Cannes Film Festival 2018: Capernaum director Nadine Labaki says she doesn't want to be #MeToo beneficiary
Labaki, in the running for Palme d'Or at Cannes, says she doesn't want people to say that she won the award only because she is a woman.
A Lebanese film about a 12-year-old boy who sues his parents has put child poverty in the spotlight at the Cannes Film Festival.
Nadine Labaki's Capernaum premiered Thursday night at the Cannes Film Festival where the neo-realistic drama about street kids in Lebanon received a rousing standing ovation. Capernaum was made largely with non-professional actors living in circumstances not unlike those in the film. It centers on the 12-year-old Zein (played by Zain Alrafeea) who takes his parents to court "for giving me life" in a world of pain and suffering.
"I've been spending the past few years going to detention centers, going to prisons for minors, and it's always the same theme that keeps coming up," Labaki said in an interview. "Why do you bring me into this world if you're not going to love me, if you're not going to nurture me, if you're going to let me suffer so much, if you're going to leave me to fate to raise me? It always comes up," she adds. "It's the why that breaks your heart."
Capernaum is the third feature for the director-actress, whose feature debut Caramel played in Cannes' Directors' Fortnight in 2007. After the lengthy standing ovation at its premiere, some analysts judged it one of the leading contenders for Cannes' top prize. Film critic Neil Young, who annually compiles odds for the Palme, put Capernaum as the front-runner.
If Labaki's film were to win, it would be only the second film directed by a woman to win the award in Cannes' 71 year history. But the Palme d'Or, which will be announced Saturday, is famously difficult to predict. It will be decided by a nine-person jury led by Cate Blanchett.
Much discussed at this year's festival has been gender equality at the film festival and Cannes' past rate of selecting female filmmakers to its competition lineup. Labaki, among the Arab world's biggest box office draws, says her career in moviemaking has only been positive, and that progress is happing quickly.
"I've never experienced not being able to make a film because I'm a woman. I've always been able to make what I want. That's my own experience," said Labaki. "I see that there's a healing process happing and soon this will not be something we're talking about. I think this is going to happen very soon."
Sony Pictures Classics, which has shepherded dozens of films to the Academy Awards, acquired Capernaum ahead of its premiere. The specialty distributor declared: "Nadine Labaki's moment as writer-director is here and now."
Alrafeea traveled to Cannes with the filmmakers for the premiere. Labaki said his family came to Lebanon from Syria about six years ago and while he shares some of his character's circumstances, he also has a loving family. Labaki called him "a magical boy who changed all of us."
"It's been a life-changing adventure," said Labaki, whose husband Khaled Mouzanar produced the film and composed the score. "It's about love. It's about being loved."
The Lebanese director, tipped to become only the second woman ever to win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, will be very annoyed if her accolade is billed as the feminist choice of a #MeToo jury.
"There's a risk that some people would interpret it in that way, which would be very irritating because it would have the opposite effect. Instead of honouring women, they'd be saying 'You're here because you're a woman'," Nadine Labaki told AFP.
The filmmaker's third feature, which won a 15-minute standing ovation at its premiere, catapults her into the big league after Caramel, her intimate debut about a Beirut beauty parlour, and Where Do We Go Now?, about women on a mission to end sectarian violence in their village.
This time, the main protagonist is a foul-mouthed 12-year-old street kid.
Labaki said that in the past, she found herself amplifying women's voices because "it was a subject I was more versed in than men" but "never really felt pressure to talk about women just because I am a woman."
"There are other things bothering me now," she said, citing the dense thicket of issues tackled in Capernaum. "I'm thinking of the notion of borders, of having to have papers to exist, of being completely excluded from the system if you don't have them, of the maltreatment of children, modern slavery, immigrant workers, Syrian immigrants, all these issues where people find themselves completely excluded from the system because it is not capable of finding solutions."
Labaki does not spare the rod with her homeland, at the risk of being accused by the Lebanese of washing their dirty laundry in public. "Obviously, it's a huge risk but we must stop making excuses, it's a reality that exists and we cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand," she insisted.
For the director who turned to films for escapism during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, "Cinema is not only about making people dream. It's about changing things and making people think."
Labaki found the idea for the film staring her in the face one night when she was driving home from a party and saw a child half-asleep in the arms of his mother begging on the pavement.
"It became an obsession for me... I did more than three years of research. I was trying to understand how the system fails these kids." Being a mother helped her craft some of the most moving scenes, featuring a gurgling breast-fed baby for which the young hero Zain has to fend after its migrant mother is arrested.
The film, which Labaki began shooting after the birth of her daughter, takes viewers through the gamut of emotions experienced by a parent, lurching between tenderness, fierce protectiveness and frustration. "My experience of motherhood undoubtedly added a good deal to the scenario," she acknowledged.
Film director @NadineLabaki in ELIE SAAB Haute Couture at the screening of her Palm d’Or nominated film ‘Capharnaum’ alongside her husband Khaled Mouzanar & young cast member Zain Alrafeea during the 71st International Cannes Film Festival #Cannes2018 pic.twitter.com/OFVOYiB6WP
— ELIE SAAB (@ElieSaabWorld) May 17, 2018
This year's festival, which features five directors from North Africa and the Middle East, is one of the best in half a century for Arab cinema. Three of the filmmakers are women but gender equality takes a back seat to poverty, class and social stagnation in this crop.
Labaki is lukewarm about the campaign for gender quotas in film casts and crews fronted by Hollywood actresses, including jury president Cate Blanchett, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
"It's not just because we decide that there should be parity in a given domain that it is truly merited. Whether it's a man or a woman it must be truly on merit," she said.
The glamorous director, who was a red carpet guest of French President Emmanuel Macron at a dinner in Paris last year, started out making advertisements and music videos for artists like Lebanese pop icon Nancy Ajram.
She is only the second Arab woman to have a film in the running for the Palme d'Or, after Lebanon's Heiny Srour in 1974 (the year of Labaki's birth).
A win would make her the first female Arab director to lift top honours, and only the second woman, after Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993. "It would be a huge turning point for me, obviously, if it happened," she said ahead of Saturday's ceremony, adding nervously, "I don't want to think too much about it."
With inputs from agencies.
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