Read the full transcript from BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture Series: Nadine Labaki
Jeremy Brock: Good afternoon I’m Jeremy Brock. Welcome to our fifth screenwriters’ lecture in conjunction with Lucy Gard and the JJ Charitable Trust. I am enormously honoured to announce that our next speaker is the internationally renowned Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki. Her films include Caramel, Where Do We Go Now? and the stunningly poignant Capernaum, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Nadine will give a talk followed by a Q&A with the British Council’s Director of Film Briony Hanson, after which as we always do we will open it up to questions from the floor. So ladies and gentlemen, Nadine Labaki.
Nadine Labaki: Hi. I want to start by really thanking you for being here, thanking everybody for inviting me here for this great honour. This is my first time doing a lecture; I’ve never really done this before. I don’t really consider myself to be a screenwriter—I do it because I need to do it, because I want to express myself through the films I do. So I don’t know if what I’m going to say is actually going to be a lecture, I’m simply going to share my experience with you, the small experience I’ve had—I’ve done three films until now. I’ve done Caramel, Where Do We Go Now? and Capernaum. I don’t know if you’ve seen them all. So that’s what I’m basically going to be doing, sharing my experience. That doesn’t have to be the right one but it’s my way of making films, especially when you grow up in Lebanon where there’s no film industry.
Back then when I started doing my first film and dreaming about working in this field there were no films being done, so I really learned as I went. I really learned with my first film and I almost—I lured my producer into thinking I was actually able to make a film when I didn’t really know how to even write a screenplay. So it’s really—I learned my craft as I started working. I just want to start from, maybe from the beginning. I’m going to be also talking about not only the screenwriting but also the filmmaking process and the editing process, because for me they sort of complement each other, complete each other, because for me it’s like the writing process continues until the last moment. The film keeps being rewritten as we evolve into this adventure until the last moment really.
So I’m going to go back a little bit to how this whole adventure for me started in making films. I grew up in a war-torn country, Lebanon. And growing up during the war, I think you don’t really have a normal childhood. We used to spend a lot of time in shelters, we used to spend a lot of time at home with sandbags obstructing our windows. So there—boredom was a really big part of my childhood, apart from the fact that there was this fear of not knowing what was going to happen tomorrow, but also boredom because we couldn’t play outside, we couldn’t sometimes go to school for a very long time. So I think the TV set that was right in the middle of the living room started becoming very important in my life. It was a time also because of the war that there was no power most of the time, so we used to—the highlight of the day actually for my sister and I was the time that there was actually power and we could be able to watch TV.
We used to devour everything that was on TV, watching anything. Sometimes stupid TV series, Egyptian films, American series; I learned English watching Dallas and Dynasty—
Yes I was a big fan. I remember very well how I made my first connection between the word ‘baby,’ that I heard from somebody talking and reading in Arabic ‘baby,’ so this is how I started doing the connection between what I heard and what I read, and that’s how I learned English really. So I was the first one in class when we started English later on.
Anyway, for me films started becoming a very big part of my life, a very important part of my life. It really—because also we were very lucky because we used to live above a video rental store, a small video rental store, so we used to sneak behind the sandbags and go inside and spend hours renting and looking at films and choosing films and sometimes renting the same films over and over again because there wasn’t a big choice during the war. So we used to watch the same films also again and again until the VHS tape was completely destroyed.
Watching films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, like Grease, like Annie, I remember Back to the Future, it really allowed me to escape the reality I used to live in, to escape and experiment life differently, to in a way empathise with characters, to live different stories, to understand dance and music more. To really dream and really escape the boredom of my childhood. So when I discovered that to be able actually to create those stories that have nothing to do with my own story, in order to do that I had to become a filmmaker. I decided very early that this is what I wanted to do in life, I wanted to become a filmmaker. I wanted to write stories, I want to be able to dream, I want to escape through films.
I told my father very early I wanted to make films and at that point there were no films being done at all because of the war, the industry was completely dead, so of course he smiled and said ‘yes,’ because in a way I was also realising his dream. My grandfather used to have a movie theatre, a very humble movie theatre in the village where my father was born, and I remember how my father used to tell me that he’d go to the movie theatre and spend so much time in the projection room dreaming through those images that he used to see on the big screen. In a way I sort of inherited this love from him, and my sister is also doing the same thing, so we’ve inherited this love of storytelling and filmmaking.
I don’t know if I should be telling you this, but then I went to film school and after I finished film school I wanted to learn my craft, I wanted to see how we actually learn it. Unfortunately there was no film industry, there were no films being shot, so I couldn’t really go on set and see other filmmakers work or other filmmakers do their thing and understand the rules and how it actually functioned and the structure and all that. So I started working in advertising—this became in a way my lab; I learned things, I experimented things. When I really started dreaming of making my first film I didn’t know how to tackle it.
I really, for me I lured my producer into making her believe I could actually make a film when I really didn’t know how to make a film. So I started learning as I went and I created I think, my own way of working. It doesn’t have to be the right way but it worked for me. It worked for me a mixture between having a very solid script, but later on working with non-professional actors, bringing people from real life, asking them to be and not to really act, because I truly believed that when you’re watching somebody who’s actually living that same life on the big screen or living almost the same life on the big screen it has a completely different impact on you as a viewer, knowing that the struggle is actually a real struggle. I think you leave the theatre with a completely different impact.
So first of all the scriptwriting, the screenwriting experience, had to be fun for me. I didn’t want to feel like I was working. I’m not a very disciplined person, so for me to be writing on my own was somehow very painful. I didn’t know how to really talk to myself. For me it was very important that I share, that I talk, that I put those ideas out there and I debate with somebody. This Ping-Pong effect was very important for me. So we started writing with my friends and the human connection of course is very important. So I was writing with one of my best friends in the beginning and then the group started getting bigger and so for me it’s really—writing at home is very important because it allows me—of course, being a mother it allows me to be close to my children and not feeling that I’m really working.
