INTERVIEW: Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki on heading a Cannes jury and the surprise success of 'Capernaum' in China

1 / 2
Nadine Labaki with "Capernaum" star Zain Al-Rafeea in California. (File/Getty Images)
2 / 2
Nadine Labaki at the Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2019. (Getty Images)
Updated 24 May 2019

INTERVIEW: Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki on heading a Cannes jury and the surprise success of 'Capernaum' in China

  • Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so
  • “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks

DUBAI: The success that Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third film, “Capernaum,” continues to find across the world is astounding — even to her. Just one year ago, “Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival — a jury chaired by Cate Blanchett — after a 15-minute standing ovation. The film went on to be nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, with Labaki becoming the first woman from the Arab world to receive that honor. Now, perhaps most surprisingly, “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks.
“It’s crazy! I can’t believe it! I really can’t. Why there? It’s all very new, so I still don’t know what it means exactly, but we’re soon going to find out,” Labaki tells Arab News in Cannes.
With its success in China, along with the US, Middle East and across Europe, “Capernaum” has reportedly become the highest grossing Arabic-language film in history.
“There’s been rumors going on for the past two to three days, and it’s like, ‘What?’ I still can’t believe it. It’s living proof that an Arab film with no actors can actually be a box office hit — can actually return money, make money for investors. You know how much we’re struggling in the Arab world to make films, find money, find funding, find investment. Especially for a Lebanese film,” Labaki says.
Labaki was in China just one month ago to show the film at the Beijing International Film Festival, and although the film got a rousing response in the room, she didn’t feel the reaction was any stronger than anywhere else the film has shown.
“Maybe it’s because there’s more than a billion people in China, but even the distributor is saying it’s working like any big blockbuster movie,” says Labaki.
The Chinese release of the film has one major difference from other cuts. The original version of the film tells the story of a young boy named Zain El Hajj (played by Zain Al-Rafeea) struggling to survive on the streets of Lebanon with the help of a young Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil and her undocumented infant son Yonas, dreaming of escaping as a refugee to Sweden. The story is not far from Al-Rafeea’s real-life situation at the time — he is a Syrian refugee. Since the film’s release, though, Al-Rafeea and his family have been relocated to Norway, something the Chinese release includes at the end of the film as a short visual report.
“The film ends on his smile, and in a way there’s (now) a continuation of real life in that story. This is really happening, it’s not made up,” says Labaki. “That’s why we’re making a documentary around the film. Maybe it’s a way of comforting people, knowing that he’s alright, he’s good, he’s in a better place. Deep down, people know this kid is going through this in his real life, they know he’s not just an actor in this film.
“I think it’s comforting to know Zain is in a different place now. He’s travelled. He was dreaming of going to Sweden the whole time, and now he’s really in Norway. He has a new life, a new beginning, a new house. He’s going to school, all his family is with him,” she continues. “It’s a complete shift of destiny. Maybe the fact the distributor added this report after the film made people understand that this is a real story and a real struggle, and not just another film.”
Though this is a huge moment for Arab film in general, Labaki doesn’t believe that the success of “Capernaum” necessarily signals a greater appetite for Arab cinema worldwide.
“I don’t think it’s about (where the film comes from). It’s about good films. It has nothing to do with the identity of the film or the country it’s coming from, really. It doesn’t mean if this film worked in China that another Arab film will work in China,” she says. “Maybe there’s going to be more hope for Lebanese cinema in the sense that investors will be less afraid to invest in Lebanese films, but it’s about the script, the filmmaker, the craft, the know-how. This is what gives confidence to somebody.”
Speaking to Arab News at the renowned Hotel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes on one of the busiest days of the film festival, Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so. Labaki began her relationship with Cannes in 2004, writing and developing her first feature, “Caramel,” at the Cinéfoundation Residency before showcasing the film at the Director’s Fortnight in 2007. Both of Labaki’s subsequent films — “Where do We Go Now?” in 2011 and “Capernaum” in 2018 — debuted at the festival, each in increasingly competitive categories.
“I feel like I’m their baby, in a way. With a baby you start watching their first steps, see them grow, protect them, push them… They’ve accompanied me in this journey, and recognized and encouraged me. It’s great — I really love this festival. I think it’s the best festival in the world. I like the integrity they have towards cinema. You feel that watching a film in Cannes, you know that you’re not going to watch just anything — there’s something in there for you to learn from, to be surprised by, to be in awe of. There’s always something about films that are shown in Cannes,” says Labaki.
In approaching her role as head of the jury, Labaki is focusing on connecting with the films, and taking on the perspective of myriad filmmakers from across the world.
“I don’t watch films as a filmmaker. Never,” she says. “I watch the film as a human being… I don’t like the word jury. I don’t like to judge because I’ve been there — I’m there all the time. I’ve been in those very difficult situations, very fragile situations, where you’re making a film, where you’re doubting, where you don’t know, where you don’t have enough distance with what you’re doing, and you don’t have the right answers and you’re not taking the right decisions.”
Just as her own films have become increasingly focused on the problems facing Lebanese society, Labaki believes that contemporary film cannot help but be political, and must accept its role as a commentary on the world we live in — something that she feels she’s seen in the films in her category.
“Cinema is not just about making another film; it’s about saying something about the state of the world right now. Until now, every film we’ve seen is (doing that). That doesn’t mean that cinema that is just art for art’s sake is not good — there are so many different schools — but I feel we’re becoming so much more responsible for this act,” she says. “You become an activist without even knowing you’re becoming an activist, and saying something about the state of the world. It’s important.”


