Hypothetical: people in your community could bring peace, but the cost to each individual is high. The alternative is near-constant conflict with frequent treks to the divided cemetery to bury the dead. This is the dilemma that grips a small Lebanese village depicted in the film Where Do We Go Now? directed by Nadine Labaki.
Charming, silly, profound, and definitely not Hollywood, this movie is why independent cinema is essential. One of my friends lost patience and left. I decided to stick it out and was rewarded with a creative solution at the end. Moral: if others say the movie is good, your patience might be rewarded.
Lebanon was once the most hopeful country in the middle east. People from a variety of ethnic and religious groups lived together for years with minimal strife, but no longer. The unnamed village depicted in this movie has both Christians and Muslims of about equal numbers and status. They come together for social events and join forces in an attempt to bring TV reception to town. Yet it takes little provocation for the young men to split into factions and begin fighting.
The women (of course) organize the various social events throughout the year while always trying new strategies to keep the peace and limit the number of treks to the cemetery. One of the delights of this film is that Labaki, the star and director, hired people from villages such as the one she portrays to help convey her message.
Once the women discover a flier for a troupe of dancing girls in the weekly delivery from a nearby town. It’s clear that all the men in town are interested in these lovelies. Thinking that this is something that the men might agree on, they arrange for the troupe to come to the village, then bring about some engine trouble to disable their bus for a week. Peace reigns, and the week ends with a bellydance performance that everyone enjoys but not all approve of.
Strife, when it comes, has religious overtones. A statue of Mary is damaged and Christians assume the Muslims did it. Goats run through the mosque and Muslims assume the Christians did it. Whenever fighting breaks out, the priest and the imam wring their hands and hope the hostilities subside; meanwhile the women struggle to calm things down.
For a dash of romance, a young Muslim man is smitten with a young Christian woman. He is working (ever so slowly) to refurbish her cafe. She lights up whenever he is present. The romance is clearly doomed, and yet?
Trade with the nearest town is conducted via motor scooter with a cart attached. The young driver and his friend take goods from the village to sell, along with shopping lists to this unseen town. At the end of the day, they return with purchases to disperse to their various owners. One day the driver returns with the body of his friend; he was killed by a stay bullet from a violent conflict they encountered on the way home. The friend’s mother knows that news of her son’s death will bring violence to their village, so she contrives a way to hide the news of her loss, especially from her other son.
The news cannot be suppressed forever, so she is soon conspiring with the women of the village to prevent a war that will certainly bring many more deaths. The first order of business is to rid the village of the guns that each young man keeps “just in case.” This will not be easy, so the women set about baking a treats with a dash of hashish in each bite. As the hashish works its magic, the women are busy gathering the weapons and burying them away from the village.
Still the women worry that even without guns, sectarian violence will erupt. This is where the women have to decide just how much they can sacrifice to bring peace to the village. My solution, scrap their religions and live in peace, would have stripped the village of its culture. Labaki’s solution comes from her deep understanding of the importance of the two religious calendars to the life of her community.
At a loss for what else to try, the women agree to swap Muslim and Christian identities. They know each other so well that they can recite the others’ various rituals with confidence. The startled men suddenly have to rethink everything. If their wives and mothers are now the enemy, how can their enmity survive?
At last, peace prevails. The son lost to the errant bullet can now be buried. But as the funeral procession reaches the cemetery, the question that is the title of the movie must be answered. Which burial ground will receive his body, Muslim or Christian?
I love movies with this sort of twist. This one rewarded me with good music, an inspiring director and star, some allusions to old Ingmar Bergman films, and an intriguing setting. I recommend it, but you’ll to tolerate some silliness and allow it to unfold.