I've been clawing at the walls to see this film. And finally, last night, I sneaked into a preview screening.
I missed it in Damascus - during the film festival - because all the tickets were sold out. I missed it during the London Film Festival, because I was in Damascus. I missed the Al Jazeera screening because, well, someone forgot to tell me. And I almost missed this one. I heard about it on Wednesday, but again it was sold out. I was devastated. I went to the box office anyway, to try my luck, and got one of four return tickets.
The award-winning Caramel / سكر بنات is the biggest selling Lebanese film of all time - it has been seen by one million people so far. It is the second biggest selling Arab film ever (after the Yacoubian Building). It premiered in Cannes, and it narrowly missed out on an Oscar nomination.
Caramel is Nadine Labaki's debut film. She used to direct music videos and adverts. Labaki was responsible for Katia Harb's Ma Fina - the first Arab music video I ever liked (hey, I was young!):
So I knew I was in for a treat. I'd already watched the trailer a million times, and bought the soundtrack (I highly recommend the title track Sukkar Banat - also Mreyte Mreyte, which the film ends on, and Tango el Caramel which opens the film).
It was screened as part of an Arab women's film festival in London - and hosted at the French Cultural Institute.
Labaki appeared on stage - speaking English with a heavy French accent - with her husband, who produced the music for the film. They married after the film was finished. Blushing, Labaki said he penned the music to win her heart.
She introduced the film by saying Caramel isn't about war. It is a story about love, friendship, and the bonds of the six main characters. The film ends with Labaki's simple dedication: To My Beirut. And she was very clear - this was a personal story. The story of the Beirut she knows - the friendships, the lives. "It is a sweet taste of Lebanon," she said, "and I hope the taste stays with you for a long time".
The audience was mainly Lebanese exiles, but many French-Londoners too. Labaki was pestered during the Q&A by questions about politics. But she deftly refused to get involved - this wasn't a political film, it's about people. People like her and her friends and the issues they have to deal with, nothing more.
Doesn't she have a duty - she was asked - as a Lebanese director, to tell the story of differences between the sects. As a director, her work can have an impact. She said that Caramel showed Muslims and Christians living side by side without ever talking about their religion. And that, she says, is her Beirut - a Beirut where religion doesn't mediate person to person relationships. Religion and difference isn't a part of everyday life, and she wanted to reflect that in her work.
So on to the film. It is sugary-sweet, just like the title. And it is incredibly simple. It doesn't set any huge goals for itself. Every single person in the film is a non-actor (except the policeman). And that brings real honesty, and colour to the film. The woman who plays Lili - the elderly woman with mental problems - apparently had difficulty understanding when they were filming and when they weren't. Throughout, she was just being herself.
And it is packed with humour - maybe too much. In one of the key dramatic moments of the film, when Layale is pouring her heart out to the girls, Rima makes a dry comment.
Labaki has made a lot about the taboos Caramel tries to break. As well as directing Caramel, Labaki also plays the lead role, Layale. Layale is in a relationship with a married man, Nisrine is preparing to get married, although she's not a virgin, Jamale can't accept that she's growing old and Rima is lesbian. It doesn't break these taboos, but scratches at the surface, and holds up cards to show these taboos exist. The issue of lesbianism is handled so very delicately, possibly too delicately.
That other big selling Arab film, the Yacoubian Building, also tackles homosexuality - but does it head on. Although that film has come in for criticism in the way that it just reinforces gay stereotypes.
But maybe that's the beauty of Labaki's work. The relationship between Rima and Siham is never made explicit - Siham barely utters a word in the film. And we never even see the married man who Layale is with.
But perhaps the most beautiful friendship is that of Rose and Lili. The elderly sisters who stick together even when opportunity conspires to draw them apart. For me, the most emotional scene involves these two, as the credits are rolling at the end of the film.
I will go this far: Caramel is the Lebanese Amelie.
They are the three words which Fouad Mourtada will regret typing. He has been jailed in Morocco - not for insulting his leader (as some bloggers have been in Egypt and Saudi and Syria and Tunisia and.....) - but for just TYPING HIS NAME.
What kind of Arab World do we live in? What kind of paranoid hateful totalitarian dictatorships do we live under? Morocco, that progressive country. That country which is 'one of the most democratic in the region'. Morocco for god's sake.
