Film is an effective way to tackle and to illustrate socio-cultural issues both explicitly as well as implicitly. They may enable to talk about subjects that would not necessarily be brought into public discussion, especially in terms of domestic, private issues. This can be seen in the national context, however, through these representations they also mould the image of a country outside its borders. This then leads to a question of the meaning and intention of a representation. In relation to the Arabic cinema Hafez states that “[M]aking films in an Arabic culture is never ideologically or cognitively neutral. Making an Arabic film is to create a specific product elaborating a locus of meaning and specifying an ‘Arab’ experience, to construct an art objects that imparts certain knowledge about the region and its people, and to produce a knowledge that will be bound by that act of film production” (2006, p.226).
Until recently, Middle Eastern films were little seen abroad. As Gugler states politically this has serious consequences given that Western films often dominate the screen and give a superficial image of the region (Gugler, 2011, p.1). In the same line Atakav states that Hollywood has endorsed an image of the Middle East since the beginning of cinema until recently. These representations “varied from exotic men, riding camels in the desert for whom women are only objects of desire, to terrorists and to the extravagantly rich men” (2010). As such, through the local Middle Eastern films “previously absent images are now present” (Atakav, 2010). As a consequence, “[F]ilms from the Middle East offer representations at variance with those that predominate in much of the Western media. Locally produced stories and images call into question common assumptions about the region’s history, culture, and people. Such films demonstrate commonalities and differences across a region that is all too often subject to unwarranted generalizations” (Gugler, 2011, p.1). Even in terms of cinematic productions it is essential to keep in mind that despite the easy generalizations of the Middle East and the Maghreb region their cinematic contracts are significant. This is seen in the film production but also in the relationship between political regimes and censorship (Gugler, 2011, p.3).
Through these emerging images it is interesting to scrutinize the representation of women as the Middle East is traditionally seen as a patriarchal region par excellence. As Doan has stated the Middle East “has some of the lowest levels of empowerment for women and the prevalence of some of the most highly restrictive patriarchal systems (2010, p.145). She continues that the collective control over women’s bodies and sexuality acts as a route cause for the gender inequality in the Middle East (citing Ilkkanen and Mach (2007), 2010, p. 145). Additionally, in global terms representations of women are prone to stereotyping and as such can reinforce gender inequality. Therefore it is interesting to question how the female experiences and female space are brought to the screen and how they come to represent the city and the nation. In her excellent article about representations of women in Middle Eastern film Atakav has stated that
“Contemporary films from Middle Eastern countries build and reflect upon the plurality of thought and the potential offered by cultural exchange with and by women, films and cultures brought together within this spatial configuration. There seems to be three recurring themes central to the discussion of women in Middle Eastern film: the relationship between women and Islam; the concept of violence that resonates across multiple layers of reference (physical, emotional, political, economic, clandestine, sexual, military); and finally the idea of presence and absence both at the representational level on the screen and in regard to the existing and emerging women filmmakers” (Atakav, 2010).
Lebanese Nadine Labaki is one of the emerging female directors from the Middle East. Her film Caramel (2007) was distributed abroad with considerable success and was Lebanon’s submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2008 Academy Awards. Gugler has argued that Middle Eastern auteur directors “have managed time and again to overcome daunting obstacles to give image and voice to dissent in powerful films, even if some had to remain less than explicit. Where they pioneered, commercial cinema has sometimes followed” (Gugler, 2011, p. 3). Labaki’s film can be seen as a commercial, light-hearted comedy that arguably helped its success outside Lebanon. However, it also acts as an astute socio-cultural portray and thus embrace Gugler’s notion of dissident in auteur cinema. As such, the film arguably becomes a representative of the contemporary Lebanon and its female space.
Questioning these new, wider representations of the Middle East this article looks at the ways the female space is represented in Caramel. The story revolves around a beauty salon set in the Lebanese capital Beirut and on five women who either work or frequent there. Through them Labaki concentrates on female issues and while they are not exclusive, this article argues that the salon can be seen as a microcosm of the urban female space in Lebanon. Although this does not aim to become a socio-historical study given the lack of adequate research background, this article also tackles the representations of tradition versus Westernized modernity. The scope is always kept on the female issues and as such the film opens up questions on the female desire and agency in the ever-changing Lebanon.