So during the writing process there’s a lot of other things happening; a lot of breastfeeding and a diaper changing, a lot of napping time, a lot of sharing—eating together, a lot of coffee and tea drinking. No discipline is actually the word, it’s not a very structured and disciplined way of working. Sometimes we spent really hours or the whole day at home just talking about something else, something that has nothing to do with the film, but I think that’s—I started feeling more creative when I was actually talking about an idea, putting the idea out there and debating. And it actually allowed me to have a very direct reaction to the idea, because you have also a viewer, you have some sort of viewer in front of you, you’re debating. It was very important for me that I’m surrounded with people when I’m working and that we’re debating about it.
Later on—I did, of course, my two first films, and actually when we started working I didn’t know if we were doing things the right way so we invented a way of working, and when I actually had my first script of Caramel in my hands I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was beautifully binded and all that. I couldn’t believe I was actually able to write ninety pages—I think it was about ninety pages—of a film. I started doing it not really believing I was every going to finish that thing. Actually we finished it and we shot it and it was a beautiful film that went to Cannes and it was a very big success and it sold all over the world, but maybe it also has to do wit the fact that growing up in Lebanon the teacher used to tell us in school ‘you see that very invisible dot on the map, this is Lebanon.’ You feel like you're coming from a very small, invisible place, that you can never really achieve anything great because you’re from such a small country and almost invisible. You feel really invisible.
Really when you start actually achieving things, it’s almost unbelievable. It feels like a fairy-tale. The first time we went to Cannes was an amazing memory for me because a few years back I would go to Cannes as a student or a normal spectator and I used to beg people to get an invitation to go watch a film. Cannes is very harsh so then going there with your own film and the doors being open and being considered like you’re part of the family is unbelievable, until now.
Then—let me see where I am in my notes—OK so I wrote my first film, I did my second, I wrote my first film and my second, and my second film was called Where Do We Go Now? and also it went to Cannes, but then with my third one, which is the most recent one, Capernaum, I started to feel the need to research before writing. I started—because being now in the world where nothing is going the right way, you feel like you’re living in a chaos. And especially living in Lebanon, a country that now is hosting over a million and a half Syrian refugees and also being a very small country that is already facing its own economical problems, you feel the chaos all around you.
The sight of those children on the streets either begging or working, the sight of those communities of people completely invisible, treated as if they’re not there, treated as if they don’t exist. Those images of those children over the Internet—I don’t know if you remember the child who was found dead on the shores of Turkey a few years back, the image of those children dying of chemical weapons in Syria, or hearing about the children being separated from their families on the Mexican border—I feel like there’s a lot of things that we need to defend in a way. I felt like I can’t really be silent anymore, because by being silent I am almost part of it, part of the crime. It’s one of the biggest crimes. I don’t know how we’re not now actually all of us on the streets—manifested, what’s the word?—
NL: Protesting for it. So I felt when I saw this image of this child on the shores of Turkey, I felt that if he was able to talk, if he were to talk, what would he tell us? What would he say to the world that is actually doing to him? What did he feel the moment he fell in the water? What were his dreams? What did he feel in that moment? Did he know where he was going? Did he know what was the adventure he was embarking on? What was this boy that was standing next to my car window, looking at me not looking at him, how does he feel to be completely invisible? How does he feel to be completely non-existent? Because this is what we usually do, unfortunately. We tend to not look because sometimes the problem is too big and we feel like we can’t do anything about it so we choose to continue our lives.
So I felt responsible in a way. I felt I can’t just continue being silent. So I want to talk about this. And I was coming back home one night and I saw another child siting on a cement block, it was one o’clock in the morning and he was just dozing off not being able to sleep, and he was about one or one and a half years old. And I came back home and I drew a picture of a child shouting at adults. And this, actually, became my latest film Capernaum. It became the story of a child who was going to sue his parents for giving him life because it was inspired by all the research that we were doing—to go back to the research process that I was talking to you about, it was very important in order to start becoming the vehicle for these children to express themselves, because this is what I felt like doing, I wanted to become their voice in a way, I wanted to be able to understand exactly what goes on in their heads—what is the behind the scenes of their life? What happens when this child disappears around the corner and I don’t see him and I go ‘where does he go? Who is his family?’
So we started this whole research process and I knew how important this research process is because I felt I was not actually entitled to invent this story. I haven’t been there, I haven’t been in those shoes, so I’m not entitled to come up with the story. I’m not entitled to fantasise the story, I have to know what the real story is. And this is my mission, is actually to capture this and put a magnifying glass on it. In a way humanise it. Because of course we hear about it in the news and we treat it like a big abstract problem, but we forget to sometimes put a face on the problem and I think sometimes cinema can have a much—has this bigger mission, actually, to humanise the problem, to put a face on the problem. It has the face of a child or a woman or a man struggling, and actually it can have a completely different impact on you as a human being when you know this is an actual struggle. This is actually somebody having this same struggle in their real life.
So we started this research, going everywhere in Lebanon. Going to the most unfortunate places, the most difficult neighbourhoods talking to lots of children and also trying to understand the point of view of the parents, also talking to lots of parents. Also trying to understand the point of view of justice—how does the justice system work? We spent so much time in courts just observing how does this justice system work when it’s facing a child, whether the child is there because he needs protection or because he’s committed some kind of criminal act? And we saw lots of children and spoke to lots of children and we’re talking about children who are facing extreme neglect, not any unhappy children. We’re talking about children who have been abused, who have been raped, who have been tortured, children who have been beaten up a lot, children who never hear a nice word.