Cairo exhibition celebrates the power of caricature

The exhibition features work from numerous artists. (Supplied)
Updated 13 December 2019

Cairo exhibition celebrates the power of caricature

  • From pioneers to present-day, ‘Caricature’ explores the social, political and humorous insights of Arab cartoonists

CAIRO: There’s a certain pleasure in walking into a gallery space packed with caricature works, especially if, growing up as a child in Cairo, you were in the habit of checking the daily papers to indulge in the humorous illustrations of the day.

The opening of the group exhibition “Caricature” at Ubuntu Art Gallery in Zamalek, Cairo, then, is a timely celebration of the populist art form and a welcome reminder of its power to inspire laughter and provoke thought. It ends on December 28.

The exhibition features work from numerous artists (predominantly from Egypt, but also from the wider Arab world and beyond). From the genre’s pioneers to modern-day up-and-comers, the exhibition “documents and presents a new historical narrative of caricature art in Egypt” according to the curatorial statement, adding that the genre presents “often sarcastic interpretation(s) inspired by daily life.”

This artwork is by Mohamed Hakem. (Supplied)

“This is a moment when we come together to say that caricature art is still thriving,” says Samir Abdelghany, curator of the exhibition and a caricaturist himself, as we begin our tour of the two-floored exhibition.

On display is a varied assortment of works tracing the development of caricature as a form of social and political cartooning. The exhibited works vary from funny comic strips to portrait sketches, and from pencil or ink doodles in black-and-white or color, to patchwork, and wire, silicone, steel or stone sculptures.

Many works carry the signatures of prominent artists including Salah Jahin, Hegazy, George Bahgoury, Ragaey, Mohsen Gaber, Ihab Shaker, Salah al-Leithy, Mohyeldin al-Labad, Mohamed Abdel-Moneim Rakha, Ahmed Toughan, Saroukhan, and Mostafa Hussein.

This artwork is by Said Badawy. (Supplied)

“Essentially, we are celebrating the pioneers of caricature art,” says Abdelghany. “We observe their works and wonder if creativity ebbed after them. But then we come across artists like Doaa Al-Adl, Amro Selim, Makhlouf, and Mostafa Salem, among others, and find that it obviously hasn’t,” he adds.

