Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki's long road back to Cannes

The filmmaker is only the second Arab woman to be entered for Cannes’ prestigious Palme d’Or

In this ever-increasing age of women's empowerment, demanding equal pay and the Time's Up movement, Nadine Labaki is a pioneer, a woman who has been doing it her way since her very first steps on to the world cinema landscape. In fact, with the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival starting today, Labaki has already made history there.

That's because, with her latest work, the Lebanese filmmaker is one of only two women from the Arab world selected to compete for the Palme d'Or, preceded by her compatriot Heiny Srour, whose film The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived was chosen for the main Competition in 1974.

Competing for the Palme d’Or

Labaki's highly anticipated Capharnaum, which is mysteriously described in the synopsis as a film "about a child who rebels against the life imposed on him and launches a lawsuit against his parents", will, however, be the third work the filmmaker has screened at the prestigious Cannes festival.

Her first, Caramel, premiered in the Director's Fortnight sidebar in 2007, while Where Do We Go Now? was screened in Un Certain Regard in 2011.

Her latest film sounds eerily like Irreconcilable Differences in 1984 starring Drew Barrymore, or even appears to be jumping out of scandalous headlines involving child stars like Macaulay Culkin and Aaron Carter. But when The National caught up with Labaki on Sunday, just as the historic general election was winding down in Beirut, the filmmaker dismissed any similarities.

"No, it has nothing to do with that," she chimed in, saying that the film is "about a child who is basically asking his parents, 'Why did you bring me into this world if you're not capable of caring for me, and you're not capable of loving me? You're going to make me suffer, you are going to reject me and just not care for me, and leave it for fate to raise me?'"

Everything is told through the point of view of a 12-year-old boy, and according to Labaki, the story is not “completely fictional and it’s really inspired by a lot of kids I’ve seen lately”.

While Labaki continues with the grading process of the film in Beirut, working on it until the very last minute before its world premiere, what we do know is that Capharnaum is set to question the responsibility of parents who bring children into a less-than-perfect environment.

A film five years in the making

Anyone familiar with the filmmaker’s work will realise that the query will undoubtedly be answered with Labaki’s usual flair for humour and telling the human side of even the most political parts of life.

Capharnaum has been in the making for the past five years for Labaki. Three of those were spent researching and writing the film, "talking to a lot of children who have been facing abuse and lack of love, lack of affection, no education, you know, kids you are really facing extreme neglect" around Lebanon, she says.

Her research drove her to interact with children in detention centres, juvenile prisons and down-and-out neighbourhoods in her home country.

Shooting the film took six months, and the protagonists are, in Labaki’s own words, “people who have been facing almost the same situation” in their own lives.

Once shooting wrapped, the filmmaker found herself with 500 hours of rushes, and so began a year and a half of “non-stop editing, when every day we wouldn’t stop before two o’clock in the morning”.

There were rumours as early as the spring of last year that Capharnaum would be in Cannes. But it was the news of making it into the highly prestigious Competition line-up at the festival that sent the entire team into clamorous celebrations, the sounds of which could be heard reverberating throughout Labaki's social media accounts.

When asked about the first thought that went through her mind, the filmmaker admits that it was "Huge. It was a big moment for me." She then says that "the news came as a big recognition and the film needs that kind of recognition, that kind of exposure, because what I'm hoping for this film to do is open the debate about this very delicate subject".

'Proud to be a filmmaker'

Labaki not only offers her own wisdom without hesitation, but also addresses my next three questions in one perfectly rounded answer. When asked what it means to be a woman filmmaker during these times of change, she is quick to answer with grace.

“For me, I’m proud to be able to express myself through cinema, and I’m proud to be able to express my views as a woman.”

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But her own pioneering ways over the past decade have always been inspired by a sense of belonging to a cinematic community, regardless of her gender, and her next statement proves that, as she says: "I'm proud to be a filmmaker period. It doesn't matter for me, it's not because I'm a woman that I feel it differently."

Labaki believes in change, and feels optimistic about the equal rights waves that are taking hold today, particularly when it comes to the entertainment industry, because “these kinds of movements are able to open the debate, and the debate is going to be able to both apply and implement change”.

Her acceptance to the Competition in Cannes, she notes, could be “very encouraging for other female directors or women who are dreaming of becoming filmmakers”.

When I ask whether she feels this change is on its way, Labaki offers some last words of wisdom.

“Of course it’s coming soon. I can feel it – it’s here.”

The world premiere of Nadine Labaki’s Capharnaum will take place at Cannes Film Festival on May 17. The festival runs from today until May 19. See www.festival-cannes.com