So I just started translating those discussions we used to have into this story. Translating the way they were angry, because I used to ask them one question at the end of the conversation which was ‘are you happy to be alive?’ and most of the time, unfortunately, the answer was no. ‘I wish I was dead. I don’t know why I’m here if nobody’s going to love me, if I’m going to be beaten up every day, if I’m going to be raped…’ Why, why, why? This anger all the time of ‘why am I here?’ So I started translating this, trying to translate it, and that’s how it became this story of a child who was going to sue the world, actually, for bringing him into his life and not giving him his most fundamental rights.
During the research process, I knew that I was going to be working with non-professional actors, actors who are not really actors, who are living that same struggle. I knew that it was important for me to become in a way to create a platform through my film, to create a platform for them to express themselves. So I used to go on this research every day and come back home and debate and remember the scenes and remember the dialogues and remember the details, small details that we used to see, and started weaving them into a story. So the whole story of Capernaum is actually a mixture—yes a mixture of all the scenes we used to see.
Of course it started with wanting to talk about the child and child labour and a child not receiving his most fundamental rights, but slowly we understood that you cant talk about child labour without talking about paperless children. You can’t talk about paperless children without talking about the absurdity of having to have a paper to prove you exist, the absurdity of borders; without talking about the Syrian refugee crisis or the refugee crisis overall; without talking about modern slavery; without talking about human trafficking; without talking about early marriage. Everything, in a way we understood that everything was intertwined. Everything—all the problems were so intricately related to each other, and in each family, even if some people find it too much, that we’re talking about too many themes in the film—it’s actually reality.
Those things can actually happen in one single family. So understanding this, it was impossible like I told you not to talk about everything. So we started weaving all those themes into that story. So we had a very solid story, based on everything we used to see in those three years, but then working with non-professional actors I knew we also needed to give them the space—because they’re not professional actors it’s actually impossible to impose on them a text or expect that they memorise a text and say it in a natural way. It was actually killing the process. So for me it was very important to give them time, to give them space, to be able to adapt to their own personality and not really impose what we had written upon them. So it was a very—it was a sort of a choreography, a negotiation between their reality and the fiction that we had written.
So the film was actually being rewritten while we were shooting and this means I’ve never really thought about it. Really it was a collaborative process. They are parts of the writing process and you have to be able to allow them—in a way time was very important. We shot for so long, we shot for six months and we have over 500 hours of rushes. So you have to give them the time to understand what they’re doing, you have to be able, in a way, to become invisible and not to paralyse them. This means no marks, natural light most of the time; this means intervening the least possible, this means shooting in natural locations; this means being, in a way trying to become invisible in order for them not to feel your presence anymore. It means giving them wings by making them feel that what they say is important; in the beginning they’re very shy, they don’t know if—anyway they’re struggling in their real life to even exist, so how can whatever they have to say be important to anyone? They feel like whatever they have to say is not important so you have to create this sort of relationship for them to trust you and for them to start feeling they have the right to actually express themselves freely.
So you have to really capture their reality and then in a way navigate it towards the fiction that was written. It was an on-going process the whole time of rewriting and it also means guiding them through the take and letting it evolve organically; it means also having to talk also the whole time, which is very, very problematic—it was a nightmare of course for the editors to take my voice out because you have to guide them through it the whole time. And this meant also shooting very long takes and it meant also having an amazing crew of people that really believe in what you’re doing and not doubt at any time what you’re doing. What we were doing was a little bit crazy; sometimes we used to really shoot for hours with the cameras on their shoulders, boom operators in this position, and you have to have a crew that really believes in what you’re doing in order for them to stay, to be with you on this adventure.
And I think in a way it also, the fact that we felt that life—art was imitating life so, so, so closely that life started imposing itself on us in a way. We had very strange things happening to us on this shoot—two days after, I don’t know if you’ve seen it—how many of you have seen Capernaum? So for the people who have seen it there’s a scene where Rahil is being captured because she doesn’t have any papers. Two days after we shoot that scene, Rahil is captured in real life, for exactly the same reasons. So she lives, she goes through the same situations. And the father and mother of the child in the film Yonas, who is actually a girl in real life, her name is Treasure, are arrested with her at the same time. So when we were shooting those scenes with Treasure where Treasure is without her mother, she was actually in reality without her mother. So you, in a way you start feeling that you’re actually capturing reality and it starts also having a very big impact on you as a human being capturing that moment; you don’t know anymore what you’re doing—is this a film? Is this reality? This kept really happening the whole time with us.
I think because we so wanted to allow it, we wanted to embrace also whatever life was going to bring our way. It meant not being afraid of just walking outside the paved ways in a way, walking outside the box; it meant also shooting things, not being afraid of continuity, because the fear of continuity usually is a very big fear. And we sometimes used to—and you can’t expect, especially when you’re working with children, you can’t expect them to do what you want them to do exactly at the time you want them to do it. So you really have to be adaptable. Sometimes you shoot certain scenes that were not supposed to happen at the time that we were shooting them but because it was adequate then we used to take it and put it in a different scene. And we had lots of scenes where you don’t see it but there’s a big continuity problem; they’re actually wearing different clothes, they’re actually—but you don’t really feel it because you’re so drawn into what’s happening in the scene that you don’t really notice they’re wearing different clothes. You need to be, in a way, adaptable, and really adapt to their own rhythm and not adapt to your way of working or to your mise-en-scene or a certain camera movement.
