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Guest Review: ‘Where Do We Go Now’

Once Upon A Time…in Lebanon

Above: Nadine Labaki's "Where Do We Go Now"

I LOVE the way many Arab tales start: "Kan ya ma kan." There was not was. It seems to be such a great way to start a story that might include paradoxes, unexpected twists and social commentary. You can almost hear this phrase whispered as “Where Do We Go Now,” the new film from Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, materializes on screen.

Lebanon has been having a hard time of it lately, on screen and off. Situations such the Israeli actions during the 2006 Lebanon War, the intersecetarian violence has scarred the country and its people while films shown in the U.S. like “Waltz With Bashir” and “Incendies” paint a Lebanon as beleaguered land of blood and tears.

Little wonder many people balk a bit when they hear “a film made in Lebanon.” But balk at this film, and you might miss a charming, earthy story of how one village in the hills of Lebanon deals with the religious violence lapping at its edges. Inspired by Lebanon’s slip into Civil War in 2008, Labaki’s latest film opens with an intriguing, unconventional scene: a narrator introduces a haunting prologue of villagers dressed in black. They dance towards the screen doing something that can only be described as a combination of dabke (a traditional regional dance) meets Twila Tharp, rhythmically beating photos of their dead against their chests.

These are the villagers of a remote unnamed village where a mosque and a church stand side by side, and the two religions have co-existed for centuries. But as the village stands on the cusp of a new reality, the violence of the urban center threatens to reach into the village and the women take matters into their own hands. Tired of mourning sons and husbands lost to religious fighting, the women engage in a clever war of their own, complete with a false miracle and Ukrainian dancers.

Remote and separated from the rest of the world by a broken bridge and landmines, the Christian and Moslem villagers do the best they can. A rigged television on a hillside (“Now we are joining the 21st century!”) provides a glimpse into the outside world to the delight of the villagers. The typical, tightly clad Lebanese news reader is a revelation, but once the news comes on with reports of religious violence, the television is doomed.

Nadine Labaki's "Where Do We Go Now."

Sony Pictures Classics

Above: Nadine Labaki's "Where Do We Go Now."

Led by the beautiful widow, Amale (Nadine Labaki), the television meets a sticky end and then it’s the newspapers in the local store which somehow, make it into the bread oven. But, still things are touchy. When Roukoz (Ali Haidar), a local boy, falls off his ladder, trying to fix the Church’s speakers, he cracks off the top part of the cross. The priest calms his parishioners by assuring them the wind did it. Later, the Muslims find several sheep and goats in the mosque, and the imam staves off trouble by claiming the door was left open and perhaps the animals came in to admire the carpet. Nevertheless, an altercation ensues and the women realize the men are one incident away from turning their guns on each other.

For a short while the villagers warily live with each other. The boys play tricks on each other and the Christian Amale and Muslim Rafih (smoldering Julian Ferhat), the village painter, secretly long to be together, to the open amusement of the village women.

Breaking convention and flaunting taboos, the women of the village meet at Amale’s café, looking for ways to distract the men and diffuse the tension. Madame Yvonne, wife of the Christian mayor, cooks up a “miracle,” complete with weeping Madonna in a hilarious send-up of talking to the saints (“Madame Yvonne, stick to the script!”) to convince the villagers to keep the peace.

But the outside violence soon penetrates the village when Roukoz and cousin, Nassim (Kevin Abboud) go to a neighboring village to buy supplies for the store and only Roukouz comes back alive. Broken by grief, Nassim’s mother Takla (Claude Moussawbaa) tries to keep Nassim’s death a secret, hiding his body in the well, and trying to keep her friends at bay with a tale of the mumps.

One of Nassim’s Muslim friends comes by to apologize for a prank (“we’re children of the same village, I’ll kiss your door and hope you get better soon.”), and Takla comes undone. The village women try in vain to keep the boy’s death from the men, and once it gets out, the violence that threatens to engulf the village, roars to life.

While the men prime their guns, the women plot and soon come up with an ingenious plan- no sex with their men and, to keep them distracted, they hire a troupe of Ukrainian showgirls to spend a week in the village. The men love the dancers, but each group still meets to plan their attacks on the other. The women have one more trick up their sleeves- one that involves fabulous pastries and the blessing of the imam and village priest. While the men sleep off their treat, the women steal their guns and perform a minor slight of hand. When they wake, voila! The world has inverted, Muslim turns Christian and Christian, Muslim (“So, now, I am one of ‘them,’ what are you going to do about it?”).

The village finally unites to bury Nassim, but as they head to the cemetery, already so full of the village dead, the pallbearers no longer know on which side to bury him. Muslim in life, in death, Nassim has become the son of the whole village, a reminder that war is hardest on women and children.

Labaki’s sly but blunt look at Lebanon has deepened and acquired more deft timing since her acclaimed first feature, “Caramel" (2008). Although the country the action takes place in remains unidentified, the film breathes Lebanon in every frame . Often hilarious, nonetheless, Labaki refuses to play to the cheap seats. The humor is biting, (“Bridgitte, the goat’s sacrifice will not go unappreciated”), tempered with scenes of deep anguish as when Takla begs the Virgin to give her back her son. Nor is there a pro-offered pat solution to the religious strife. Labaki leaves her film open-ended, a transitory truce in which only death is static and the dead forever young.

Created on a relatively low budget ($6.7 million), the film was shot on location in several villages, including Taybeh (near Balbaak), which has a church and an adjacent mosque. Labaki uses a cast of local non-actors. Stand-outs are Yvonne Maalouf (Madame Yvonne), Antoinette Noufally (Saydeh) and Mounzer Baalbaki (Sassine), people Labaki found in the villages where she shot. Their sincerity and joy in their roles lend the film a luminous, poignant quality and balance out Labaki’s casting of herself as lead. The film was Lebanon’s official entry in this year’s Oscars and has won a number of awards including Audience Choice in several festivals.

Rounding out the film is a beautiful score by Khaled Mouzanar, Labaki’s collaborator and husband. Infused with a variety of motifs from traditional Arabic to jazz to flamenco, Mouzanar’s score adds to the slightly off-center quirkiness and poignancy.

At times, Labaki’s film has its weak moments. Certain threads such as the largely fantasized relationship between Amale and Rafih, are introduced and then either dropped or forgotten. Labaki’s male figures pale in comparison to the vibrancy of the women. But then, Labaki is not setting out to create a portrait of reality, but an allegory, a common method of Middle Eastern storytelling. She steers clear of making religion the main presence, instead looking at human frailty and the failings of male leadership. Her casting rings true in the give and take between the characters. Having lived in North Africa, it was like listening to friends and family, I hadn’t seen in years.

In turns bitter commentary and disarming humor, Labaki’s second film invites laughter while challenging the viewer to ponder the title question that runs through the film. With this production, Labaki has shown that she’s a talent to watch and a social commentator to reckon with.

With few Middle Eastern films coming to San Diego, and even fewer showing south of La Jolla, try not to miss this one. If you haven’t seen an Arab film before, it will introduce you to the complexity and talent current Middle Eastern cinema has developed. If you do know Arab film, this will be a joy to watch.

“Where Do We Go Now” is currently playing at Landmark's Ken Cinema, 4061 Adams Avenue

San Diego, CA 92116 (619) 819-0236. Predominantly Arabic, with English subtitles, runtime 100mins. Rated PG-13.

--Rebecca Romani is a San Diego-based documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist who has covered film and culture for a variety of publications such as Cineaste, The Levantine Review, and IPS.org.

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