BEIRUT — IN a nation shaken by war, divided by religious strife and paralyzed by political feuds, Lebanese actor-director Nadine Labaki found the perfect subject for her first film: a hair salon filled with chatty women obsessed with sex and looks.
"Caramel," the 33-year-old Labaki's bittersweet film of love, heartache and friendship, has quickly become one of the most successful Lebanese films ever, scooping up awards, breaking sales records and earning kudos on the international film circuit. It screened Jan. 14 as the first offering at UCLA's "First Mondays" series and will begin showing in U.S. art houses Friday.
"It was not easy because I made a film that was talking about life and colors and people and love and everyday life when my country was at war again," the raven-haired Labaki said during a recent chat over mint-flavored lemonades at an old-fashioned cafe on Beirut's Gemayzee Street.
"I think I dealt with it, and I understood that maybe that's the way it was supposed to be; that it's my mission to show a Lebanon that has nothing to do with war and this negative image that people have."
"Caramel" follows a group of women, mostly played by amateur actors, whose lives revolve around a Beirut hair salon.
Layale, played by Labaki, is tangled in a steamy romance with a married man. Shiite Muslim Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri) reveals to co-workers that she's not virgin, a fact that could complicate her upcoming marriage. Lesbian Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) falls in love with one of her glamorous clients. Middle-aged Jamale (Gisele Aouad) struggles to maintain her acting career while Rose (Siham Haddad) must decide between pursuing an autumn romance or caring for her deranged sister Lili (Aziza Semaan).
The film feels heavily influenced in subject matter and aesthetics by Pedro Almodovar's films. The women wear revealing, brightly colored clothes that could surprise U.S. viewers unfamiliar with Lebanon's tolerant culture. But to most American audiences, "Caramel" might come off as a typical chick flick -- "Steel Magnolias" of Arabia.
Still, the 2007 French-Lebanese co-production has surprised Middle East audiences used to inane slapstick comedies, unoriginal action flicks or poorly scripted melodramas. "Caramel" immediately struck a chord with moviegoers in the Arab world, where it continues to play in theaters. It has sold more than 120,000 tickets in Lebanon and half a million in France, which considers itself a patron of Lebanese culture.
"It's very touching and very natural," wrote Oriental Arabesques, a blogger in her 30s in the United Arab Emirates. "The movie simply portrays life in any Arabic capital or city, with all its contradictions, with all its happy and sad moments."
LABAKI took an unusual route to the film world. As a child in the Christian mountain region north of Beirut she watched movies while sheltered from the ongoing civil war. She mentions "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Grease" as inspirations.
She made a name for herself in the Middle East directing television commercials and video clips. One video in particular, a clip promoting Lebanese pop diva Nancy Ajram's song "I Will Upset You, Yes," raised eyebrows in the Arab world and established Labaki as an artist to be reckoned with.
In the video, Ajram wears a strapless black dress and dances carefree in front of more than 100 gawking men at a traditional Arab coffeehouse. She sits down and laughs gleefully as she plays cards with and teases the hapless men.
"She was not scared of them," says Labaki, who is considered a sex symbol in the Arab world. "It played on the image of Arab women to create examples of women that are free with their bodies, with their movements, do whatever they want to."
But from early on, Labaki narrowed in on themes of privacy and sexuality. Her first short movie, "11 Pasteur Street," followed an apparent sniper looking through the scope of his weapon. After a while it becomes clear that he's not out to kill anyone; he's just spying on and deriding neighbors with whom he's all too familiar. His weapon becomes a metaphor for the potentially hurtful glares of relatives, neighbors and strangers within the closely woven web of Middle East social life.
"We live in a community where everybody knows everybody," she says. "We always look at, we always observe, we're always scared of how people look at us and how people judge us."
But it's a culture not easy to break away from. Relations are sticky as well as sweet, like the heated caramel the beauticians use to remove hair from women's legs and eyebrows at the salon in her movie.
"It also has its advantages, because we live surrounded with people and there is no feeling of loneliness," she says. "There is no feeling of being on your own."
The idea for "Caramel" came to her gradually as she began to notice that all the women around her were unhappy, expected to maintain a libertine veneer while continuing to be constricted by tradition and religion.