Friday, October 21, 2011

Where Do We Go Now?

**Spoiler Alert!**
I finally watched Nadine Labaki's film "Where do we go now?". Here is what I think about the film. I will spare you the suspense and tell you as of here that I don't think highly of the movie (I liked Caramel more), so that you don't have to keep reading if you are a Lebanese fanatic who thinks that everything Lebanese must be genius, but you can also keep reading and see why. To be fair I need first to state that there are many positive elements in the film, and I did like a few things about it. Let's start with the positive side lest some of the Lebanese fanatics are still with us.
- First and foremost, I loved the music and the songs, although one of the songs has exactly the same tune of a known pasta ad.
- I liked the scenes and the scenery as well as the acting of most of the characters (especially Adel Karam and Mohamad Akil). The film cost 6.7 million Dollars, and you expect to get something good out of that, well we did, but the flaws of the film come from something that requires no budget: thinking.
- Another strong positive element is the script. The script is well done which is rare in the recent Lebanese production (you need to put West Beirut, Zozo, and a few other movies on the side). Finally, here is a Lebanese film where actors don't wait for one another to finish their lines (while staring in the void, usually angry), they speak at different tones sometimes interrupting each other, and there is a background noise, or the natural ambiance; where the dialogue is convincing and mirrors reality, and where not all the characters are poets, well articulate, and speak fluent and plausible full Arabic sentences. For that we need to give the film some credit.
- The characters, especially the women, also come from real life which makes us identify a lot with them because we have all seen or known at some point or another a relative or a neighbor exactly like that. Here comes the but. But, the characters too have many flaws; Nadine Labaki, although she states that she is not the main character, is the only character that has a story on the side, her love story, all we know about the other women is their religion. I also noticed, and I doubt that was done on purpose, that we know a bit more about two other Christian women, one is the wife of the Mokhtar (mayor) who is the comic relief, and the other is the strong and resilient woman head of household who sends her two sons to sell stuff outside the village. We know nothing about the other women, and the Muslim women don't have any special character traits. I am not saying there should have been a kind of balance, but I am saying that many of the characters, she calls main, are not so well developed. Nadine did not seem so good in handling a multi cast here.
- It goes without saying that the characters should be multi-dimensional unlike Marwan Najjar’s characters who are either good or evil. I will be subtle in judging the characters against this rule in this film, since it is intended on purpose to make all the women good and all the men bad, although I don’t see the morale behind it in the Lebanese context.
- We come to the story, it is entertaining as a sequence of funny or unusual situations, but as a plot, it lacks all the main ingredients, there is no build up towards the climax, there are merely detached incidents that lead to tension. The climax you assume is when the boy who makes a journey outside the village is killed mysteriously by a random bullet by some "strangers", and this is a point I will come to in a while. This climax has nothing to do with the incidents that preceded it, it descended to the movie like a parachute to claim itself a climax. Of course it adds to the sectarian tension in the village, but was not a result of it or its cause, so the climax in the movie is a mere tragic coincidence. Shortly before the climax, I started to feel bored, because we have already gotten the point, the whole point: the women are trying to prevent the men from fighting or going to war using tricks, so you would only be there waiting to see what other ruses they are going to use now, then the boy dies, as we said for reasons outside the main plot and none of the characters have anything to do with it. This climax is supposed to be the crisis, yet, the crisis (the tension between the Christian and the Muslim men) is already there, so the climax here only takes the conflict to another level (the men seeking to dig out their buried weapons). Again, the women should prevent that from happening, then comes another ruse, and they succeed. Yet the movie does not end here.
- The finale or the resolution of the crisis parachutes again and does not seem to come neither from the climax nor from an attempt to solve it. The film also closes with an open question: where do we go now, the title of the film. I do like open-ended endings, but only because they leave you with the question whirling in your head, only because it gets you thinking about it after you leave the theater. The question is supposed to intrigue you and make you reassess your reasoning or open a new dimension or a new perspective in your previous way of thinking. This question does not.
- The film, according to the director, is symbolic and has a strong message. No doubt the direct message is clear; the film calls for coexistence between the Christians and the Muslims. Did she really think that people will leave the theater, thinking: let us ask if the guy who was sitting next to us is from a different religion and if he is, let’s go give him a hug? Maybe the director was well-intentioned but the message is naive to say the least; it falls into the same lame Lebanese rhetoric which Ziad Rahbani smartly ridicules. The causes of the conflict always come from “the stranger” who stole the jar, or from factors outside our control, or from third parties. We know that it wasn't a Muslim who broke the cross at the church and we do not know who ransacked the mosque. So the villagers are all pure and innocent and only reacted to these incidents!? (by naturally seeking revenge because they are men?) yet if you leave the Lebanese on their own they would be living in love and peace (butter and honey as we say in Arabic)?!. So there are no root causes or intrinsic factors to sectarianism? Well, wars are ugly and civil wars are the ugliest, but the hidden message of the film is this: for the Lebanese to avoid wars they should stay isolated lest miseries befall them from outside. First this is called denial, and second, this message of denial is not original. The problem dates back to the Rahbani brothers and their quiet and peaceful (imaginary) village like the village portrayed by Labaki, and their Lebanese virgin girl who represents everything that is good, of course here it is none other than Nadine Labaki herself, who is so egocentric that she is the director, the main character, and the one who gets to make the “wise“ monologue (a stupid one), and gets to star in the poster campaign and makes an extra effort to look nice and sweet in all the scenes (although I do find her beautiful). Of course there is also the typical idiot of the village. Where is the innovation and creativity? The film, as a tragicomedy, had all the elements of success, but the message itself was tragicomic; it lacks both originality and depth; It addresses the deeply rooted and real problem of sectarianism in Lebanon through a very shallow interpretation. The Rahbani brothers seem to have irreversibly ruined our creative thinking.
-  Again unlike Marwan Najjar's productions where the characters have names that intentionally hide their religion (so as to protect us, the audience, from our own sectarian judgement, and of course because the characters are either bad or good so he cannot make any reference to their sect, and also where the characters call each other by their full names even if they are brothers, for example you might hear a father say to his son with astonishment: Amer Bilal! what are you doing in our house?), luckily we don't see this in Nadine Labaki's film, well, for obvious reasons. Belief is part of one's character, logic, and sometimes identity such as in this film, but why are all the characters believers; all the Christians in the film wear a cross and all the Muslim women wear a Hijab. I understand if that is intended to make it easy for us to better understand who’s Christian and who’s Muslim, but none of the characters are secular or non-believers! And we could really make it on our own without this straightforwardness, same as we did with the men, really, aren't we Lebanese genius, then why do you underestimate our intelligence?
- Finally, I do understand why the film would get such a high rating and wide acclaim in the West, simply because it reinforces all the stereotypes they have about us.

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