Labaki’s films opens with a close up shot of a running yellow thick liquid filling the screen. Rapid, out of focus shots of women playing with it and even eating it changes into a woman shrieking behind a curtain that by opening reveals the site to be a beauty salon and the liquid being caramel, a wax used to remove bodily hair. As the closed curtain, we are firmly placed in a closed female space that, like the caramel, offers fleeting solutions and transformations to women’s lives. However, the film slowly starts to open up and unravel the secrets and dilemmas of the main characters. Layale, a stylist, is having an affair with a married man through which she feels she is deceiving both herself and her parents, with whom she lives. Rima, another stylist is attracted to one of the salon’s female customers. Nisrine, a third stylist, is getting married but she is anxious as her fiancé does not know that she is not a virgin. As a consequence, she seeks medical help to reconstruct her hymen. Jamale is a middle age actress, a mother of two and divorced from her husband. She is facing menopause and finds it hard to come into terms with her ageing body and appearance in comparison to her younger competitors. Rose is a salon’s older neighbour and works as their seamstress and takes care of her mentally ill older sister. As one of her customers, a foreign French speaking older gentleman asks her out she starts questioning her own desire.
In order to tackle the representations of female of space and place in Caramel, it is essential to get an overview of what characterises Lebanese cinema and to define, how Caramel perhaps differentiates from these. Lina Khatib has written an excellent book (2008) on the representation of war in Lebanese cinema. What comes clear in her book is that “[O]ver the last 30 years, Lebanese cinema has acted as a commentator on the development of sectarian conflict in Lebanon; on the normalization of war; on the reconstruction of Lebanon in the postwar period; and on the way the war still lurks in every corner in today’s Lebanon” (Khatib, 2008, p.xvii). The Lebanese Civil War started in 1975 and finished in the early 1990s. It was a war that “descended into an irrational state where differences between the warring factions, be they religious or political, ceased to be clearly defined. The war became a series of overlapping conflicts about a myriad of matters that went beyond internal Lebanese politics” (Khatib, 2008, p. xx). However, for years the war was often relegated to the untalked and even seen as a taboo. It ceased to be part of the public discussion in the country in the same way as the question of national identity given that “addressing it would mean unearthing much of Lebanon’s past and present that is too painful, or perhaps too shameful” (Khatib, 2008, pp. Xvii, 11). In this respect the films made in the country became an important piece of history as cinema offered fundamental means to talk about the war. Indeed, the Lebanese cinema is saturated by representations or allusions to the war, being its central theme (Khatib, 2008, pp. Xv-xvi, 21). Essentially, Lebanese cinema, despite being small in scale, often questions the theme of national identity and represents issues that stay away from history books (Khatib, 2008, p. xvii).
This is interesting as Caramel does not mention the war and it is not visible in the background. It is true that the shabby interiors of the beauty salon and the living conditions could be alluding to the economic conditions left by the war, but equally these could be seen in any other context, for example the current economic crisis that forces young people to live with their parents. When the characters venture to the urban city we never see war reminders such as bomb holes. The film even makes a joke about death as one of the salon’s older customers wants to have her hair done, full of volume to look “like a fluffy cat” as they may bury her sister-in-law that weekend, one who is still alive. Caramel was made in the intermediate period of the post-Civil War before new conflicts arose. As Nucho mentions the shooting of the film was finished a week before the war of 2006 erupted in Lebanon (Nucho, n.d.). This full blown war was a culmination of the tensions between Hizbullah and Israel that killed more than 1000 Lebanese civilians and destroyed much of the infrastructure (Khatib, 2008, p. xvi). As Khatib continues “[N]o sooner had that war ended than intra-Lebanese tensions began to resurface. Traces of the Civil War became obvious” (Khatib, 2008, p. xvi). Consequently, as Nucho states “It seems bitterly ironic that a filmmaker so insistent on the possibility of a Lebanese film that avoided direct discussion of the wars of the Eighties and Nineties would then be faced with the reality of yet another conflict” (Nucho, n.d.). However, while Labaki first felt guilty of representing something that then seemed so distant, in the end she saw the “film as a form of resistance” (Nucho, n.d.).
By avoiding any direct references to the war the film concentrates on female issues and on the female space in the post- Civil War Beirut. While is appropriate to argue that the effects of the war cannot be downplayed, the women represent Beirut that is not solely defined by the war. Given the saturation of representations or allusions to the war Khatib has states “[P]ostwar Lebanese cinema, in particular, had been consumed by a feeling of loss and emptiness, where violence lurks at every corner” (Khatib, 2008, pp. Xv-xvi, xx). In Caramel, however, the violence is not direct or related to the war. It is more about psychological struggle that oppress the women because of their place between tradition and modernity, between own desires and what is expected and what is allowed and prohibited. Thus, although at first the film may seem escapist, light-hearted comedy, the female space is clearly delineated and used to tackle varied contested topics.
