It might not be about war or politics but the debut project from a young Lebanese director says much about the peace that can be achieved. Antonia Carver reports

Nadine Labaki (pictured) shot Caramel in Beirut in late spring 2006, when the troubled city was in a buoyant mood following the departure of the Syrian army and the rise of the 'Cedar Revolution'. 'The timing was so fortuitous, something of a miracle,' says producer Anne-Dominique Toussaint.

A week after the wrap party, Israeli bombers were flying overhead. With the airport under attack, it was September before Labaki could begin post-production in Paris.

Labaki's first feature, Caramel, 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 as a commercials and music video director 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 women are all different ages, backgrounds and religions, but there's so much warmth in the relationships.'

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 in Lebanon, Toussaint set up her own company, Les Films de Beyrouth, to co-produce with her Paris company.

Selected for the highly competitive scriptwriting workshop Cannes Residence 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 then spent a year casting her film. Intent on creating a 'realistic' picture, she searched for her characters in cafes, on the street, through family and friends. All five of the lead women - including Labaki, who plays the salon owner, a dedicated Christian in love with a married man - are non-actors, to some extent playing themselves. The token -professional, Adel Karam, is a well-known Lebanese comedian and TV actor.

'We found an old clothes shop in [Beirut district] Gemmayze that had the perfect atmosphere, and transformed it into the salon,' says Labaki. In another serendipitous touch typical of the production, the crew also found themselves shooting in a tailor's shop located on Rue Labaki.

Roissy Films is handling international sales on the film, which sold well at Cannes, including to Roadside (US) and Momentum (UK).