Thursday, March 27, 2014

Film Atlas (Lebanon): Where Do We Go Now?

Country: Lebanon
Title: Where Do We Go Now? / W Halla’ La Wayn (2011)
Where Do We Go Now is an unexpected warm-hearted musical modernization of Lysistrata set in the Middle East, in which the women of an unidentified landmine-ringed village, a mixed Christian and Muslim community, go to extraordinary lengths to prevent their menfolk from realizing their country has descended into violent sectarian conflict. Christian café-owner Amal (director Nadine Labaki), who is in love with Muslim painter Amal, is one of the first to learn about the bloodshed outside, and begins a campaign of sabotaging the few sources of outside news like the town’s radio and TV. But despite her best efforts tempers rise and misunderstandings mount following incidents at the town church (the cross is accidentally broken by a boy repairing a loudspeaker) and mosque (untended goats wander into the holy threshold). 

Soon the once-peacefully cohabiting congregations are at each other’s throats, and women devise a harebrained scheme to strand a busload of sexy East European dancers, temporarily redirecting the attention of the trigger-happy males. But it’s only a matter of time before the violence spills over and yields real casualties, leading to the film’s final scene where a funeral procession hesitates between the Christian and Muslim cemetery’s leaving a pallbearer to ask the title question, “Where do we go now?”

Though met with critical reserve, Where Do We Go Now proved a popular success, offering up a tongue-in-cheek, feel-good take on the Middle East’s interminable cycle of sectarian strife. The film dabbles liberally in musical, romantic and comedic modes while tackling disconcertingly hot-button issues and gaily espousing a willfully naïve pro-peace agenda, resulting in a bipolar mood that will either inspire with its humanist bravado or irritate with its political oversimplifications. I have to admit to bouncing between both reactions, but maybe that’s a good thing; great comedy is often based on walking an uneasy line and juggling ‘untouchable’ topics. Director Nadine Labaki knows what she’s doing, and populates her film with talented, likable actors and actresses who can sustain both the film’s gentle levity and grave themes. Her husband, Khaled Mouzanar, composed the musical numbers and, far from interrupting the narrative flow, I wish there were more of them.

I’ve been unable to track down films from Lebanese cinema’s regionally fruitful golden age in the 1940s and 50s, but I can highly recommend Lebanon’s first international breakthrough, 1998’s “West Beirut.” It was my original choice for the Film Atlas, but I’m almost as sick of writing about coming-of-age dramas set during war as Labaki is of religious zealots hypocritically killing each other over doctrinal minutiae.

My Favorites:
West Beirut
The Insult
Under the Bombs
Where Do We Go Now?

Major Directors:
Philippe Aractingi, Maroun Bagdadi, Nadine Labaki

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