Film is the mirror through which each society gazes at itself. Sometimes blurred, convex, or rose-tinted, the moving image can be a reflection of reality or an idealized subversion of it. Like all mirrors, their inherent value is dependent on the figure on the other side. Film, like other forms of art, does not exist in a vacuum. Its position in our reality remains relative to that of our individual societies. When considering the perpetual disfigurement of Lebanese society that lingered post-civil war and juxtaposing it with the films that have emerged in the past 20 years, there appears to be a dissonance between reality and representation. Upon first glance, it would appear that the films we create are not in fact mirrors, but rather denials of our truths. But is denial not a mirror in and of itself?
When I first watched Nadine Labaki’s film Caramel (2007), it was 2019 (awfully late, I know) and Lebanon was in the midst of its October Revolution. I had just come back from a humid, traffic-ridden month in Tripoli, so my image of home was still raw. Watching the country being set ablaze a week after my departure meant there was no room for the desensitization that often accompanies distance. The pain was close and there to stay. The months that followed saw me in a perpetual state of mourning, wondering if I’d ever experience Lebanon in the same way as when I’d visited that year. I already knew that the moment, as it was, had been lost when I found out that the kaak1 shop I used to visit daily had shut down as a result of the economic crisis. My grief left me yearning for a version of Lebanon that no longer existed and propelled me into a nostalgia for a country I never really knew. To quench this nostalgia, I began watching old Lebanese films and musalsals2, and Caramel was one of the first movies on my list.
The film follows the lives of five Lebanese women in a Beirut beauty salon, each caught in the grievances of their daily lives and finding comfort and support in their shared friendship. I had read in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine that Labaki wanted to share a picture of the people in Lebanon beyond the dismissal of the country as “a place where there is war” and her avoidance of political discourse within the film was intentional. The film initially left me entertained but unsatisfied, disappointed, and almost offended by this attempt at a thoroughly apolitical narrative. Lebanon’s total descent inspired not only anger and grief in me but also a growing passion for representation of life as it was and I felt that Caramel was counterproductively avoidant of the harsh realities of sectarianism, poverty, and sociopolitical terror within Lebanon. The film appeared as though it was not a mirror of reality, but rather a cloak with which to smother it.
Watching it again this year, however, I realized that my first take on the film was completely misguided. Although Labaki intended it to be apolitical, her characterization of its protagonists constructs more of a statement about the true nature of Lebanese society than I had initially understood.
Caramel is Lebanon through a convex mirror, distorted but still reflective of the same colors that remain on the other side of the frame. Through her ensemble of characters, each in a unique state of denial, Labaki’s film is an allegory of the condition of Lebanese people (myself included), who remain desperately attached to a romanticized idea of their country, unwilling to accept truths about the irreparable destruction which envelops them.
Jamale, a character played by Gisèle Aouad, acts out a fantasy of her youth to avoid confronting the truth of her growing age and epitomizes an attachment to the past and a collective yearning for a less conflicted state of Lebanon. Putting fake blood on a piece of toilet paper in public bathrooms in a bout of nostalgia for her capacity to menstruate (see Figure 4), Jamale is aware that she is aging, but carries on in her transparent performance of young adulthood. This performance can be read as an analogy for the way in which an acceptance of growing older is ultimately an acceptance of death. Youth remains one of the most commodified traits in modern society, and yet continues to be unattainable to many. Similarly, a desire for a younger, more hopeful version of Lebanon, pre-civil war, Beirut blast, and all other calamities, remains a carrot that dangles over our heads, always at the forefront of our minds but depressingly out of reach.
Furthermore, the character of Lili (played by Aziza Semaan), an elderly woman with an unspecified mental instability, serves to represent another distinct metaphor for the Lebanese state of mind. Lili lives under the care of her younger sister Rose (played by Seham Haddad) and spends her days collecting bits of paper she finds on the road, and parking tickets she finds on windshields in the belief that they are letters from her faceless lover (see Figure 5). Lili falls victim to unrequited love with a nameless figure, projecting her desire onto parking tickets and meaningless pieces of paper she finds. Through an allegorical lens, Lili’s self-destructive love is symbolic of the way many of the sociopolitical issues within Lebanon have arisen because of the irresponsibility of the Lebanese government, and how the nation’s citizens still remain lovers of the land, with no reciprocity from the leaders who are supposedly meant to govern it. Like Lili, their hopes remain disproportionate to what is tangible, leaving them stuck in a cycle of optimism and inevitable disappointment. Searching for letters or signs of progress, the Lebanese people are perpetual victims to chasing one’s own tail.
Upon a closer look, Labaki’s Caramel was not apolitical at all. Instead, it holds up a mirror to its audience, inviting them to question their own delusions that they have become accustomed to living in, be they political or personal, and Caramel ultimately suggests that the lies we tell ourselves to get by, although false, provide the comfort we need to carry on.
- Kaak: A type of Lebanese street bread.
- Musalsals: Arab TV dramas or soap operas.
Noor Hoblos is an emerging writer who is curious about the way in which art, especially that of the moving image, contributes to reflecting, refracting, and romanticizing the realities of the Middle Eastern and North African people. She is currently majoring in Screen and Cultural Studies and Creative Writing, and is also a columnist for Nour Magazine.