So that's why I was talking about allowing reality to give us or in a way to impose on us and to embrace what happens. That’s why I want to show you a small clip of the film, I don’t know if we can see that first…
I just wanted to talk to you about the moment where she’s waving to her nephew. This was exactly something that really happened and we shot it. Souad, her name was Kawsar in real life, is also coming from the same—almost the same situation that she’s playing in the film. In the moment we were in that courtyard in that prison, this is a very harsh, well-known prison in Lebanon, a very famous prison in Lebanon. And she was actually the whole time being very anxious and I spoke to her and I said, ‘Kawsar what’s happening?’ and she said, ‘My nephew is in one of those cells and I don’t want him to see me. I’m afraid of his reaction if he sees me acting in a film. I haven’t visited in a very long time.’ And ten minutes later I hear her starting to shout, and we were having lunch behind the buses and all that and I start hearing her shouting and I see her actually talking to her nephew. So he saw her and he called her and she started talking to him. And we were all the time very ready to shoot what life was going to give us, also whatever the word was never to stop shooting. So we just stopped eating and we take our cameras and we start shooting. This was a moment, this was a real moment. She’s talking to her nephew, and she says ‘all of you are in the same cell together?’ and he says ‘yes,’ and she says, ‘God bless.’ We embraced it and we put it in the film because I thought also that it was a very almost important trait about her character, about where she comes from, about who she is, her situation.
Stuff like that used to happen all the time. There was another scene also that I’d like you to see but before that… Let’s see the scene and then I will explain…
OK so this is one of those scenes we shot in the souk and to go back to the idea of allowing everything to happen and to become almost invisible, we shot in most—all of the scenes in real locations with the real people, no extras whatsoever. We didn’t stop anything, we didn’t stop the people from walking in and out of the frame, we didn’t stop the sound. We just shot with everything that was happening. And what was very funny was we had two cameras filming that scene. People would actually enter the frame, go and start talking to Aspro and negotiating, asking for—I don’t know ‘I want a lipstick,’ negotiating the price while we were actually filming as if they didn’t see us. As if it were fascinating to actually see how invisible we really had become and how we really allowed everything to happen. Actually people were coming in and buying things from Aspro, Aspro was negotiating the price and paying and they would leave, and we would continue the scene. Of course I wish some of it were in the film because it fascinates me; that’s also something I will talk about later, having to pick out lots of very interesting things. Actually the first version of the film was twelve hours.
Yes. And I still find it very hard to say now that this is the last edit of the film. I’m still editing it in my head the whole time. I keep waking up my husband every night and saying ‘what do you think? Should we have done that?’ He’s a nightmare; he’s a producer of the film and the music composer of the film and it keeps haunting me because of those very precious, real moments that unfortunately we’ve put a lot of them but we couldn’t put everything. So that was an example just to show you that sometimes it doesn’t have to be so structured, it doesn’t have to be—we can actually shoot with the sound, with everything else going on; you just have to really know what you’re doing. That’s why it’s very important you can’t really improvise when, if you don’t know what you’re doing. You need to start from a very solid script and actually Eric Dolphy once said it’s like jazz; you can only improvise when you really know the music. You need a very strong foundation in order to be free.
So I think that’s what we used to do. it’s very important that you have this very strong foundation which is the script, you know where you’re starting, where you’re going, what’s your story—then within it you’re not afraid to just improvise and get out of the paved ways because you know where you’re going.
What else shall I tell you? For some people it sounds like chaos and actually the word Capernaum means chaos, but it also means miracles, so things like that used to happen all the time. And I’ll tell you about a small miracle, also, at the end of our talk. But small miracles used to happen like this all the time on this shoot in the middle of all this chaos.
And there’s another very important ingredient when you’re doing this, when you’re improvising and working with non-professional actors. It may sound a little naïve but it’s actually love. Really loving your characters, being fascinated by them, by who they are. Building this trust relationship, because I’m also maybe in a way fascinated with human behaviour. I’m fascinated with how we react towards certain things and how it feels to be in other people’s shoes. Maybe its’ because I’m also bored with my own personality because I want to explore my other natures, and I truly believe there are other natures in all of us. And actually it’s the only place, cinema is the only place where it’s actually legal for you, and legitimate for you, to explore your other natures. Otherwise in real life you’re labelled as crazy. You cannot be reacting differently every day.
To a lot of people who work in this industry who are filmmakers, screenwriters, actors, I think we love our jobs because it also allows us to get away from ourselves, the boredom of our own personalities because we need to explore our other natures. I’m trying to remember what was the third scene. Ah yes, can we put the third scene on?
I’m showing you this clip because this was a moment where again I asked Kawsar to just forget everything, we’re not shooting a film, she has to look at me at that moment and look at me as the society that judges her and just spit out all her anger. Here it’s actually a moment where she’s talking about her own life but also adapting it to the screenplay we had written in a way. And it was amazing to see this, see how both were connected in a way. She used to give her children water and sugar because she couldn’t give them anything else, she didn’t have the means to give them anything else. She, until now, her children are eighteen years–old and ten years-old, are not declared because she couldn’t declare them when they were born. She’s talking about herself her but through Souad, who’s the mother of Zain in the film. So it was—even she was a little bit confused between, not really confused but playing with her real life and her own struggle and adapting it to the screenplay, adapting it to the story she was telling. And it was so close together that she didn’t feel like she was acting at that moment. In that moment she was not acting, she was being herself. Anyway the word acting didn’t really have a place in the film—I wasn’t asking them to, I never asked them to act. I was just asking them to be who they are.
I think we were so ready to just capture also their—create a platform for them to express themselves, that it actually happened and she was actually grabbing in real life the opportunity to stand in front of a real judge, and here he’s a real judge, the judge in the film is a real judge. So she actually grabbed the opportunity of standing in front of a real judge and spitting out her anger towards the system, towards me and also the society that judges her, the lawyer that judges her, and everybody else that has been so harsh on her during her whole life. She’s been struggling her whole life to actually be heard, and she was never heard. She was in those courts so many times before without anybody listening to her and now she just grabbed that opportunity to just say out loud what she wanted. So it was a very important moment for every one of us, including her, because she really grabbed that moment. And that moment is now also in a way not exceeding but becoming more than just a film it’s actually becoming a debate in Lebanon and things hopefully will change because they were able to really express their own struggle and put it up there on the big screen.
