Both Nadine Labaki’s Caramel (95 mins.) and Phillipe Aractingi’s Under the Bombs (98 mins.) were shot in Lebanon during the summer of 2006. Shooting of Caramel in Beirut was completed just before the Israel-Lebanon conflict in the summer of 2006. Under the Bombs was filmed in Lebanon during the conflict and cease-fire.
Caramel centers on five women friends in a beauty shop, and therefore it has been compared to Steel Magnolias and Sex and the City. Like Steel Magnolias, Caramel focuses on weddings, divorce, and aging, and like Sex and the City, it focuses on the centrality of relationships between women as they navigate relationships with sexuality and men. The film is largely character-driven, scenes alternating between the beauty shop where three of the women work and scenes outside the beauty shop, where the characters’ individual conflicts unfold. Caramel develops some recognizable characters—a young bride preparing for marriage, a sexually active unmarried woman who comes to terms with the impossibility of her relationship and moves on, a tomboyish lesbian whose sexuality is subtly but not openly acknowledged, a middle-aged divorced woman struggling to maintain youth, and an older woman who sacrificed romantic love and marriage to care for her sister. The film relates well to themes commonly addressed in women’s studies classrooms, such as standards of beauty, gendered social conditioning, conflicts that emerge between women’s desires and cultural expectations, and the choices women make that lead to sacrifice or liberation.
Caramel is also an antidote to misconceptions of women in the Middle East as less developed and more repressed than their Western counterparts, a vision which is not new but has gained new cultural attention since the U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though familiar characters and themes make cross-cultural connections possible, distinct cultural differences are also represented; for example, in Caramel a young bride undergoes hymen reconstruction so that she will bleed on her wedding night and be presumed a virgin. However, it would be a mistake to present the film as a sociological representation of Arab women.
Aractingi’s Under the Bombs opens with home-video footage of Israeli airstrikes on Lebanon, which lasted thirty-three days and left more than a thousand dead and approximately one million refugees. The film’s stated objective is to give voice to the “suffering of the innocents,” and thus much of the focus is on civilian victims and the damage of infrastructure as a result of the airstrikes. However, Aractingi also carefully develops a focus on Hezbollah, the resistance movement within Lebanon that ignores both the voice of and impact on women and children in the conflict.
The narrative begins after the cease-fire when Zeina arrives in Lebanon in search of her missing son, who was sent to stay with her sister while she and her husband divorced. Zeina hires Tony, the only taxi driver willing to take her to south Lebanon, and they embark on a journey documenting conflict and grief through the actors’ improvised scenes with refugees, journalists, and soldiers who play themselves in the film. The characters’ journey is paired with a soundtrack of radio and television news coverage of the conflict in Arabic, French, and English.
Aractingi’s focus on the suffering caused by the airstrikes is developed through scenes at refugee centers and Zeina’s improvised interactions with refugee women grieving lost children intercut with shots of orphaned infants and children. These scenes bear witness to the damage of war on a level not often witnessed outside sites of conflict, and thus are very useful in feminist classroom discussion of the impact of war.
Aractingi also carefully develops the portrayal of the conflict with regard to Hezbollah. Interactions with young boys narrating the war as they witnessed it are paired with the Hezbollah banner reading “You’ve destroyed the bridges. We have mended their hearts,” suggesting the rhetoric that feeds Hezbollah’s growth. A visit with Tony’s family, Christians who welcomed the Israeli Army as liberators and joined the South Lebanon Army, offers another perspective on the conflict. However, the theme of women and children as victims of conflict is further developed in Zeina’s response to the mass funeral at which her sister is buried. After footage of the crowd chanting “Israel, Israel, the enemy of the Muslims” and “America, America, the world’s great Satan,” Zeina leaves, angry that she has lost her sister in a war that belonged to neither of them.
Together these films develop familiar issues for feminist classrooms as well as more culturally and regionally specific feminist issues with regard to religion, human rights, war, and motherhood. Caramel accompanied with essays by Nawal el Sadaawi and Fatima Mernissi would be well suited to discussions on standards of beauty, women’s friendship, and women’s sexuality that are common to introductory level courses in women and gender studies, particularly to trouble some Western myths about women in the Middle East.1 Under the Bombs is well suited to feminist classrooms focused on global issues, human rights, and war. The documentary-drama hybrid structure of the film allows for critical discussion of narrative structure and point of view, not just of the filmmaker, but also of Western news coverage of conflict in the Middle East.
Danielle M. DeMuth, assistant professor of Women and Gender Studies at Grand Valley State University, teaches gender studies, global feminism, Arab feminism, and lesbian, gay, and queer literature. Her research foci are lesbian literary history and Arab feminist fiction and memoir. She co-edited the anthology Unsexing Gender, Engendering Activism: Readings in Gender Studies (Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt, 2009).
1 The Meridians interview with Saadawi includes direct and accessible commentary: “Ama Ata Aidoo, Edna Acosta-Belen, Amrita Basu, Maryse Conde, Nell Painter, and Nawal El Saadawi Speak on Feminism, Face, and Transnationalism,” Meridians 1.1 (2000), 1-28. See also Fatima Mernissi, “Size 6: The Western Women’s Harem,” in Schehrezade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems (Washington Square Press, 2001), 208-20.