Abdelghany says Egypt has a long history of caricature, even claiming it is a “pharaoinc art,” as evidenced by ancient drawings, papyri and fragments. The country also has a distinct style, he says. “Egyptian artists took up the art of caricature, and together they helped fashion an all-Egyptian caricature style.”

The exhibition comprises works acquired from private collections — including the families of Saroukhan and Toughan — and from antique dealers. Other works were commissioned specially for the exhibition, which also includes work from Abdelghany’s own collection, which he began to amass in the early Nineties when he moved to Cairo from Alexandria to work as a producer on Egyptian state TV.

This artwork is by Samir Abdelghany. (Supplied)

“We must have hosted some 50 cartoonists, and each one of them would illustrate at least two pieces before going on air — one for the program director and the other for myself. Eventually, I had amassed a huge collection, but I didn’t know what I was going to with it at the time,” he says. “Another time, I was working on an article about artist Hassan Hakim and needed a motif. He gave me three! Little did I know that 20 years later I would be exhibiting these in a caricature-themed exhibition, with Hakim as one of its stars.”  

It was Abdelghany’s personal relationship with Hakim that initially inspired him to curate the exhibition, he says. “I’ve always loved Hakim’s work and I worried that he was going to be forgotten if we didn’t showcase his works more often.”

The gallery’s celebration of the rich culture of Egyptian, and Arab, caricature comes at a time when the art form seems to be battling for survival, Abdelghany says. “There was a time when Sabah Al-Kheir magazine allowed over 30 artists to doodle together in the same workplace. Why is this no longer the case? Talented artists still exist.”

This artwork is by Islam Zaki. (Supplied)

The exhibition is also a chance to educate art students and young artists, according to Said Badawy, an established caricaturist and former illustrator for Al Ahram newspaper, among other publications. Badawy’s contribution to the exhibition is a comical illustration of a dog calling for his owner’s attention as her husband engages in an affair with another woman. “It is a funny caricature that attests to the dog’s never-ending loyalty,” says Badawy.

He says that each work in the exhibition is “a lesson in its own right” for visiting aspiring artists, portraying the importance of social and political cartoons, and highlighting the artists’ position as ‘the voice of the streets.’

This artwork is by Kamal El-Sawy. (Supplied)

“The role of a caricature artist is not to collect the mountains of rubbish piled up next to a hospital, for example, but to illustrate the health hazards caused by this waste and shed light on corruption with his satire-themed strokes,” he explains. “The caricatures on display are a candid representation of different moments in Egypt’s modern history, which in turn left their mark on the work of (the) artists.”

Beyond functioning as an alternative, often-critical, documentation of Egypt’s social and political history, caricature can also be an avid celebration of cultural life. This is especially clear in the work of Mohamed Hakem, who contributes two vibrant works to the exhibition. The first is of an Egyptian moulid, and the second of a street fight in an Egyptian harra (alleyway). The latter is a major source of inspiration for Hakem, who has created 41 large illustrations of the “big world” of the harra to date. “No one has captured its essence, except maybe for (filmmaker) Salah Abou Seif.” (He also cites the “attempts” of two other filmmakers, Kamal Al-Sheikh and Youssef Chahine.)

Caricature is often seen as an ‘inferior’ visual-art form (particularly by fine artists), with its often crude or childish representations considered to demonstrate a lack of “true” ability on the part of its artists. That idea is at the core of Abdelghany’s own contribution to the exhibition — an acrylic painting which shows a couple embracing as they exchange a long glance, thus imagining “caricature in a relationship with fine art,” he explains.

“Caricatures can carry fine-art elements, and vice versa,” says Abdelghany, adding that one of the reasons he was keen to invite artists such as Mohamed Abla, Samir Fouad, and Mostafa Rahma to contribute caricature-inspired paintings to the exhibition was to promote this idea. “(Caricaturists) can create fine art.”

And they do. Abdelghany says he expects the exhibition to run in December 2020 and December 2021 as well. It is, he says, “a victory for caricature art.”