Lebanon: Caramel

(2007; director: Nadine Labaki; writers: Nadine Labaki, Rodney El Haddad, Jihad Hojeily; languages: Arabic, French; original title: Sukkar banat سكر بنات; co-production with France).

According to my cursory research, Lebanon boasts one of the strongest cinematic traditions in the Arabic-speaking world (second only to Egypt), with both film-making and cinema attendance being popular pursuits from the early 20th century onwards (Wikipedia has a good overview). As such there are a wealth of films to choose from, from Lebanon’s post-independence golden age (their first contribution to Cannes was Ila Ayn? in 1958) to contemporary films from international prize-winning (female) directors such as Randa Chahal Sabag, Danielle Arbid, and Nadine Labaki. From this abundance of riches it was difficult to choose one for the blog. I was tending towards Bosta (2005), a road movie depicting the clash between tradition and modernity through the fusion of techno with traditional Levantine dance (dabkeh). It was a runaway success in Lebanon and one of few films made after the Lebanese Civil War without international funding. However, in the end I let accessibility make the decision for me, and went with the film that kept catching my eye at the local library. And so…

Caramel is a salty-sweet romantic comedy of the type that sets female friendship front and centre. Despite running an apparently successful beauty salon, 30-year-old Layale (Labaki) still lives with her parents, shares a bedroom with her brother, and sneaks into the bathroom to make clandestine calls to her married lover. Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), one of Layale’s employees, is finding it difficult to play the perfect Muslim woman her boyfriend’s family expects, and when marriage looms she realises her non-virginity is also an issue. The salon’s other employee, quiet tomboy Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), seems a little adrift until an extremely attractive client appears on the scene. Frequent client Jamale (Gisèle Aouad) and neighbouring tailor Rosie (Sihame Haddad) give insights into the lives of middle-aged and older women, where age and responsibility clash with romantic notions of beauty, fame and romance.Screenshot 2015-07-23 21.15.30

Caramel is actress Nadine Labaki’s directorial debut, and she leads a cast of largely unprofessional actors who give performances of genuine warmth and verve. It’s attractively filmed, with a deft comedic touch (one of my favourite scenes was the genre-required wedding finale, where upon looking up to catch the tossed bouquet, Layale also catches some fresh bird guano). In many ways the film is a typical romantic comedy, and would easily hold its own with many of the better Hollywood offerings of the sort. The film bubbles with meet-cutes, sexual tension, and a mustachioed policeman’s humorously unrequited desire.

But the heterosexual relationships feel like window-dressing for the film’s main focus – exploring inter-female relations in all their joys and sorrows. It is this that the film’s title connotes. Ostensibly referring to the caramel the salon uses uses for hair-removal (and snacking), caramel is also a metaphor for the film’s core relationships: sweet, indulgent, feminine, and very painful when it rips all your hair out – even though that’s what you asked for. And in contrast to many romantic comedies which set up catty competition between women, most of Caramel‘s inter-female relationships are moving ones of support and solidarity, despite disparities in age or religion, and even at the cost of romantic happiness.

Screenshot 2015-07-23 21.26.49For Labaki, the salon setting is important in facilitating these relationships. She describes it as a place where women can be women together, where women open up and reveal themselves in all their flaws and vulnerability, in the hopes of improvement. This is inevitably true, and yet it seems to me that even (or perhaps especially) within this female sanctum men’s presence is still felt. Women can be women together in their quest to be a certain kind of woman, the woman men want, and women reveal their flaws only to have them fixed or disguised. Many arguments have been made for the inherent radicality of female bonding, and in many ways I agree with them, but this film brought home to me the feminist shades of grey – that female bonding doesn’t necessarily challenge patriarchy. Instead it might just help women to survive patriarchy (which is still better than not surviving it) or at times even shore it up.

So while woman-to-woman support and friendship might rule the day in Caramel, these instances of support are often related to situations dictated by men (or oppressive gender norms). These range from the comparatively innocuous – Rosie finally accepts a makeover from the salon team when she meets a man, and now has a reason to invest in her appearance – to the more extreme: worried that her wedding night will somehow reveal her previous sexual experience, Nisrine brings her friends with her when she visits a clinic to have her ‘hymen’ ‘restored’ (illustrated by the visual metaphor of Rosie sewing). This is obviously something Nisrine needed support with, but also something nobody should feel they have to do (especially as I’m not even sure what a surgeon would actually do as my understanding was that ‘hymens’ don’t actually exist, or at least not in the sense of something that ‘breaks’ and can be ‘restored’).