So what did the evil Fouad do? He set up a Facebook profile in the Prince's name. He's been convicted of "villainous practices linked to the alleged theft of the [prince's] identity". His family alleges he has been blindfolded and beaten unconscious.
16 February 2008: "The new sanction law will be hot air if it is not used to paralyse the financial freedom of Rami Makhlouf, the President's cousin and the Mr. Economy for the Syrian regime." (Syria Comment)
21 February 2008: "The sanctions affect Rami Makhlouf, a first cousin of President Bashar Assad and one of Syria's most powerful men."
Damascus has seven gates - the busiest: Bab Sharqi and Bab Tuma. The non existent: Bab Kisan. The others: Bab Al Faradis, Bab Al Jabieh, Bab As Saghir, and Bab As Salam.
Now, there is an eighth.
But it's not in the Old City. The Eighth Gate is being built in Yafour, north of Damascus. Yafour is one of the new-money suburbs - outside of central Damascus, where building is limited by protection laws. The Eighth Gate - and Yafour in general - represents Damascus's Gulf architectural boom. The most potent symbol of the style is the Four Seasons hotel.
No, the Gulf architecture doesn't fit in to Damascus. Go up to Jebl Qasioun and look down at the city. It used to be the Umayed Mosque which stood out. Now, your eyes are drawn to the Four Seasons first.
But it is an improvement on the Soviet architecture which has dominated since the 1960s. That's a natural change.
Anyway, back to the point of this post. Emaar, the Dubai-based developers of the Eighth Gate, are having a massive sales push, even though the homes haven't been finished yet.
Have no doubt, this will change the face of Damascus. Damascus in the wider sense - not the Old City, not even the New City. But Damascus and its environs. I'm not sure I am completely behind this. There seem to be too many penthouses and not enough affordable housing (building a certain proportion of affordable housing was a condition for granting Emaar a licence to build this development).
It is also an attempt to decenter the city. By building the largest shopping center in the region here, Yafour residents will no longer need to come into the centre of town. It is sucking the life out of Damascus - literally and figuratively.
In many ways, this is how Beirut operates - as a multi-centered city (how much does the photo remind you of Beirut's Downtown?).
Some of the houses will be on the waterfront, and the shopping mall will be built in the style of the Damascus Old City. Access to the whole complex is through an Old City style gate.
It is costing half a billion dollars to build, and is already one year behind schedule. (This is an earlier post about the development).
Arab leaders have signed up to an ethical code for journalists. It sounds positive. It sounds like it is a way of protecting journalism, integrity, free speech. But no, this is the Arab World. And this is a deal signed by our Arab dictators. The only decisions they make are ones which protect them personally.
So, if journalists breach the code, the organisation's permit to broadcast can be withdrawn. Until now, state broadcasters refrain from criticising their own country's government, but are more free to lash out at other states.
This agreement will create a region-wide crackdown on journalistic analysis.
It is co-sponsored by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Qatar - where Al Jazeera is based - is the only Arab state not to sign it.
Just in case you thought the leaders were being selfish, they've promised that the deal will protect "social harmony, national unity, public order or traditional values". Sounds exactly like the trumped up charges against domestic dissidents appearing before military courts.
A senior Hizbollah commander has been killed in a bomb blast in Damascus.
His name was Imad Moughniyah.
It happened in Kafar Sousseh in the west of the city.
Police quickly removed the car and the body.
Witnesses say it bore the hallmarks of the car bombs which have hit Lebanon in the past three years.
The attack comes just hours before anti-Syrians prepare to demonstrate in Beirut, to mark the third anniversary of the death of Rafiq Al-Hariri. Anti-Syrian leader Walid Junblatt recently threatened to increase the violence, and openly criticised Hizbollah for the first time.
"If you want chaos, we welcome chaos. If you want war, we welcome one."
He was addressing Hizbollah, days before emotions are bound to run high on the third anniversary of the assassination of the martyr Sheikh Rafiq Al Hariri.
Later, two people were injured when a convoy of Junblatt supporters drove past a rival Druze party's offices, called the Lebanese Democratic Party. The LDP has accused Junblatt "militia members" of opening fire on them.
From Damascus to London via Beirut. Based in and out of the central Damascene hamlet of Saroujah.
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