For more than 100 years, filmmaking was overwhelmingly a man's game. But in recent years, the ground is starting to shift in significant ways, with first-time female Best Director Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow (for The Hurt Locker) the tip of an emerging iceberg.
Just a couple of decades ago, a filmmaker like Nadine Labaki would have been unthinkable. The Lebanese writer/director/actress makes nervy, playful, pointed films about Muslim/Christian tensions and the role of women in the Arab world.
Labaki had a modest art-house hit in 2007 with the ensemble comedy Caramel, in which she played the Christian proprietor of a Beirut beauty shop, with various characters revolving around her.
Where Do We Go Now? is set in a remote, rural village — accessible only via a treacherous stone bridge, surrounded by mines, and so lacking in technology that everyone gathers to watch a lone, communal television in a public square — that is made up equally of Muslims and Christians. Here, Labaki depicts how the village's women — with help, interestingly, from the local priest and imam — scheme to keep their hotheaded and immature men from fighting. This largely involves pleading for them to ignore the sectarian violence outside the village and concocting schemes to hide combustible news reports from them.
Something of a Lebanese Lysistrata, Where Do We Go Now? has the shape of an earnest, politically searching community story in the vein of American indie stalwart John Sayles but develops its story with some theatrical observational humor reminiscent of Woody Allen and a surprising strain of religious rebuke that evokes Luis Buñuel.
For most of its run-time, Where Do We Go Now? absorbs its tensions into musical interludes, slapstick, and light comedy — the credit sequence turns a funeral march into a dance routine, and one unlikely, not entirely realized, subplot includes a traveling crew of Russian strippers. But there a few occasions when it deals with the ever-present threat of sectarian violence head-on. Labaki herself, who plays Amal, a Christian woman who works at what seems to be the village's only shop, has a showcase where she confronts a group of Muslims and Christians whose squabbles are about to erupt into something more dangerous. "It's enough to make us lose our faith. You think we're just here to mourn you? To wear black forever? Have a little pity," she screams at them, disgusted and despairing. Another woman, a mother who has lost one son and fears a powder keg that will cost her another, lashes out in anguish before giving the local church's Virgin Mary statue a stern lecture.
Where Do We Go Now? is wonderfully open-minded about religion. Some characters are genuinely devout, others seem to just be performing to meet cultural expectation, but none of them care as much about the Muslim/Christian divide as they do about keeping their sons alive. Labaki's feminism — her belief in sisterly solidarity as the last defense against male-driven religious violence — might be overly hopeful, but in the context of a film that dares to embrace so many different tones, it feels pretty righteous.
Where Do We Go Now?
Opening Friday, August 3rd
Studio on the Square