Beauty salon can be seen as a typical – even stereotypical – female space. Indeed, as Taylor has stated “[B]eauty-parlor romantic comedy has been done to death and beyond” but in Caramel it offers “astute commentary on the way Lebanese women sit uncomfortably in the crosshairs of their country’s clash between patriarchal tradition and Westernized modernity” (2008). The shabby salon as a female space is emphasized stylistically in the film. Its walls are covered with pictures of women and even the toilet has pictures of women cut from magazines. One wall has a big scale female poster and through its size is reminiscence of the grand female billboard in Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999) that also concentrates on the female space and dressing rooms. What comes clear is that the salon embraces different female characters from different generations and different religions and as such the old religious divisions do not seem to exist. Labaki does not reveal much about their history but concentrates on the here and now – which also beckons to the fact that the war is not mentioned. As such, the salon and the female relations within it come to define the characters.
By offering an illuminating view of the contemporary Lebanese female issues encompassed by the salon, the film becomes a field where the patriarchal tradition and Westernized modernity are tackled and targeted. As Nucho has stated “it’s most striking for how Labaki depicts the constant negotiation of the “modern” women, illustrating the ways in which people can resist the roles imposed on them, and the limits of that resistance” (Nucho, n.d.). Nisrine is from a traditional Muslim family. Her mother wears a headscarf as well as her fiancé’s family. When she and her fiancé are going to have a meal with his family, she buttons up her shirt, puts the sleeves down and ties her hair back. However, after the meal she confessed to her fiancé in the car that she doesn’t feel herself. Although the film does not specify what she means, it is easy to argue that she is referring to her role in the traditional Muslim family. Her statement is intensified by the interruption by a policeman asking whether the couple is married, stating their nightly conversation in the car being an indecent activity. This underlines how the tradition and its morals are so rooted in the social context but the influence of the ‘Other’ is so feared at the same time that they need to be surveyed and safeguarded. As Nisrine is not a virgin, her hymen reconstruction becomes a contemplation of the expectations posed on her both socially as well as familially. As Doan argues the traditional gender expectations are imprinted on women in the Middle East and their behaviour is said to reflect their family honour (2010, p. 151). In the same way, writing on the representation of the female as the nation in the Arab cinemas Khatib (2006) has stated that “[T]he nation’s honor is seen as an extension of the family’s honor, which women are also used to signify. The greatest weight in this context lies in premarital virginity, which seems to dominate any other form of expression of moralit”” (Khatib, citing Tucker (1993) and Tseelon (1995), 2006, p.85). Because of the cult of virginity and marital fidelity that exist in the Islamic cultures Al Jenaibi argues that “[A]lthough women may try to break through these layers of shame and guilt-laden obligations of honor, the attitudes are deeply embedded in the Arab/Islamic psyche” (n.d., p. 75). He continues that “cultural norms and orientation are difficult to reject on either on a conscious or unconscious level” (n.d., p.75). However, while Nisrine’s operation is a clear criticism towards the expectations, it must be noted that Labaki is not condemning the tradition unconditionally. The words of advice Nisrine’s traditional mother gives her before her wedding night are sweet and understanding and Labaki films them in a close two shot giving the scene intimacy and warmness. Thus, through her operation Nisrine is renegotiating the expectations in her own terms between the tradition and modernity.
The negotiation between tradition and modernity is also linked to the spatial. The space becomes an indicator and also a cause of the socio-cultural dilemma the women face. As Nucho states the film encompasses the claustrophobia of Beirut by representing the lack of privacy of both men and women (Nucho, n.d.). This lack can be seen in the private, home sphere. Layale lives with her parents and share a room with her little brother. At home she is filmed in the living room with her parents and her brother or in the kitchen with her mother’s friends. She has no privacy and in order to have a private conversation with her married lover she has to hide to the bathroom and let the water run. For her the car becomes a place where they meet up, parked in a wasteland construction site, outside the urban hub. Nevertheless this lack of privacy is equally seen as socio-cultural that affects the public sphere. Layale cannot book a room in a decent hotel for them as she needs to provide an ID proving she is married and she would be staying with her husband. She gets a room in a rundown hostel on the owner’s assumption that she is a prostitute. Thus, although the film points out to the privacy and sanctity of the relationships, to the need to be legally married in order to have certain (legal) rights governed by the society, it also points to the permeability of this institution as Layale is having an affair with a married man. This way the film questions the tradition of governing the bodies, and equates Layale’s lack of privacy with that of Nisrine’s, such as the policeman asking identifications as a proof of marriage when Nisrine is in the car with her fiancé. As such, the film highlights how they are both governed and their lack of privacy is highly linked to the female body and desire.
