The charismatic actor talks Nadine Labaki, religious conflict, and the hollow glamour of Cannes.
In heartening contrast to recent images, Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant on va où?) captures the Lebanese charm I enjoyed there in April. The spirit, food, hospitality, pretty women, appealing villages and landscapes, sensual music and dance. Julian Farhat, who plays lead Rabih, joined The Lumière Reader over a scratchy Skype line at the mercy of Beirut’s creaky infrastructure.
Acclaimed at Cannes and Toronto (where it won Peoples’ Choice Award for Best Film), Where Do We Go Now? portrays a cute relationship between Muslim Rabih and Christian Amal (played by beautiful director Nadine Labaki). Julian enthuses about working with the sensuous woman behind Caramel. “Honestly, it was a dream. It was the first time I worked with a professional team. Especially her, she knows what she wants, how she can get it. She’s never overly demanding, or invasive. She made me feel very comfortable and appreciated.” (Lebanese Wellingtonian Steve Wakeem, who co-starred with Julian in indie short The Invisible Hand, is similarly effusive: “He’s great to work with!”)
Funny, sad and thoughtful, Where Do We Go Now? renders a village of Lebanese women’s plucky efforts to extinguish Christian-Muslim conflict. “It has to do with the frustration of living in a place where we are always on the verge of civil war, always on the verge of something exploding,” Labaki says. Over an evocative Lebanese village image, Amal’s voiceover narration begins: “The story I tell is for all who want to hear. A tale of those who fast, a tale of those who pray, a tale of a lonely town, mines scattered all around. Caught up in a war, split to its very core. To clans with broken hearts under a burning sun. Their hands stained with blood in the name of a cross or a crescent. From this lonely place, which has chosen peace, whose history is spun of barbed wire and guns.”
A charismatic presence on the silver screen, Julian is a reflective, humble and appealing interviewee. What does he want the audience to take away? “It’s different for different audiences. Locally, fighting for trivial things will lead to bigger disasters. Fighting over irrelevant things. We can disagree, but we don’t need to kill each other. Outside of the Middle East, the message to show is we are not as barbaric as sometimes depicted. We have thoughts, emotions. We love life, and know how to enjoy it. Not everyone wants to destroy, hate and kill.”
Amal’s voiceover narration, over an image of pallbearers winding through a cemetery, concludes: “My story is now ending for all those who were listening, of a town where peace was found while fighting continued all around. Of men who slept so deep and woke to find new peace. Of women still in black, who fought with flowers and prayers instead of guns and flares, and protect their children. Destiny then drove them to find a new way.” The pallbearers, disoriented by the cemetery’s segregation, have the last line: “Where do we go now?” Julian is ever modest, emphasising it’s just his opinion: “It symbolises our country. We’re killing our loved ones. Unless you work together, you’ll always be standing confused, not knowing where to go. That’s my interpretation.”
Lebanon’s Muslim/Christian conflict has shaped the softly spoken Beirut-based actor’s life. “Sometimes people pretend it’s not there. It’s always there. With the past wars, many people still cling to their grudges.” Julian is a Christian, but grew up alongside Muslims in Barty, a small village in South Lebanon. “Most of my friends were Muslim. It got me to understand people are people.” His village wasn’t physically damaged when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006. “We looked after refugees from other villages.”
From Where Do We Go Now?’s beginning, Khaled Mouzanar’s music builds atmosphere. “He’s Nadine’s husband. He’s with her 24/7. He’s involved in everything. He was there when the story was conceived.”
My highlights include: Amal and Rabih sing; Amal vents at Rabih: “Is this what being a man means?”; Amal brings the Russian woman around to Rabih’s place. “That’s one of the cutest. I think it is witty.” A Woody Allen, Annie Hall conversation? “You could say that. It’s my favourite. I enjoyed it so much.”
With a beard that a Brooklyn hipster would rate, Julian has a prominent tattoo on his left arm: “That was a dark period I was going through, I did it myself.” Formerly of many heavy metal bands, he’s recently joined a new progressive rock- metal band (“with fusion of oriental and jazz”), who perform in mask.
Julian is not a political person, but considers my questions like what to do for Syria? “I don’t think I’m qualified to comment. It’s really nice to see people standing up for human rights. Syrians have almost no rights.” As Where Do We Go Now? suggests, he is uncertain which Middle Eastern journalists and media to follow. “It’s hard to know where to get the truth.”
Where Do We Go Now? made me hungry for the tasty food (and amity) I enjoyed in Zahle and Beirut. “Yeah, we have good food. It brings people together, friends and family, we sit together and share. One of the most delicious is mloukhieh, which combines chicken, herbs and rice.” The Lord of the Rings trilogy is Julian’s favourite film. “I think it is perfect. I am a nature lover. I would love to see the country where it was filmed someday.”
So what’s next? “When the opportunity comes I take advantage. I work hard on myself, and see where that leads.” Julian is “really excited” by the Toronto recognition, but nonplussed by experiencing Cannes’ hollow glamour. “Cannes is overrated. I’m a simple person. I come from a village in South Lebanon.”