Actually the fact that we really shot chronologically for a long time allowed them to be able to really grasp their story and understand it and grow with it. Actually Younas, Treasure—her name is Treasure the little girl—actually she made her real first steps during the shooting of the film. So the children were growing, the parents were growing, everybody—we were growing by, as a crew, by everything we used to see. And it was very difficult to know that we’re actually grasping real moments, we’re actually shooting—Kawsar lives in those slums that you see in the film—her house is one of the houses, this shot where the camera goes out and up and you see all the tyres on those houses an the tiles, her house is actually one of those houses. We used to go there, shoot in their neighbourhoods, sit on their sofas, eat their food, breathe the same air, share so many things during the shoot. But then we used to go home and sleep in a warm bed. So it was actually very difficult emotionally to do that every day, to know that we were there in their reality but then we’re leaving them there.
So it was very nurturing also the whole process of spending so much time and understanding it and really living there with their problems, almost shooting in the sewers, we were shooting in the sewers because unfortunately this is the reality. And having the voices, those cries of the children around us all the time as if it was a background sound of children crying the whole time.
So now we go to the editing phase. In the editing phase is actually the place, the phase where we rewrite the film for the third time and it’s really the most difficult decision-making process, especially when you have over 500 hours of rushes and you like every bit of it. The first version, like I told you, is twelve hours. It’s a nightmare when you know the film when you’re editing when you know the film and take so many different directions and so many different structures; it doesn’t have to be the way you had written it. It can be rewritten, it can have a different structure. And it’s very difficult to take those decisions and I think as filmmakers and as screenwriters we’re lacking one very crucial element, one gift that is usually a blessing: We don’t have this gift of seeing the film as if for the first time, like a normal viewer. This is something we will never be able to achieve and it’s actually only then that you are able as a filmmaker to take the right decisions. And I went to so many different things, I went to crazy stuff, I actually tried hypnosis in order to try to forget the film.
I spoke to a friend of mine who does hypnosis, I said, ‘can you make me forget everything about the film for only two hours and make me watch this film as if I am seeing it for the first time like any normal viewer who’s watching the film for the first time?’ She said ‘oh no, no, you’re crazy we can’t do that.’
So I really couldn’t. So what we did also; it’s really difficult to take decisions when you are so, I think, when you’ve been diving in this adventure for such a long time—two years of editing, six months of shooting, three months of research. The whole thing took four years of my life where I was working on this every single day. It’s difficult to really have the distance that you need in order to take the right decisions. So I did a lot of screenings, test screenings, where we used to listen to really everyone’s opinions, take notes and listen and analyse and see why, without really interfering and convince anyone of the opposite opinion. I just wanted to understand how does a person who is seeing this film for the first time perceive it. What are the flaws? And it’s very important. It helps a lot. But I’m still not able to say I am done. I’m not able to let go and say ‘that’s it, that’s the finished product.’ Because I know that so many beautiful, precious moments inside those 500 hours are not there and maybe I will never be able to share them with anyone.
So you never really have peace, in a way, when you’re making a film. I think I’m not the only one, I think a lot of filmmakers go through this and I’m sure if you ask many of them they would tell you ‘I wish I could re-edit my film ten years later.’ I think now I’ve understood that in the process the next time, if I find a producer who’s crazy enough to do this, maybe take a year off—like do a first edit of the film, take six months off maybe even a year off, do something else, wash my eyes, work on another project, and then go back and rediscover that film and edit with fresh eyes. I think it’s the most precious thing that can actually enlighten you as a filmmaker when you’ve been diving so much in your material.
I don’t know what else I want to tell you. I told you about waking up in the middle of the night. Ah, I wanted to tell you that also—I told you that the title of the film Capernaum means chaos and miracles, and I told you that miracles kept happening the whole time, and now when I look at Zain’s smile at the end of the film it has a completely different meaning for me because now Zain, who’s been living in almost the same circumstances, has a Norwegian passport now. He’s been resettled in Norway, he’s living a completely different life, he’s going to school, he’s regained his childhood, and life keeps reminding me in a way that I don’t know what it is but in the film Zain used to dream of going to Sweden and now he’s in Norway. In the film Rahil and her son get deported; they are now back—they were deported back and now they are in Kenya. In the film I don’t remember what else, but reality keeps haunting us in a way and reminding us that what we were doing was not just another film. And that’s it, and I think another miracle is actually me standing here giving a lecture—
—about my film, being among all those amazing filmmakers and screenwriters is actually yes, another miracle. So thank you for listening to me.
I don’t know if I was too long.
Briony Hanson: No that was perfect. Thank you so much. I’m going to fundamentally disagree with two things that you said. One is that you are not a screenwriter, and the other is that you’re not a lecturer. You’re clearly both things. Thank you so much, that was amazing.
I’ve got so much I want to ask you about and I know lots of people will have too, so we’ll get straight on with it. Just explain to us, with this last film—was there ever a point where you had an actual script?
NL: Yes, of course.
BH: Before you started, and then you just stole things as you went along.
NL: Yes absolutely, and there was a very, very solid script. And I think you can’t really expect to improvise not knowing where you’re going and really succeed in doing that. It’s very difficult. It’s only when you really know your material very, very well that you allow yourself to improvise. Because it’s not scary anymore, you know where you’re going, you know what you’re going to keep from that; what is good, what is actually adding some kind of value to what you’ve written and what you don’t really need in what you want to say because you know what the scene has to tell. You know where you’re starting, where it needs to land, and what the scene needs to tell as a story. You know what you want, so it’s actually not scary anymore to improvise because you know what you will keep and what you will not keep.
