Lebanon may be known more for its civil strife than its fledgling movie industry, but Nadine Labaki hopes to change all that.
The director-actress is out to transform the way the world sees her native country.
So far, so good. Her debut feature film "Caramel" did more to overhaul Lebanon’s bullet-punctured image than a dozen million-dollar public relation campaigns.
A sweet love story set in a Beirut beauty salon, "Caramel" was a surprise hit, seducing audiences from New York to Buenos Aires, a surprise for a country with almost no film industry to speak of.
"I don’t know one (Lebanese) person who doesn’t travel with four or five DVDs of ‘Caramel’ and they give it to all the people they know abroad," said Labaki, who wrote, directed and starred in the 2007 movie. "It’s has become a sort of ambassador for Lebanon."
So it was with some trepidation that Labaki undertook her follow-up project "Where Do We Go Now?," a bittersweet comedy about women bent on keeping their hotheaded men out of harm’s way. As the movie’s Sept. 22 Lebanese debut approaches, the pressure is mounting.
"I’m a little bit anxious," the 37-year-old raven-haired beauty told The Associated Press in an interview in Paris. "Now everybody’s expecting this one, and they’re expecting it to be even better" than "Caramel."
Labaki needn’t fret. "Where Do We Go Now?" garnered rave reviews at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it screened on the margins of the official competition, and won a lengthy standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival.
Earlier this week, the movie was selected as Lebanon’s 2011 entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It remains to be seen whether it will make the cut to be among the five movies shortlisted for the prize.
Set in a remote village where the church and the mosque stand side by side, "Where Do We Go Now?" follows the antics of the town’s women folk to keep their blowhard men from starting a religious war. Women heartsick over sons, husbands and fathers lost to previous flare-ups unite to distract their men with clever ruses, from faking a miracle to hiring a troop of Ukrainian strippers.
With its proudly feminist message, the film pays homage to the powerful women of the Middle East — a group often overlooked by the West.
Labaki was writing the movie when she was pregnant with her first child, a boy now 2 1/2 years old.
"(That) motherly instinct pushed me to write this story. It pushed me to want to talk about mothers facing this absurd situation," she said.
She says the movie — shot on location in three remote Lebanese villages with cast made up nearly entirely of nonprofessional actors — was born out of Lebanon’s precarious reality.
"In Lebanon, we are always on the verge of something happening. We are capable of living for a few years in an apparent peace and then something would happen and then people can easily take weapons and go down to the street and start killing each other again," she said. "I want to propose an alternative way of thinking."
Labaki said her own career path was a direct result of the Lebanon’s bloody recent past.
"Because of the war, we used to spend a lot of time at home as kids — no school, nothing to do, bored — so I started developing a special relationship with my TV," she said. "Very soon, I understood that to be able to create these worlds that were very different from my reality was to become a filmmaker. Very early, everybody in my family knew this was the thing I wanted to do."
Because only a handful of movies are made in Lebanon each year, after film school, Labaki tried her hand at the one visual medium that does flourish locally — music videos. She made clips for stars including Lebanese supernova Nancy Ajram that manage to tell a story in three minutes of singing and dancing.
"Where Do We Go Now?" honors that tradition with a handful of old-school song-and-dance numbers that buoy the mood. Labaki didn’t have to look far for inspiration — she is married to the movie’s composer, Khaled Mouzannar.
The film opens in France on Wednesday and throughout much of the Middle East on Sept. 22. The US release date has not been set yet.
Labaki hopes her very Lebanese movie will have a universal appeal.
"Maybe I’m talking about Christians and Muslims in the film, but I could have been talking about two neighbors, two families, she said. "It could happen anywhere."