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The new Lebanese film Caramel takes its name from a hair waxing paste used by Lebanese beauticians. Director Nadine Labaki says it's a boiled mixture of sugar, lemon and water.

NADINE LABAKI: "It becomes this delicious paste that you cannot help but eat before starting to work with it, and so it's this image of something that is very sweet and delicious that also at the same time burns and hurts you."

CLIP Woman yells as waxing paste is pulled from her skin.

The sticky, sweet substance also reflects the film's warm amber glow. Nadine Labaki says she wanted to convey a more sensual and feminine side of Lebanon. It's a visual choice that conveys a different image of her country.

NADINE LABAKI: "What you usually think about when you say Lebanon or Beirut is a very grey image of a country at war."

Instead of focusing on men and violent conflict, Labaki serves up a story of women and love. In addition to co-writing and directing, Labaki also plays the owner of a beauty salon. She's surrounded by a group of friends including a colleague planning a wedding; an actress trying to hide her age; and an aging seamstress tempted by a December romance. Labaki says the film presents a different view of contemporary Lebanon, one that's an alternative to Lebanon's depressing headline news.

NADINE LABAKI: "The film is an escape for Lebanese people because it was out when it was a very critical time in Lebanon, a time when there was a lot of political assassination and a lot of bombs in public places."

ALI JAAFAR: "So certainly against that backdrop the fact that she's made a film which avoids dealing with the political situation sort of head on is in itself a political act."

Ali Jaafar covers Middle East film for Variety .

ALI JAAFAR: "What she does is focus on these five women and their lives and tries to tell a social story, and in the backdrop you still get some of the issues whether it's religion or class but again she handles them very subtly."

And with surprising humor. Labaki says humor was a natural choice for her.

NADINE LABAKI: "It has to do with the Lebanese people who always tend to turn everything into humor so they can survive... And I think humor is a good way for me to communicate the things I wanted to say because I didn't want to shock or provoke because I think it creates an obstacle between what you want to say and the people."

Labaki successfully removes such obstacles to make Caramel a universal and accessible film says Variety's Ali Jaafar.

ALI JAAFAR: "I think one of it's strength is that it's not a film that you could label as being from one particular country, that it's a Lebanese or Arab film... gives it an extra uniqueness and an interesting topicality but the fact is that it's a universal film. It's not a film that would be alien to any filmgoers in France in Europe in the UK, and particularly in America."

Labaki makes her film accessible by employing the familiar format of a woman's film but then she makes it richer with her cultural insights. Lebanon gives Caramel its particular flavor.

NADINE LABAKI: "I think it is only the format is something that you might have already seen or that is familiar to you but when you see it in the Lebanese context and in the details of this context it has a different meaning."

When Labaki's salon owner needs to find a hotel room for her romantic tryst with a married man, the familiar situation is made fresh by the fact that many Lebanese hotels require proof that you are married in order to rent the room.

NADINE LABAKI: "You cannot have a hotel room unless you have papers that say you are married or stuff like that that may seem completely ridiculous for other cultures. That's the contradiction of Lebanon. Even though it seems like we are very free we still have issues like virginity before marriage. And authority that is always there like when you see this policeman stopping two people on the street at night just because they are in a car together."

Lebanese women are often perceived as the most liberated in the Arab world but that freedom is not entirely true says Labaki.

NADINE LABAKI: "I am not saying that we are imprisoned or anything but I'm saying this freedom is only apparent, it's not really true. It's sort of a fake freedom. We still have a lot of issues to deal with like the issues I'm talking about in the film."

Mid East correspondent Ali Jaafar says that Labaki deals with the emphasis on appearances and the hypocrisy encountered by these women as they try to navigate the tricky mix of eastern and western values in their culture.

ALI JAAFAR: "So there is that kind of double fa & ccedil;ade which she exposes very nicely so that's something that she handles very successfully. And again she allows the audience to have a glimpse at how women in Lebanon and in the Arab world have to conduct their business, that kind of duplicity but she doesn't make it a kind of overbearing duplicity, it's more a case of kind of daily molehills that they have to overcome in order for them to live their lives the way they want to."

Labaki ends her film on a hopeful note. Playing off of the western notion of a makeover, she has one character cut her traditional long black hair for a fashionable bob. But the new look is more than just a hairstyle change says Nadine Labaki.

NADINE LABAKI: "It is a liberating gesture it's like you are cutting your links with society and everything that scares you and everything that is paralyzing you in life. It's like you are cutting the cord with how people judge you and the weight of tradition and the weight of society and the weight of religion and the weight of education and everything."

Ali Jaafar says it was also a subtle way to deal with the taboo subject of a lesbian relationship.

ALI JAAFAR: "So that was the most tactful way for her to symbolize this woman changing her life and kind of embarking on this new chapter in her own exploration of her sexuality and her identity. So I think one has to see it within the context of the film, it is only a haircut but at the same time it represents a lot more and again it's all in the subtext."

Labaki also tackles the subtleties of male-female relationships. Layale, the salon owner that Labaki plays, is pursued by a local cop, Youssef (Adel Karam, the only star among a cast of mostly non-professionals). In a charming scene, Youssef watches Layale talk on the phone and he pretends to be the person on the other end of the line, and he makes small talk. Since he doesn't know how to approach her, he keeps stopping her for traffic violations. When he helps one of her friends, Layale finally gives him an opening - she invites him to the salon for a free haircut and shave. Jaafar says the scene plays Karem's character off of his real life image as an Arab TV star.

ALI JAAFAR: "He's seen as a bit of a sex symbol, and it's ironic that there's almost the objectification of him as opposed to what we're used to seeing, which is the women objectified as sex symbols. He now becomes the kind of sex symbol to aspire to and of course he only actually gets the girl after she shaves his moustache off. So she kind of molds him in her own taste before he becomes acceptable to her. Which is a refreshing kind of twist of fortunes."

Labaki says Karem's Youssef represents a new kind of male character and one to be admired.

NADINE LABAKI: "It's very courageous of him to go into a world where he knows he's going to be powerless. I like this contradiction in that character: he appears very manly and masculine, yet not afraid to show sensitive fragile side."

Finding this sensitive, more human side is what Labaki's film is all about. Her exploration of life in contemporary Lebanon may also prompt western women to contemplate their own lives.

NADINE LABAKI: "I think you have more freedom than we do and you tend to take it for granted. These issues come from the fact that we still have the weight of tradition and religion and education but I think we are blessed to have both, to be exposed to both. But what we still have to do now is find the right balance between east and west, and I think if we do get to the right balance we can be very rich people."

Caramel (in Arabic and French with English subtitles, and rated PG for thematic elements involving sexuality, language and some smoking) finds a balance that has made it popular both in and outside of Lebanon.

Companion viewing: Persepolis , The Circle, Offside , Venus Beauty Salon


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