Caramel, Labaki's debut feature, follows the lives and loves of five women who gather at a neighbourhood beauty salon. The title refers both to the Middle Eastern art of hair removal using a sugary paste, and 'the idea of sweet and salt, sugary and sour,' says Labaki.
'That summer I felt guilty, useless - I'd just finished shooting a colourful film that wasn't about politics or war, but love, emotions and shared humour,' says the young director, known for her work on commercials and music videos in Lebanon.
'But when I started editing, I realised my contribution was to show the reality of women's lives. And it has a message of coexistence.'
The film is rooted in the context of Lebanon but, says Labaki, 'on an emotional level, women are the same. We understand each other.'
Veteran French producer Toussaint, of Les Films des Tournelles, met Labaki in 2003 while on a flying visit to the Beirut Film Festival to present Emanuele Crialese's Respiro. 'I knew nothing about the Middle East,' says Toussaint. 'But I fell in love with Beirut and this human story - Nadine's perception of Lebanese society is so sharp.'
Unable to find co-producers for the $1.5m project in Lebanon, Toussaint set up her own company, Les Films de Beyrouth, to co-produce the film with her Paris company.
Selected for the scriptwriting workshop Residence du Festival de Cannes in 2004, Labaki spent time in Paris developing the script: 'We were all directors from different countries with different stories, living together in a beautiful apartment in Paris. It was inspiring, and hard work - I really learnt the discipline of writing.'
Labaki spent a year casting her film, searching for her characters in cafes, on the streets, and through family and friends. All five lead women (including Labaki, who plays the salon owner) are non-actors, the token professional being Adel Karam, a popular Lebanese comedian and TV actor.
'We found an old clothes shop in [the Beirut district of] Gemmayze that had the perfect atmosphere, and transformed it into the salon,' says Labaki. In another serendipitous touch so typical of the whole production, the crew found themselves shooting in a tailor's shop located on Rue Labaki.
Roissy Films is handling sales.