And it’s actually also nurturing because it’s very—for me at least, I’m not saying this doesn’t apply to other filmmakers, of course, but for me it’s more challenging that way. I’m not interested in just sticking to what I had written because I need to in a way discover things and be surprised, and the surprise element keeps you going, gives you so much adrenaline when you’re working and when you’re actually thinking that was a real moment. This is not something I’ve written or imagined or fantasised about, this is a reality. Especially when you’re trying to make a film that is in a way the closest possible to reality, and it’s the biggest compliment to me when people tell me they ‘I thought I was looking at a documentary, but then I understood it was a fiction.’ Because this is what I wanted to achieve, really, because I think cinema can have a much bigger impact on you as a viewer when you’re really thinking this is an actual struggle and you’re really not thinking it, it’s actually feeling it. You know that this is Zain’s life when you’re watching it, you know that this is Rahil’s life when you’re watching it. You know it’s not make believe.
BH: Can you imagine, now you’ve had this experience, which must have been really different from the experiences on the other two films—can you imagine going back to a more conventional sitting down with a blank piece of paper and starting from scratch, or will you always now have an element of this in your work?
NL: I think yes, I think in a way when you go this path it’s difficult to go back. It’s difficult—unless, I don’t know it’s a complete fantasy or a film that is very different from real life, then yes. But if I want to continue doing that kind of cinema it’s difficult. At least I know now how precious research is; how precious and how much confidence it gives you when you’re knowing that this is actually what you’re saying is true, you’re not inventing a story. I’m not saying this doesn’t apply to all schools of filmmaking. It really applies to this kind of filmmaking that I am into right now. It doesn’t mean that other kinds of films that are completely fantasised are not great. There’s masterpieces like that, but for now I think I’m interested in that. I don’t know how long I will keep doing it. Maybe one day I will shift completely, but I’m interested in reflecting reality and interested in telling real stories. I’m interested in showing real struggles because it’s not even a choice for me in a way, it’s a duty. I don’t know why I feel this. Maybe living in Lebanon and growing up in Lebanon in such a difficult complicated country where nothing is going the way it should. Sometimes I feel like it’s a curse region—that’s also why it’s called Capernaum, because Capernaum is a village cursed, visited by Jesus and there used to be a lot of miracles there, so it’s a mixture of curse and chaos and miracles.
So I feel the responsibility of being an artist living in Lebanon. You feel like it’s a duty to use your tool to actually make some kind of change. At least if you can’t achieve change then at least trigger debate. It’s not a choice for me, I need to do that, I feel that mission for now.
BH: You feel it now, you didn’t always feel it, did you? When you set out to make Caramel, you felt like everyone else—
NL: Yes absolutely. I think it’s something that comes with age, with maturity, with motherhood, feeling or wanting to be more politically engaged or socially engaged. It comes with time and maturity. I didn’t know what I was doing when I made my first film. I didn’t know what really worked for me; I was learning, really my craft while I was making my first film. Now I know I need time when I’m working on a film to be able really to draw these kinds of performances from non-professional actors and children, or I need this organised chaos. This organised chaos, actually, gives me adrenaline, charges me with something. I cannot do things that are very structured, I cannot be paralysed in the classical way of making films. In a way it scares me. it kills me.
BH: Do you think you could have done this had you not had those earlier experiences in a more conventional—
NL: No. Absolutely not. I needed those other experiences to learn what works for me. It doesn’t mean that I love my other two films, but it was a completely different—I had a completely different personality, even. I changed, there was a before and after Capernaum for me; I changed humanly. I changed, even physically I changed, it was so challenging.
BH: You talked a little bit about, I mean you talked a lot about being a writer, you talked a lot about being a director, a little bit about being a producer as well.
BH: The other bit of your kind of hybrid that makes you a little bit unusual in this series is that you’re also an actor, and that’s how you started. Do you think that has made you a different kind of writer?
NL: Absolutely. I think the fact that you know actors well because you are also in the shoes of an actor a lot of times, I think you know what an actor needs, you know how an actor expects to be directed, you know what an actor expects also from a script he’s reading. I think it enriches you on so many levels, everything, being a director actor, producer, writer. For me, I can’t really divide myself, I’m all of those things together. It really makes me see this thing from so many different perspectives and it informs—each job actually informs the other one in a positive way.
Also being a director I work differently with actors because I was also an actor. So the relationship between the director and actor becomes much more strong when you know what an actor needs from a director and what a director needs from an actor. And being both of them, you know. And it actually I think creates a much better relationship for me as an actor with any director because I understand the director, I know what he feels, I know his fragility; I know when to talk to a director, when not to talk; when to propose something, when not to propose something; when to shake his confidence, when not to do it. You really become very delicate in this way.
BH: And when you were writing, presumably in the first two films you knew the part you were writing was going to be taken by you.
BH: Does that make you write it in a different way?
NL: When I think about it I don’t enjoy it very well because I’m afraid—
BH: The writing or the—
NL: The writing for myself. Because I’m always afraid to challenge myself, I don’t have enough confidence to challenge myself as an actor or to say I’m going to give myself a challenging part and really explore my other natures the way I really want to explore them. Because I don’t have enough confidence; I didn’t start as an actor, I started as a filmmaker and then I started acting in my own films because I felt the need to do it, I felt close to those characters, so I did it. But I don’t write challenging parts for myself because I’m afraid.