For me, it is precisely this interplay between inter-female solidarity, romantic comedy tropes, and persistent patriarchal interference that makes the film interesting. Not only is it a gentle antidote to more saccharine treatments of girl power and heterosexual fulfillment (a touch of salt in the caramel, if you will), it also felt evocative of the many facets I associate with Lebanon, and particularly Beirut. The Beirut we meet in Caramel is still in some ways ‘the Paris of the Middle East’ – stylish, bohemian, indulgent, and cosmopolitan. Women are economically and socially independent, men wear hats and tailored suits, and everyone seems to speak a mixture of Arabic, French and English. Veins of sensuality and sexual promise abound, Rima’s homosexuality (while not discussed) appears to be tacitly supported by her friends, and inter-religious friendships cause no friction. And yet…

… and yet a soldier (or heavily armed policeman?) wonders what Nisrine and her boyfriend are doing in a parked car together, forcing them to get engaged. And Layale cannot get a hotel room for her and her lover without evidence of marriage. The clash between desire and authority, between expectation and surprisingly rigid reality, spoke volumes about life as a woman in contemporary Beirut – and more than a simple portrait of oppression or liberation would. In Labaki’s words:

“It started with something I used to feel and am feeling sometimes, this contradiction between [the fact that] I live in a country that is very modern and exposed to Western culture, and at the same time I’m confused between this culture and the weight of tradition, religion, education and there’s always a lot of self-censorship, self-control. I’m a little bit lost between these two things, and I don’t know who I am exactly. I looked around me and felt that all women around me were feeling the same thing.” And: “You are confused: Are you this free woman who’s doing what she wants, or are you a more conservative woman? You are searching for your identity.”

This confusion and search for identity plays out most obviously in Rima’s story, or rather that of her gorgeous client. Described by Labaki as “the perfect example of a perfect woman,” she is nevertheless happy to embrace Rima’s gentle (and sweetly sensual) nudges into a more daring lesbian identity haircut.

Screenshot 2015-07-23 21.27.30

Given the amount of armed conflict Lebanon has seen, war is conspicuous in its absence in Caramel. But I can understand the desire to paint a warmer and more dynamic picture of one’s country, especially at a time when war seemed to be a demon of the past. This is not necessarily just escapism – war can easily come to define a country, laying foundations for future violence or international disinterest. Labaki herself felt an initial conflict around the film’s ‘light’ tone and subject matter:

“[The 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War] started exactly a week after we finished shooting. It was very surprising. We thought the war was behind us, and we hadn’t imagined that one day we’d be at war again. It was very hard for us, because we had just made a film that talked about life, love, colorful women, while our country was at war. As a filmmaker, you feel like you have a mission, you want to do something for your country. We had a lot of doubts about what the film said, but now I know that it was my mission after all: This is my country, not the clichéd image that people have in their heads of a country at war. It has a message of hope.

As far as I’m concerned, Labaki has achieved her mission. Caramel was a fun, sweet film that provided a glimpse into the positive and the negative aspects of being a woman in Lebanon, and showed up the beautiful Beirut in all its cosmopolitan glory.

Bahamas: Children of God

(2010; dir: Kareem Mortimer; language: English)

The film is set in 2004, when a “gay cruise” landing in the Bahamas ignited protests and put the rights of homosexuals on the agenda in the small predominantly-Christian island nation. Amidst the protests, troubled and repressed Nassau-based art student Jonny (Johnny Ferro) is sent by his teacher on a retreat to the beautiful and sparsely populated island of Eleuthera, as an attempt to put him in touch with his emotions. There, he encounters Romeo (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a young man who has everything going for him and yet who still can’t be what is expected of him. At the same time, Lena, the wife of a hard-line anti-gay preacher arrives on the island to drum up support for an anti-gay petition.

As one of the first Bahamian feature films, and a well-reviewed one that promised a Bahamian take on an important issue, Children of God was an easy choice. The fact that it also introduced an as-yet unrepresented genre to this blog – romance – and that is the first film reviewed here to pass GLAAD’s ‘Vito Russo Test’ of GBLTQ representation onscreen were other factors in the film’s favour.

Having read a few other reviews, I had very high expectations of this film, and I have to say that it did not disappoint. The acting and production values were excellent, making the film well worthy of its cinematic release. While I don’t think it’s fair, especially in the context of a blog such as this one, to judge the quality of a film purely on its production values – the availability of resources varies wildly from film-maker to film-maker and country to country – it was comforting in some ways to return to a film that looked, sounded and felt a bit more like the films I would normally watch. This perhaps reflects the relative prosperity of the Bahamas compared to the rest of Central America and the Caribbean.

