for having brought him into this world when they can’t raise him properly, even if only to give him love. Zain flees the family home and this brings him into contact with an Ethiopian illegal immigrant and her baby son, who, if there were Oscar prizes for Best Baby Performance, would be cleaning up.
My husband put the house up on mortgage without telling me at the start to finance this.
“I hope it bring a change,” the director says now. “I certainly didn’t make it for the hell of it.”
‘Hell’ might be an appropriate word for the project itself, which took a few years and was produced by her husband Khaled, “who’s never produced anything in his life,” she recounts. “He’s an artist and a composer. He put the house up on mortgage without telling me at the start to finance this. We ended up doing it without any help beyond that of a few friends who believed in us.”
She was already mulling over an idea on the mistreatment of children and illegal immigrants – the idea that only a piece of paper can tell you who you are – when she saw an image that would bring all her blurry themes into focus:
“Coming home from a party at around 1 a.m., I stopped at a traffic light and saw, just below my window, a child half-asleep in the arms of his mother, who was sitting on the tarmac, begging. What hit me hardest was the fact that this two-year-old wasn’t crying; he seemed to want nothing more than to sleep. The image of his eyes closing wouldn’t leave me; when I got home I had to do something with it.”
Shooting took six months and the first cut ran into many hours of footage, slowly edited down. Six months is unheard of for an independent film shoot; the reason was because the couple street cast their children, who all had very similar lives to the one she depicts in the film. Zain Al Rafeea, who takes on the main role, was a Syrian-born refugee living in Beirut, along with hundreds of thousands of others who had fled the conflict.
“We had a very strong script as a starting point and a landing point. The rest was totally up in the air, which in many ways is an advantage, as we could roll with whatever came along. The only downside about street casting was it takes so much longer to get a take than with a professional actor. But I was adamant we had to do it with them, not professionals. The first take is usually terrible, and you think, “what am I doing?” You can’t say “action” and expect it to happen immediately. But when you know your material, ultimately you’re going to be ok. “
You have this gut feeling that you may be on the right path, and it’s saying, it will be okay.
Labaki is surprisingly anxious, she admits, for someone so articulate and confident; the prize she got at Cannes and now her awards season tour, she says, “make you feel so much more confident. Your peers are recognising your work and sometimes when you do it, you doubt yourself so much. OK, you have this gut feeling that you may be on the right path, and it’s saying, it will be okay – but this recognition calms you down.”
Her home country of Lebanon is definitely not calm about her Oscar chances ( even though realistically it’s going to be beaten by Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma in the Foreign Language category) as it’s the second time in two years that they’ve had an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language category.
“It’s a matter of national pride, “she says fondly. “We are putting Lebanon on the map for something different from war and turmoil and conflict. It’s a different thing, it’s a big achievement. And you know, I don’t feel it as a victory because I am a woman director - I never felt this - but it’s a victory for the way we made this film.”
When this happens to your film, it feels like you can do anything. Anything at all.
Her biggest victory of all may yet be still to come. Already the real Zain is now resettled with his family in Norway, “and when we got the Oscar news, I called him, and it turned out he was watching the nominations with all his friends and his teacher in school. It’s such a change of destiny,” she recounts jubilantly.
But she wants to cause change in the lives of many other children where she lives.” I am talking about starting a conversation in Lebanon about it. My aim is to start working with the government to make a change, work with these agencies, organise round tables for discussions and really sit down and talk.
“That’s the thing now,” she adds. “When this happens to your film, it feels like you can do anything. Anything at all.”
Capernaum by Nadine Labaki is released in UK cinemas on Friday February 22, 2019