In this one, in Capernaum I was the most afraid, and the part was much more written than this. And we shot those scenes with the lawyer—in the film you understand why she’s defending Zain, what is her story; you go to her house, you understand her pain and all that. But when when I started editing the film I felt that I was the only lie in the film, I was the only person that was an actor. I was not a lawyer in real life. So it sort of was a small lie. That’s why we took everything out and we kept those small scenes, you barely see me for one minute in the film. We kept those small scenes just to understand how Zain was able to actually file a complaint and stand in front of a judge.
So for me it’s very difficult. As much as I love acting it’s very difficult to write interesting characters for myself. I don’t know if I will ever be able to do it; I’d love to because I’ve never really been able to experience that relationship between an actor and director where you really dig into your personality and you explore those other natures that are inside. You know that they’re inside but you’re afraid to let them out and you really need the love and the desire of somebody else to actually be able to let them out.
BH: Could you ever imagine writing for somebody else?
NL: Writing for—
BH: Writing for somebody else to direct. Or is it all just—
NL: Writing for somebody else to direct? No. I can’t, I can’t really let go no.
I don’t imagine myself doing it.
BH: It’s interesting though, because your first two films particularly, a lot of the reception of those two films was around the genre, how you treated genre, particularly—I think Caramel they described as an international rom-com. Somebody—I was reading a great review this morning which said it was Steel Magnolias without the terminal illness. But a lot of that is quite a conventional way of pulling apart a subject and putting it back together again. Do you really not think you could do that for somebody else, or are you just not interested in doing that for somebody else?
NL: I’ve never really thought about it. I’ve never really thought about it. I think I’m too jealous in a way. Not jealous but yes I’m too possessive over—I don’t know what I write or what I do, but it’s difficult to just let go and say ‘you can do it.’ I’ve never thought about it, it’s a very good question.
BH: Somebody will ask. The other thing—we‘ve only got a few minutes left, actually, so I’m going to go to questions very shortly, but let me just ask, do you think there is a through-line between your films? The three could not be more different, I think—the subjects, the way that you have got them together, and the way that they’ve come out. Do you see a clear sort of—is there your personality in all three films, do you still see that?
NL: Yes absolutely, I think the relationship to actors, this way of directing actors, this way of working almost all the time with non-professional actors because did this with Caramel, almost all of them were non-professional actors except the policemen I think, yes. In Where Do We Go Now? also there were maybe two or three actors in the film but the rest were non-professional actors. That relationship with actors, you feel it, this way of—that’s, I think, my favourite thing about filmmaking actually, is really drawing great performances out of people who have never acted in their life, and really having this kind of fascination towards their personalities in real life. And it shows really, it shows this fascination because the way we shoot them and magnify their personality, you can really see it. You can really feel it. It’s like this secret code I have with my actors. This is something I think really shows in all of the films.
And also maybe the humour part, finding humour in the most difficult situations, in the most absurd situations also is something I like doing. I don’t know actually if when you see Caramel and when you see Capernaum you’d say ‘I know it’s the same person doing those two films,’ I don’t know. I think Capernaum is very, very different in the way—it’s harsher, it’s less.. But I don’t know if you really see through it and really see me in all of them as a normal viewer that doesn’t know.
BH: I think also the interest that you previously have had in telling stories about women, particularly in the first two films, and then you’ve moved to the side of that—I mean did you consciously set out to make films about women in the first place and then have moved away, or was that an accident?
NL: No not at all. I think I was—it was natural for me in the first film because I was trying to understand women in my country, trying to understand the contradiction that I used to see all the time: Contradiction between what those women actually allowed themselves to be when they had different dreams, the contradiction between who you end up becoming and what you wanted to become, and trying to understand why is there so much contradiction. Why aren’t we able to actually be who we want to be? Of course because of social pressure and so many different reasons I just decided to talk about this because I felt the need to talk about this, the need to understand these different women coming from different backgrounds, different educations, different stories, different experiences, as if I was drawing—it’s not really a resume, it’s not really a summary of all women, but it was seeing it from different perspectives and trying to understand women from different ages and all that. Because I needed to understand also. I was looking around me, actually, it was at a point where I was looking around me at women and I felt sadness in most of the women I knew. There was a sort of sadness in their eyes. I never had encountered a woman that was completely fulfilled or fulfilling herself. I was actually looking for a role model and I couldn’t find it, and I started asking myself the question, that’s why I started working on this film.
The same thing for Where Do We Go Now?, it was actually also a time where I was pregnant with my first baby and conflicts erupted in Lebanon, and there were conflicts that erupted over a very short period of time, like three hours or four hours and all of a sudden Beirut was on the verge of a new civil war. Lebanon was on the verge of a new civil war. I felt at that time what would I do as a mother to stop my son from taking a weapon and going down the street and killing somebody else’s—another woman’s son? What would I do as a mother? And that’s how it became the story of the women who were going to stop their men from fighting.
So it actually always comes from a need in a way. A need to express something, a need to—something that becomes an obsessions, that is always on your mind, you’re always thinking about it. And then you express it and you turn it into a film. This is what I know, that’s my truth, and it was the same thing for this film. It was the need to just stop being silent; I felt a duty to just talk about this problem and because we’re not talking about hundreds or children or thousands of children, we’re talking about millions of children all over the world that are deprived from their most basic rights, and that was the ignition point.
Of course then later I explored many different themes, but really the igniting point with this was that there are over 280 million children across the world that work, that don’t go to school, that are living in unbearable conditions. Those children are growing up angry, they’re growing up numb most of the time. I saw kids that don’t react anymore they’ve been in such a state of shock they don’t do anything. They don’t laugh, they don’t cry, they don’t dance, they don’t play. They don’t do anything. They’ve been so traumatised, so beaten up, so raped, so abused that they are numb. Those children growing up numb we have to just be aware of the problem we’re going to face in a few years where this is going to explode in our faces one day. So I just felt the need to talk about it. As simple as that. It doesn’t come from analysing ‘oh now I’m going to talk about women, now I’m…’
BH: I’m glad you did. OK we’ve got time for just a couple of questions I’m afraid, pop your hands up. One down here and then one down here.