However, while the production values and style of the film may have initially put me back in my comfort zone, the narrative was anything but. Through focussing on a range of fairly well-developed characters, the film succeeds in showing the damage that homophobia and bigotry wreak on all individuals in a society. We see the most direct targets, Jonny – tormented by his repressed homosexuality – and Romeo, unable to come out to his friends and family for fear of shattering their picture of him as the perfect Bahamanian boy. Just like the Shakespearean play that the characters’ names nod to, we see a romance destroyed by prejudice. But almost more interesting for me were the characters of Lena (Margaret Laurena Kemp) and her husband Ralph (Mark Richard Ford). Her marriage in a crisis after being diagnosed with an STI she caught from her husband, and being assaulted by her husband upon revealing this, Lena flees to Eleuthera with her son. Meanwhile, her virulently anti-gay preacher husband Ralph trawls gay bars for (unprotected) sex. Dominated by her husband (an early line from Ralph that chilled me to the bone: “you don’t say anything. You submit!”), she takes her fear, anger and disgust towards her husband out on her son instead, a child who is desperately trying to conform to the strict norms of heterosexuality his parents demand: “but those are girls’ toys, I can’t play with those”. In a society where homophobia is allowed to proliferate, parents are set against children, wives against husbands, neighbours against neighbours, pastors against pastors, lovers against lovers, and even self against self.

It definitely must be said that the film’s scenes of homophobia and domestic abuse were depressing, and archival footage of some of the real anti-gay rallies that were occurring in the Bahamas was actually downright shocking (I won’t quote the signs the protestors were carrying because nobody needs to read that stuff). But, like Romeo and Juliet, the heart of the film is the romance between the two central characters. This introduces a weight of beauty, humour, tenderness, lightness and hope into the film that makes the dark stuff feel peripheral. And the number of characters who come out in support of the pair towards the end of the film was also cheering – Romeo’s best friend, Jonny’s initially disapproving Dad, and the wonderful voice of Christian reason/love – the Reverend Ritchie (Van Brown). I found the latter’s public stance against Lena’s homophobic preaching very moving, and it is his perspective that gives the film its name – that all people are Children of God.

[SPOILERS BELOW! GO WATCH THE FILM AND READ THE REST LATER!]

I would argue that it is in fact the very beauty and lightness of the central romance that make the film, and its end, so powerful. In a narrative sense it gives the viewer something to root for – that Romeo and Jonny will defeat homophobia and be happy together. Romeo and Jonny seem ‘meant to be’. But of course, I was – perhaps willfully – forgetting my Shakespeare. While watching the film I was likening it to another gay youth narrative, that in the delightful Swedish film Fucking Åmål (realeased in some places under the title Show Me Love). In that film the two youths eventually become secure in their lesbian identity and each other, proudly coming out as a couple. With both Jonny and Romeo in each working up to this moment in different ways, this was the end I was hoping for. What I got instead was a punch to the gut that left me in tears. The fact is that homophobia and prejudice aren’t only social ills that divide people from one another, they are also deadly. It isn’t enough for Jonny and Romeo to stand up proud for whom they love. Pride and acceptance are not enough. Although fighting for pride and acceptance is important, if other Jonnies and Romeos are to have a future then they must be able to live in a society where homophobia and prejudice is stamped out. And that is a battle that everybody can fight, regardless of sexuality.

While the message of the film can be seen as a fairly universal one, the film also came across as firmly Bahamian. The evocative scenery of Eleuthera (from the Greek for ‘freedom’, apparently) and the excellent soundtrack of Bahamian beats were more than window dressing but actually furthered the story – creating an easy-going, beautiful place of freedom for Romeo and Jonny to develop their romance before facing the realities of Nassau. Also interesting was the intersection of nationalist and homophobic rhetoric in the polemics of Lena and Ralph – the religious movement they belong to in the film is taken from a real one, called ‘Save the Bahamas’. Like in countries around the world, nation and culture are invoked as a means to sow and legitimise hate – rhetoric that has less to do with the individual country and more to do with the spread of religious traditions that seek to divide and conquer. I would be interested to know how the film was received in the Bahamas, and if homophobia has lost any traction since 2004 (a cursory Wikipedia glance suggests… not really).

In sum, I thought it was an well-executed, captivating and affecting film that deserves a wider audience. I also learned that the Bahamas are beautiful, but also have a lot of scary issues with homophobia.