In comparison, Rose’s confinement is seen in terms of sense of duty. She has no privacy as her sister Lily is always there and they even share the same double bed. Rose’s frustration is seen in a scene where the older gentleman infatuated with her has come to her shop. She has locked Lily behind a door and while she is measuring him Lily is banging the door shouting Rose to let her go. Filmed in close-ups, Rose is quietly answering Lily’s demands but in negative terms. She says that she will kill her and as Lily demands to be freed as she is expected for a dinner by someone, Rose replies that “In hell, yes!”. Speaking in Arabic so that the gentleman does not understand her alludes how she is not able to speak about her feelings and about the lack of privacy and freedom. As she is filmed in close ups and her voice stays calm and soothing throughout this alludes to her silent acceptance of her role as Lily’s guardian.
By tackling the question of tradition and modernity, the film also questions the concept of identity and status. In this vein the nameplay and the new identity it brings is highlighted. Layale has to invent names in order to try to check into hotels on pretence she is married. In one of the hotels the receptionist starts to ask about her relatives, knowing someone with the same made-up surname. Although this is narratively black humour it also underlines that in order to live as traditionally accepted by society, that is, reserving the private space to marriage Layale has to lie her name. Layale’s nameplay is juxtaposed by the legal name Christine & Rahih Khoury on their door bell, seen from Layale’s point of view when she enters her lover’s house. In the same way Nisrine lies her name when she goes to the doctor. Layale and Jamale are accompanying her to the consultation and while sitting in a taxi they are having a conversation on what name she should have. Again the scene is filmed in a humorous way as Nisrine is complaining the traditional sounding name Souad Abdel-Sater chosen for her. Instead, she wants a Christian and Western sounding name and selects Julie Pompidou and speaks French at the consultation. It is as if her operation would be more acceptable for a Western person. Thus, in order to live as one would like to or in order to keep their status clean, Nisrine and Layale have to invent and fake new identities that are signified by the name. Jamale is also holding her name sign on an audition for TV advertisements. The sign is upside down and she is asked to turn it around. The people auditioning her point out how they do not know her name while she states being in soap operas and in advertisements. This (un)intentious hiding of name could be seen as pointing to her personal identity crisis caused by her menopause that she is trying to hide throughout the film. She tries to firm her skin by putting tapes underneath her hair and the only time she is seen at home she is on a running machine. This age crisis echoes her broken marriage. The homesphere arguably reminds her of the situation in which she is in but would rather not; being a single mother left by her husband for a younger woman. For Jamale the private space of toilet becomes a way to lie in the public sphere as she tries to queue jump on pretence she has periods and sprinkles pigeon blood on sanitary products that she leaves in toilets. In the same way it is suggested to Nisrine that she buys pigeon blood in order to fake bleeding on her wedding night. Both actions are referring to solely female realm and in this way the blood comes to define the characters in their environment, whether in terms of age, reproductive capabilities but also their sexual status.
A beauty salon is emblematically a space of transformation. This is clear in visual, outer terms but as in Caramel the issues are brought into light the salon also acts as a metaphorical transformation. As Nucho has noted “Labaki’s production design emphasizes the duality of feminine spaces, of women’s bedrooms and the beauty salon, which offer confinement and freedom—and the possibility of metamorphosis” (n.d.). The salon becomes a space where the women can sense a degree of freedom from the rest of their environment shadowed by tradition, conflict, lie or a sense of duty. This metamorphosis can be, however, highly fleeting since the salon is also a space for dreaming, an escape from the real world with the obstacles. Rose becomes a good example of the fleeting transformation as she does not normally frequent the salon despite the invitations. She shyly enters as she has been asked for a date by the older gentleman. However, back at home, in the confinement of the domestic sphere where her sister Lily is shouting, she changes her mind, removes her blue eye shadow and chooses her life with Lily. In the same way, at the salon Rima can indulge in the secret infatuation with her female customer, touch and massage her head. The privacy is granted by the individual treatment rooms. Outside she is not allowed to show her lesbian desire. Although Helem, a Lebanese association supporting sexual rights has had some success in its aim for greater openness and decriminalisation (Doan, 2010, p. 149), they states on their website that “[T]he Lebanese society, still very much influenced by religion and old mores, considers homosexuality as a deviation from normal” (Interpretation of Homosexuality, n.d.). The association also points how discrimination of homosexuals is not only a cultural thing but a legal one since “unnatural sexual intercourse” is a punishable act (Interpretation of Homosexuality, n.d.). This societal stigma is illustrated in a scene on the bus. Rima is sitting next to a beautiful young woman but she can only vaguely look at her. Her look is shadowed by secrecy and by being downward and cautious it even connotes shame. This scene is juxtaposed by the scenes of Rima and Siham in the salon. The film concentrates on their looks at each other that are highly (homo)erotic and passionate. The female desire is connoted by the pleasure Siham demonstrate when Rima massages her head and this is supported by the formal qualities; tight framing and close-ups make this scene very intimate.
