The Lebanese Chick Flick As Tool of Empowerment 

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Where Do We Go Now?
Directed by Nadine Labaki

Where Do We Go Now? director Nadine Labaki likes to create a sense of family when she works, collaborating with people she loves and creating an on-set atmosphere that is "very open and free," as she put it in a Q&A after the film's opening night screening at Tribeca Film Festival. Her cowriters are close friends of hers, her sister did the makeup for the film, and her husband was the musical director. And her actors in her latest film, as in her first, Caramel, are mostly non-professionals. Labaki keeps things loose and comfortable for her cast during her shoots, aiming for a kind of "organized chaos that allows me to keep them very spontaneous" and leaves plenty of room for improvisation. "The fact that I'm acting with them also allows us to become very close," she said. "I'm able to create the rhythm of the scene from the inside."

So it's not surprising that her socially conscious chick flicks radiate a cozy and welcoming vibe. Caramel, which centered around a Beirut beauty salon, was about female bonding strong enough to transcend macho brutality and homophobia. Where Do We Go Now? tackles the tensions between Christians and Muslims that have been tearing Lebanon apart for decades.

There's a lot more at stake in these seriocomic tales of female empowerment than just whether the main character will get her guy—but that's part of the story, too. The will-they-or-won't-they couple at the center of Where Do We Go Now? is the beautiful Amale (Labaki) and hunky Rabih (Julian Farhat). He's Muslim and she's Christian, though that doesn't seem to matter at first in their peaceful hilltop town, where the church and the mosque are next door to each other and the priest and the imam make sure the two remain cordial neighbors.

But the conflict that's tearing apart the rest of the country keeps threatening to intrude on their town, mostly in the form of the news that's broadcast on the radio in Amale's café or on the town's shared TV set, which is being installed on the only area high enough to get (spotty) reception as the story begins, in a sweetly droll little subplot that unfolds mostly in the background.

The women conspire to keep the peace, literally shutting off the news from outside, until a member of the community is killed on an outing to a neighboring town and they have to cook up a more complicated strategy to keep their husbands and sons from killing each other. That strategy includes a bunch of Ukrainian and Russian sex workers, with whom the women of the town form an instant and rock-solid alliance.

A little uneven but full of heart, Where Do We Go Now? includes interludes in which the townspeople break into song and/or dance. The most successful of these is the film's striking opener, in which a phalanx of women dressed in black for a funeral walk toward the camera, doing a simple, profoundly sad dance.

The theory that there would be no war if women ran things is as old as Lysistrata. I don't know that I believe it (Maggie Thatcher, anyone?), though there are sometimes real-life examples that make me wonder, like the one documented in Pray the Devil Back to Hell. But regardless of the facts, Where Do We Go Now? works as a fairy tale for an increasingly polarized age, a lovely little dream you can share with a roomful of strangers.

Opens May 11

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