Embracing art

A couple of weeks back, a well-known Lebanese artist won an award from the Prince Claus Fund, a distinguished Dutch arts institution.

When he was asked how many Lebanese awards he’d won over the years, the artist and his collaborator just smiled politely. After some prodding, he remarked that he didn’t know of a Lebanese institution that gave out awards to Lebanon’s artists.

The question became a joke. Maybe general security could issue an award for the number of visits from a playwright, someone suggested, or the number of lines re-written or cut from a script.

This anecdote provided an appropriate frame for the success of Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, who Sunday evening won the audience award of the Toronto International Film Festival, for her second feature film “Where Do We Go Now?”

Labaki’s film, which will commence its theatrical run Thursday, was already a distinguished work before it landed in Toronto.

The film enjoyed its world premiere in Cannes earlier this year in the prestigious Un Certain Regard selection and it was awarded the 2011 François Chalais Prize, which awards film dedicated to life affirmation and journalism.

Labaki’s first feature, 2007’s “Caramel,” also premiered at Cannes and was nominated for a bushel of awards during its film festival career. More unusual, “Caramel” enjoyed box office results that (by the standards of most Lebanese films) were vertigo-inducing – a good deal of which was earned in European cinemas, Lebanon’s market being minute.

So who – aside from Labaki herself – should be congratulated for her success?

The success of “Caramel” was due, in no small part, to Labaki’s energetic French producer Anne-Dominique Toussaint. She’s produced the new film too, so it’s likely to enjoy the same market exposure as “Caramel” if not more.

Toussaint has been joined in her labor by a bouquet of Lebanese and international co-producers, among them the Tunisian powerhouse Tarak Ben Ammar and production company credits include a swath of familiar European (Pathé, France 2 Cinéma and Canal+), and The Doha Film Institute.

Whither Lebanon’s Culture Ministry?

Like all Lebanese films, the ministry does get a nod in the film credits but you have to wonder what the Lebanese state has done to facilitate the work of Lebanese artists. What might they do in the future?

Lebanese businessmen are notorious for wanting quick returns on their investments. Perhaps the best role Lebanon’s Culture Ministry could play is to enact legislation that would make it attractive for local businessmen to invest in Lebanese culture, to cultivate a face that – like Labaki’s work – embracing Lebanese and non-Lebanese alike.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 20, 2011, on page 7.




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