However, it is essential that the word lesbianism is never uttered or the legal denunciation of it. As with all the quandaries of the main characters, Labaki subtly portrays them without analysing them too deep. Nevertheless, this way she portrays their existence in the Lebanese society and as such these become representatives of the city and its people. Indeed, what makes Caramel a great film is that it does not portray societal issues in a radical way that would be immediately contested. For example, while the patriarchal traditions arguably still lurk in the background it is important to note that the film does not show repressive men per se. For example, the policeman asking for a marriage certificate is hostile to Nisrine’s fiancé too. Although patriarchy and its consequences on women cannot be downplayed, Labaki concentrates on domestic issues shadowed by the tradition that have an effect on the female body in a more personal, emotional way instead of being overly critical. These are filmed in a subtle and delicate way, always from the character’s contemplative view, making it easier to identify with.
In this way, by always keeping the scope on the female experience nothing is revealed about the male characters who have an effect on these women. A clear example of this is how Layale’s lover is never seen. If he is diegetically in the shot, he is seen quickly from behind, in hazy shots or shots from a long distance in the car. It could be argued that by not showing him the film solely concentrates on Layale’s feelings and on her point of view. It is also crucial that instead of her lover we do see his wife Christine. She can be seen as a catalyst for Layale leaving him. Christine is invited to the salon on the pretence they have a waxing offer so that Layale can survey the enigmatic wife. This is then extended to the homesphere as Layale go and wax Christine in her house. Layale’s connection with her lover’s homesphere and consequently with his wife is coupled by her entering their bathroom to fill a bucket for waxing. The running tap beckons to the earlier scene where Layale had to go to bathroom in order to have a private conversation with her lover. As such, the secret relation is brought to the female sphere, to the salon and to the home sphere. Layale realises, both she and Christine have organised him a party for their respective anniversaries and both of them are lied by him. Thus, it is not the institution of marriage per se that changes Layale’s mind but the female connection and sensibility.
What triumphs in Labaki’s film is the female perspective and responsiveness and the salon becomes a hub of this and the female relations within it. Garcia argues through the female voice and view Caramel “is the first narrative feature since Maroun Baghdadi’s Beirut O Beirut (1975) to transform that city’s image” (Garcia, n.d.). This is interesting since, returning to the earlier notions made in this article about the Lebanese cinema in general, Khatib states that the image of Beirut as a broken and scarred city has become iconic both in the Lebanese cinema but also in the Western representations of the city. She underlines that in these everlasting images Beirut “is both a military and a symbolic battleground” (Khatib, 2008, p. 58). In Labaki’s film, however, Beirut is not introduced as a war-torn city but greatly as a female space, colourful and united that is both modern and traditional. Through this approach it redefines the image of contemporary Beirut. The city becomes a symbolic battleground that is not fragmented by the different factions but more symbolically by the tradition, duty and expectations imprinted on female bodies. While these seem to dominate outside the salon, as this article has tried to argue, the women are renegotiating the tradition and roles, even if it’s for their own sake within the closed female space offered by the salon. In turn, Nisrine’s fiancé who tries to oppose the police asking for a marriage certificate gets a black eye and a trip to a police station as a consequence. As such, Labaki does not show any larger social transformations but highlights the little, personal transformations and emancipations. The end of the film underlines this idea. Earlier in the film after receiving compliments for her beautiful short hair Rima suggests Siham to cut her long hair short too. With a hesitant sadness turned into laugh Siham replies that “At home they would go mad”. This implicitly points to the tradition and the traditional image of ideal femininity and lack of personal choice. However, the film ends Siham walking away from the salon, her hair cut short, smiling and full of confidence. Thus, although Caramel shows that the female sexuality and traditional notions of gender are controlled and the emancipation can be fleeting, Labaki shows these women as desiring and active subjects that through their bodies re-negotiate the expectations and shows the contemporary Lebanese female space as one of desire and hope.