Flipping the script: Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now?
In her 2011 film Where Do We Go Now?, director Nadine Labaki explores the complex and taboo subjects of sectarian violence, religion, and patriarchal oppression in contemporary Lebanon—through humour expressed almost entirely by women. It’s a move that flips the script on conventional Western depictions of Middle Eastern women. In doing this, Labaki’s story of Lebanon places Western beauty firmly to one side.
In the film, Labaki plays Amale, a café proprietor in a rural town, separated from the rest of the country by a precarious bridge, over which only the local boys dare traverse to bring back supplies. The town’s Muslims and Christians have lived in harmony for years, negotiating differences in theology (the priest and imam are always seen together, enjoying each other’s company); space (the church and mosque sit next to each other in the town square); and religious loyalty (Amale and her Muslim handyman Rabih steal glances across the café but never act upon their feelings). But when news of larger sectarian conflict in the country begins to trickle in via the television, tensions flare. Within the microcosm of the village, such strife is represented by farcical spats between neighbours. Petty one-upmanship reigns supreme, and the supposedly noble fighting men are shown to be childish buffoons (easily swayed by the wiles of women).
Conflicts continue to mount in Amale’s village, culminating in the accidental destruction of a cross. This, the final straw, leads to a war of retaliation—goats are let into the mosque and the Communion wine is poisoned with chicken blood. In response, the local women decide to take the matter into their own hands, manipulating the men to bring about peace. As their plans become more and more outlandish, so too do the stakes of their success, as the community teeters on the brink of chaos.
In Where Do We Go Now?, it is the role of the women as mothers and protectors that enables them to confront the problems of their village head-on, using humour as a weapon. In “Stabat Mater,”[i] Julia Kristeva argues that the archetype of the Virgin Mary allows a woman to claim a modicum of power without radically disrupting the structures of patriarchy. In Christian theology, she may be the Queen of Heaven who holds sway over the lives of mortals but she is also ultimately a fertility icon, representative of woman’s fundamental biological function and therefore an important piece of the ideology that says women are primarily child-bearers. The Virgin is a constant presence within the space of the village. Labaki’s camera lingers on the face of her plaster statuette, both displayed resplendently in the chapel and haphazardly glued together by the Muslim Afaf (Layla Hakim) after shattering in a churchyard after an accident. In the film, the image of the Virgin appears again and again in different settings, as the village’s women negotiate the gap between traditional gender roles and the radical seizure of socio-political control that their plotting represents.
The women of Where Do We Go Now? find empowerment in adopting, and in some cases, embodying Mary’s identity. The mayor’s wife, Yvonne, pretends to be overcome with visions of the Virgin’s divine presence admonishing the village’s men for their behaviour. The women hope their men will listen to Mary’s words, even if they come from the mouth of a mortal woman. But Yvonne’s act gets a little too dramatic, and the “miracle” is revealed to be a sham. Later, Mary appears to genuinely condemn the men’s fighting when confronted by the grief-stricken Takla (Claude Baz Moussawbaa) after the death of her son by gunfire. In this church scene, the statue of the Virgin appears to shed tears of blood, mourning the senseless death the sectarian conflict has wrought.
Invoking Mary gives the village’s women justification for opposing the patriarchal order through the act of protecting the sanctified male figures of their sons. In the aftermath of a fight between Christian and Muslim men in her café, Amale cradles her young son in a pose reminiscent of Madonna and child. This maternal devotion reaches its climax when Takla prevents her son Issam (Sasseen Kawzally) from enacting revenge on the Muslim community by blocking the door with both her body and a loaded shotgun. When he attempts to push past her, she shoots him in the leg and ties him to his bedpost upstairs. Her radical actions are motivated solely by the death of her other son, Nassim, cementing her role as a mother for all of Lebanon’s fallen sons as she yells, “I won’t let you die too!”
The unnamed mountain village in which the film is set is isolated from the globalized modernity of urban Lebanon. Just as the sectarian tensions are imported from outside through the media of radio, television and newspaper, so alternative femininities are brought in from outside rather than emerging from within. For their second attempt to end the sectarian infighting in the village, the women hire a group of Ukrainian dancers and bribe their bus driver to keep them stranded in town for a few days. The cinematic presentation of the arrival of the Ukrainian dancers to the village serves to exoticize them: the image comes in and out of focus, evoking the blurring of vision in the intense heat, and a wide shot highlights the alien nature of the Ukrainian women, attempting to shelter from the sun beneath pink parasols. The camera slowly tilts upwards to glide along their bodies, from their feet stumbling along the ground in high-heeled sandals to their exposed midriffs. Whereas American films (Not Without My Daughter, Sex and the City 2) have often utilized the trope of white women bringing neo-colonial feminist liberation to the ‘barbaric’ East, Where Do We Go Now? casts the Western woman as the subaltern, presenting her as alien and thus as a comedic foil for Amale and her friends.