Q: Hello. Thank you very much for your lecture Nadine. I just wanted to ask you how the actors felt about the characters that you had created that are very close to their reality. But when you think, for example, with the woman who played Souad, it’s a pretty tough mirror of motherhood that you put in front of her. Did she express the need to not do certain things or change the character. You know, what was that relationship—or even little Zain, all these beautiful swear words that he uses through the film—did it come naturally from him, how much comes from you? Just trying to understand that dynamic.
NL: I think the fact that they felt they were part of a mission allowed them to really do everything they were doing in the film. Kawsar, Souad, mother of Zain, actually felt the need to express it because this is something she sees around her; she was inspired by someone in her family. Everything that she was doing was inspired by someone in her family. So she felt the need to express it because she felt she was part of that mission.
Everybody that was in the film was actually collaborating in that mission. Zain was doing the same thing. Zain felt he was being the voice of those voiceless kids he used to meet every day or see every day, their struggle, because Zain is coming from the same background. Zain used to—he never went to school, he’s a Syrian refugee, he’s been living in Lebanon under very, very difficult circumstances, in a very dangerous neighbourhood. So he used to struggle every day to survive, you know, getting into fights. Those swear words are his own swear words, this is the way he talks, this is his personality. It was very important for me to keep them and keep his personality because this was one of the most, I think, important signs of the violence he used to go through—that’s where you know what this kid has gone through, it’s through the language that he uses. This is nothing compared to Zain’s language. When you hear Zain getting into a fight and fighting with his friends, you think, ‘where did he learn these things? What did he see to be able to express himself this way? This was very important to keep it, because this is you know instead of showing him getting into a fight, you just keep everything the way it is and you understand everything that he’s been through.
And he felt he was part of a mission, and he’s talking about when he calls the TV show and he says ‘life is worse than the shoe I’m wearing.’ I’ve never had a nice—‘what am I going to remember, the holes or the chains or the—‘ he was actually talking about things that he had seen, talking about children that he had seen getting beaten up. When he’s talking about Aaliyah, when he’s saying to his sister ‘do you know Aaliyah your friend? Her mother put her in the house until that pig came,’ he’s actually talking about a real Aaliayah he knows. He felt he was part of the mission. We were all in it together. Nobody felt it was something imposed on them or that they’re doing something they don’t want to do. They know that they need to be, for their life to change they need to talk about it, and they were collaborating in the process.
Q: Hello Nadine. First of all I watched the film Capernaum and it’s amazing, and I can tell you—I’ve watched all your films, first of all I’m Lebanese as well, so—
NL: It shows.
Q: So Capernaum is different from the first two in so many ways. My curiosity here lies by you being a filmmaker wanting to do the casting. How are you able—I know you took them from real situations, but how were you able to say that Zain is Zain, he is perfect for this role, and this one is perfect for this role? Did you do a normal casting—how did you cast them?
And something else, the last thing in the film when Zain is talking on the phone and he’s telling this whole speech you’re talking about, was it improvised or was it written, because he delivered I think the best performance in the film in that speech in particular?
NL: OK, so for the first question, the casting was a wide street casting. I had an amazing crew of five to six people to everywhere in Lebanon, to difficult neighbourhoods, and interview children and their parents and just—we don’t expect them to come to audition, you have to go to them. So that’s how it happened. And Zain was actually playing on the streets with his friends, feeding chickens, and the casting director saw him and she interviewed him and when I saw him actually there was another nice story—when I told you when I came back home and I drew this picture, when I saw this kid trying to sleep and I drew this picture of this child that is shouting at adults and he has his mouth wide open and he’s shouting—when I compare this drawing to Zain’s picture, it was actually Zain four years before I met him.
It’s something that tells you everything he is, actually. I forgot this actually, I wanted to read to you the description of Zain and I forgot that the description of Zain in the script, he is described in exactly the same way that he has to be smaller than his age because of malnutrition, he has to have those eyes, those sad eyes that show you he’s been a witness to so many things, this wisdom to his personality because he’s lost his childhood. He’s seen so many things that he’s not a child anymore. Everything in the description was actually what we saw in Zain and it was obvious—it took me like two—the second answer he gave her, I knew that it was him. I never doubted it. It was like this for almost everyone in the film. It’s something in you, like love at first sight, a fascination for their character and their real life that tells you you’re on the right path, even if sometimes you have doubts and it’s difficult and you don’t know. The first day of the shoot with the parents, with Zain’s parents, I thought ‘what have I done? This is a complete failure,’ but then I don’t know like a miracle the next day, because you give them this strength and you talk and you talk and you explain why and you give them wings and they start feeling—because a few days before being on set they were actually struggling to prove they even exist. None of them have papers; legally, not just emotionally, but even legally they don’t exist. So all of a sudden they are here, they feel important; what they have to say actually counts for somebody. It gave them wings and the next day it was, I don’t know, another miracle. I couldn’t believe what they were able to do. And what was the other question?
BH: The final scene.
NL: No it was written but it was also very adapted to his words. So that’s what we used to do all the time. Of course you guide him into saying things in the way—to word what you want but he also uses his own words, so it’s a mixture between what was written and a few words that he added. It’s always like that.
BH: We were talking before we came out here tonight earlier this afternoon that this series teaches you there’s a million ways to make a movie and I’m so glad we got to hear about the way you make them. Thank you so much for coming to speak to us.
NL: Thank you.