“I don’t think I would have written this film if I were not pregnant.”
Nadine Labaki, 38, was speaking in a sunny hotel room in Toronto, where her film “Where Do We Go Now?” made its North American premiere last September at the city’s annual international film festival. The film — a musical-comedy fable set in a Middle Eastern village threatened by sectarian violence — would go on to win the festival’s coveted audience award, the same recognition that helped propel such dark horses as “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech” to world fame.
“Where Do We Go Now?” may not achieve those Oscar winners’ level of mass popularity. But the film has solidified Labaki’s stardom in her native Lebanon, where her first film, “Caramel,” was a blockbuster hit. In both films, Labaki uses a combination of whimsy, sharply observed satire and easygoing feminism to engage potentially explosive issues, from sexual repression to the limits of male aggression and tribalism.
It was the latter that inspired Labaki to begin writing “Where Do We Go Now?” when she was pregnant with her son in 2008. Lebanon had plunged into the worst episode of violence it had seen in decades and seemed poised on the brink of another civil war. Labaki, who is married to composer Khaled Mouzannar, started thinking about what lengths a mother would go to in order to stop her son from “taking up a weapon and going into the street.” That idea grew into a larger story, in which an entire town full of women embark on a “Lysistrata”-type campaign to prevent the men from destroying each other.
“Where Do We Go Now?” takes place in a tiny mountain village where Christians and Muslims have long co-existed in spirited harmony, their cemeteries side-by-side, as do the mosque and church. But when the outside world intervenes by way of news reports of factional strife, the villagers begin to grow restive. An innocent accident plunges the bellicose men into infighting, leading the women to use everything from hashish-laced delicacies to a traveling band of Ukrainian burlesque beauties to keep the peace.
As with the 2010 drama “Incendies,” it’s clear that “Where Do We Go Now?” takes place in Lebanon, although the country is never named. Labaki made the choice because “what I’m talking about in the film is universal. You know, this conflict does not only happen in Lebanon. I see it everywhere. I can be in Paris in the Metro and see how people are scared of each other. . . . We are scared of each other as human beings.”
The tonal shifts between melodrama and screwball comedy, MGM-musical fantasy and realism and tragedy and broad, ribald humor present a challenge that Labaki — who co-stars in the film as a love-struck cafe owner — navigates with newfound ambition and confidence. The singing and dancing were inspired by such formative movies as “Snow White” and “Grease,” but directing the sequences also took the filmmaker back to her roots making music videos, her first filmmaking job after she graduated from college in Beirut.
“That was the only way for me to learn,” she explained. “You know, there’s no film industry in Lebanon. So when you dream of making films, the only way to learn when you come out of university is to work on music videos and commercials.”
The daughter of a homemaker and an electrical engineer, Labaki grew up in the town of Baabdat, and credits her father with nurturing her movie career. “He used to tell me [that] with his first salary, he bought a camera. I think I inherited this love of the image and telling stories from him.” She and her family still live in Baabdat, dividing their time between Labaki’s home town and Beirut.
Although Labaki wants the themes and emotions of “Where Do We Go Now?” to strike a universal chord, the experience of filming it — with non-professional performers who embodied the same religious and ideological diversity of their characters — was distinctly Lebanese, according to Labaki.
“Everybody wanted this film to happen,” she recalled. “What’s absurd is that anything can happen and we can become enemies again. That’s what’s absurd. We can live peacefully for a while and we are living peacefully now. But anything can happen, and then the situation is different.”
Opens in area theaters on May 18.