In theorizing Orientalism, Edward Said posits that the “Orient” is a creation of European culture, one used to define the civilized West through distinction from a dark and barbaric Other. Said notes that the Eastern women popularized in Orientalist art, literature and media “express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid and above all they are willing.”[ii] In Where Do We Go Now? we see the opposite occur. While the Lebanese women construct their identity around the archetype of the mother, the Ukrainians are defined by their sexuality. When Yvonne joins the men to peer into the window at the provocatively dressed dancers, she remarks that “our smallest pair of boobs could feed half of Ukraine,” negating the erotic significance of breasts to highlight their function in the context of maternity and suggesting the paucity of their sexualized existence compared to their role in the wonders of motherhood.
The Ukrainian women possess all the attributes of Western beauty—blonde hair, white skin and slender bodies—but in the context of the Lebanese village it is they who are the source of exoticized titillation. (When she sees the women for the first time as they exit their bus, Afaf exclaims: “We said sexy outfits, not naked!”) This impression is compounded by the women’s performance for a group of Arab men, where they are dressed as Western approximations of Oriental harem girls in sequins and veils. Labaki’s camera re-creates the male gaze of the assembled village men through the bodily fragmentation implied in close-ups of swaying hips and posteriors.
In the same way that the image of the voraciously sexual Arabian courtesan legitimized the superiority of the respectable European woman through difference in behaviour and appearance, the film depicts a reversal of roles: within the village, the dancers’ sole function is as erotic objects, ogled and fawned over by men of all ages. Jokes come at the expense of the Ukrainians’ laziness and decadence, a stereotypical attribute of Arabs in film. They spend their days riding through the village on donkeys, smoking marijuana, and sunning themselves by the water (which leads to some unfortunate sunburns).
But as the Ukrainians spend more time with the women of the village, they become more integrated into the women’s community there, even as their presence is played for laughs. One Ukrainian woman, Katia, acts as a spy, distracting the men with her sexuality as she plants a tape recorder in their meeting room. When their manager flees the village, fearful of the threat of violence, the dancers protest that they must honour their commitment to the local women who are counting on them to put the final stage of their plan for peace into action. Indeed, they even help the villagers in the preparation of cakes for the men laced with sleeping pills and hashish. The scene is staged in the style of traditional Arab cinema, as a musical number, to which the Ukrainians lend a verse in the Russian language. However, despite their show of solidarity, the film reaffirms the idea that an unbridgeable difference exists between East and West, although in such a way as to locate the former as the moral centre. During the dance scene, Katia caresses Rabih’s face, the focus of the shot immediately shifting to the foreground and Amale’s worried expression. Noticing her tense demeanour, Katia approaches Amale and assures her that “he does not like girls like me.” When the plotting is over, the dancers are once again on their bus back to the city, accompanied by the unexpected chaperones of the priest and imam.
The climax of the film occurs after the men wake up in their own homes, confused as to how the dancing girls have disappeared. Unbeknownst to them, their hidden store of arms (discovered by the women using Katia’s information) has been raided in the night. What they cannot fail to notice is that their wives are now wearing the clothing of the “other”: Christians like Takla and Yvonne cover their heads and dress in black, while Muslims like Afaf and Fatmeh (Anjo Rihane) go uncovered, wearing the patterned dresses of their Christian friends. The eternally dramatic Yvonne and Afaf take it a step farther, the former bowing towards Mecca while kneeling on a prayer mat and the latter anointing her groggy son with holy water and incense. The message the women send their husbands through this sartorial switch is a powerful one: attack one of us and you attack us all.
Where Do We Go Now? concludes with the women achieving a powerful victory, although it’s within the limits of the societal restrictions of Lebanon rather than by the full-scale importation of ideological concepts from the imperial centre.[iii] In Where Do We Go Now? Labaki seems to say that change cannot be sweeping but must occur incrementally, with compromises made between tradition and modernity. It is at this intersection—on the road between the town’s Muslim and Christian cemeteries where so many men are buried—that Labaki implores the viewer to imagine the possibilities of peace.
[i] Julia Kristeva, “Stabat Mater,” trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Poetics Today 6, (1985): 133-152.
[ii] Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 2003), 2.
[iii] Labaki’s take on sectarism falls into the Lebanese cinema’s long been preoccupation with the legacy of the country’s Civil War (1975-1990). The image of Lebanon under siege dominates films such as Maroun Baghdadi’s Little Wars (1982) and Zaid Doueiri’s West Beirut (1998). Labaki’s first film, Caramel (2007), was hailed by Western critics as a sign of a nation’s healing and openness to exploring personal rather than communal stories.
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