In “Hala La Wayn?” (Where Do We Go Now?), Nadine Labaki has once again produced a movie that is as funny, sassy and insightful as the female characters she portrays in her work.
The Lebanese filmmaker rose to fame in the early ‘00s, with a string of highly popular music videos, distinguished for their retro visual style and strong female characters.
Labaki’s directorial debut, “Caramel,” arrived in 2007 to great commercial and critical acclaim, both at home and abroad. Portraying the stories of five different women in Beirut and their difficulties of experiencing and accepting love, Labaki steered away from politics, focusing on the everyday realities of Lebanese women.
“Hala La Wayn?” marks a new high in Labaki’s young career. Recently winning the People’s Choice Awards at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, beating major Hollywood productions such as Alexander Payne’s Oscar nominated “The Descendents,” the movie has been appealing to audiences worldwide.
The film is set in a Lebanese mountain village composed of a Christian and Muslim population that try to cope with the sectarian strife taking place outside their isolated habitat. Labaki tells her story with much humor, balancing it with some of the more sober and tragic elements that speak of loss, death and social instability.
The movie is a musical comedy, with a score composed by Khaled Mouzanner. It opens with a scene of the village women, dressed in black with head and face veils, in a synchronized dance of slow, sad paces as they go visit dead family members in a cemetery faintly divided between the Muslims and Christians. Seemingly death, the great equalizer of life, has brought the village inhabitants together both physically and metaphorically.
The village where the story takes place is unnamed, and the exact date of the movie’s series of events is unidentifiable. This is a story about women grieving for the men they’ve lost in a war of absurdities, as they scheme and plot to keep the men of their village and community peaceful and civil with one another.
The movie’s characters live side by side in a community of hotheaded males and levelheaded women. The plot centers on the women’s multiple attempts to ease mounting tensions as news of external fighting and deaths reaches the village via TV and radio, through comically planned plots to distract the men.
Labaki plays the role of Amal, a café owner in whose establishment many of the movie’s scenes unfold. Co-existence in the community at first are exemplified by shots of the village’s mosque and church standing side by side, and later by the village’s priest and sheikh who unite the community.
The women are portrayed throughout the movie as a unified front, perpetually plotting to keep the men away from confrontations. The women are seen collectively making baked treats for the villager’s first communion celebrations and we understand the tenacity with which the women hold onto their efforts to serve as an example of camaraderie and maintaining the peace.
Events in the movie escalate and the priest is the first to warn his worshippers to ignore what happens outside their village.
In an effort to bring the men together, the women call upon the Virgin Mary to send them a miracle and they receive a sign to hire Eastern European dancers to “pass though” the village, scheming to keep them there to ease the tension between the village men as they bond together over their sexualized fascination of women.
The characters are well-rounded. We are given thorough insights into both their flaws and graces, which make them easy to relate to.
Though Labaki portrays the male characters somewhat unflatteringly in some parts of the film — appearing as if they’re incapable of controlling their thoughts or emotions — she does it to highlight the cause of Lebanese women as ultimately being the ones who have suffered the most as grieving caretakers of a nation of lost husbands, brothers and sons.
In one scene, we see a mother confronting a statue of the Virgin Mary in church in a heart-wrenching monologue of despair. The artistry of that particular scene is remarkable: We see the mother running up the mountain in her house robe of white and blue; the parallels between Mary and mother are subtle, uncontrived and very powerful.
“Hala La Wayn?” is a perfect mix of commerce and art; the scenes of the village are visually warm and beautiful and the dialogue and accompanying music supports both the comical and emotional elements of the story.
Watching it in Egypt leaves one asking the same question: considering our current politics, where do we go now?