Once upon a time, there existed a small village in Lebanon where the rival Christian and Muslim families learned to coexist in harmony. Though Nadine Labaki’s 2011 film Where Do We Go Now? doesn’t begin like so, it may as well. Rather than a realistic exploration of what happens in small town Lebanon – where everybody knows everybody’s business and where a woman’s neighbor knows more about her life than she herself – Where Do We Go Now? is an allegory for how everyone can learn to get along.
The film indeed opens with narration from Labaki, who plays a role in the film. She and a couple dozen other black-clad women – both Christian and Muslim – march towards a gravesite, where they clean the graves of their dead fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons. Though the women are all united in spirit, the gravesite is harshly segregated – Muslim graves on one side, Christian on the other.
For these women, however, religion is not an issue. On normal days in the village, religion isn’t an issue for the men, either. But every once in a while, a snippet of news from the outside world causes tensions to flare. In this isolated village, the only bridge has broken and has become difficult to cross. It’s even difficult for the residents to get television – and when they can manage to capture a signal, it’s an occasion for everyone to come watch together and for the mayor to make a grand speech.
That is, until the television brings news of violence elsewhere in Lebanon. Before anyone can register that shred of news, the women of the town erupt in yells, distracting their men from hearing the news. The women know their men well; they know that if the men hear that a Christian or Muslim man has been killed, they will start fighting. They live in a village where a crucifix breaking by accident spirals into a series of nasty pranks and skirmishes between the two groups.
Though the town’s two religious leaders, the priest and the iman, try to ease the tensions between their groups, it is the women who succeed. Often comically, they scheme to distract their men from their differences, going as far even as to bring a group of Ukrainian female dancers to the village. For a few short days, all the men spend their time helping these foreign women, forgetting their differences.
But even this gesture is not enough. Though distraction provides momentary relief from the religious strife, ultimately hostility arises again. It will take something far grander from the women to end the discord. The women will have to work together to literally end the religious divide, leading to a moving finale.
For all the heaviness of the subject matter, Where Do We Go Now? is surprisingly funny. It skewers the men who take up any opportunity to fight and who are so easily manipulated by their women. Insults and hilarious comments fly all around, and though the subtitles cannot catch everything, rest assured that they catch enough to send the audience into fits of laughter. But the true heart and humor of the film are in the women of the village, who make gossiping and scheming one big party. Though their actions may seem extreme, they are motivated by love for their families, and they merely want to see an end to the violence that plagues their homes.
If Labaki advocates one idea in Where Do We Go Now?, it’s that peace in the Middle East can be achieved – and that women would be best equipped to bring it. It’s not easy to make those so steeped in the us vs. them mentality to see eye-to-eye with their neighbors. But it can be done. And ending the religious divide begins one village at a time.