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

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


Egyptian start-up teaches artists ways to monetize their work

Updated 16 June 2019
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Egyptian start-up teaches artists ways to monetize their work

  • More Of was started by Sara Seif and Hania Seif partly to change society's attitude towards a career as an artist
  • While the company is still at an early stage, the two founders have no plans of slowing down

Art is for the soul what food is for the body. Yet it’s a fact that artists all over the world struggle to make a living out of their creations.

This is especially so in the Middle East, where it’s rare to find a family willing to support their child’s artistic endeavors, since more academic careers tend to take priority.

But two sisters in Egypt are aiming to change that particular mindset. Enter More Of, a startup focusing on the arts, helping those in relevant fields make a living out of it.

“It all started three years ago. My sister and I used to study theater and marketing, so we both had artistic and entrepreneurial sides,” said Sara Seif, co-founder and CEO of the startup.

“We were always surrounded by artists, and we always saw the struggle they faced, with so many talents out there and so little revenue. The artists can’t monetize their art, and it’s not because they’re not good. It’s because they don’t have the business skill set.”

Sara and Hania Seif want to introduce a entrepreneurial mentality into the world of art. (Supplied)

It wasn’t until Sara stumbled on an Injaz Egypt startup competition — just 12 hours before the deadline — that the idea started to take shape. She scrambled to put her ideas into words and called her sister and business partner Hania to help.

Invited to attend a pre-incubation program, where they learned how to turn their idea into a business model, they ended up winning the competition, receiving EGP 100,000 ($6,000) in seed funding, as well as a trip to Silicon Valley.

For More Of, there was a very specific problem they were trying to solve, said Sara: “There was this gap between the talents and the marketplaces; people didn’t know where or how to look for opportunities.”

The company works in two ways; the first is geared towards people who have creative end products.

“Creative artists have something you can actually buy, like wall paintings, fashion, jewelry, and so on. We offer them a talent management platform; we’re like a talent incubator for them,” Sara said. “What we do in this incubator is try to build capacities on the business side.”

They started doing so by conducting a series of workshops with topics including how to turn art into a business, sales for creative artists, and personal branding.

“Our part is to teach you the business side. If you’ve got the talent, now let’s sell your art,” said fellow co-founder Hania, who serves as More Of’s chief creative officer.

The second area they are facilitating is the performing arts.

Sara elaborated: “We’re going to build an online platform for performing artists — theater, dance, and music — and it’s going to work like an online casting agency, where there’ll be a lot of opportunities posted for the artists.”

The two plan on making the platform free so that any artist could use it, but there will also be a premium option.

“Premium users will have an edge, where we’ll be their own consultants and manage their talent. We’ll basically be an agent for the artist,” Hania said.

“Our part is to teach you the business side. If you’ve got the talent, now let’s sell your art,”

Hania Seif

While the startup is still at an early stage, they have no intention of slowing down.

“We want to collaborate with as many people as possible, to create as many initiatives as possible, and pull all resources out there so that the artists and art community could come together and establish an ecosystem,” Sara said. “We see ourselves becoming the leading talent-management platform in the MENA region and then internationally.”

Their plans to expand on an international level mean they could potentially land local artists opportunities on the global stage.

“People want to reach talent in Egypt and they want figures to address, and we plan on becoming that figure,” Hania said.

Making money out of being an artist might have seemed like a long shot at some point, but with initiatives such as More Of, it is changing.

“It’s no longer a hopeless case for artists to turn their art into an everyday career,” Sara said.

Hania added: “We want to empower artists to do ‘more of’ what they love. And that’s how we (came up with) our name.”

 

•  This report is part of a series being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region