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.
Caramel opened the film festival: Women's Cinema from Tangiers to Tehran. And tonight, it's the turn of the award-winning Iranian animation Persopolis.