Nadine Labaki is one of the most successful Arab directors in recent memory. The 45-year-old Lebanese activist has received critical acclaim for her latest award-winning film, “Capernaum”, which tells the story of an impoverished 11-year-old Lebanese boy named Zain who flees his abusive parents and then sues them for bringing him into the world and failing to care for him.
The entire cast were first-time actors, with the exception of Labaki herself, who played Zain’s lawyer. Most were refugees or people without legal status. Zain, for instance, is in fact a Syrian refugee who has been to school only for a short time and was illiterate at the time the film was being made. Yordanos Shiferaw, who plays the mother of an infant, Rahil, is also an undocumented refugee, from Eritrea, who was working illegally at a restaurant before she was cast by Labaki.
The New York Times film critic A.O Scott called “Capernaum” a ‘sprawling tale wrenched from real life’ and one ‘that goes beyond the conventions of documentary or realism.’ The film, after all, doesn’t fit into a traditional genre.
“The [actors] weren’t acting,” Labaki told the Los Angeles Times inside the United Nations Headquarters in New York following a screening of the film.
“An actor comes to the set being prepared, knowing his lines, prepared to be a different person, to be in someone else’s shoes. These people weren’t acting: The situations are so similar to what they’ve lived in their real lives, they didn’t feel they were becoming someone else.”
Part of the appeal – and controversy – surrounding “Capernaum” is that it shows a very real depiction of Beirut. While many tourists describe Beirut as the Paris of the Middle East, the naked truth is less flattering. Or rather, Beirut bears some resemblance to the French capital by how it increasingly marginalizes and neglects the poor.
That is evident from one of “Capernaum”’s opening scenes, which shows children running and playing with pieces of metal in a Beirut slum. The dystopian scene, notes Labaki, captures the city as it is and reflects the film’s title.
“‘Capernaum’ is used usually in French literature to signify chaos, to signify hell, disorder,” she told National Public Radio (NPR).
With Lebanon hosting well over a million refugees, Labaki said that the sights of begging street children compelled her to produce a film about their daily reality. She remembers one encounter when she was coming home from a party in the early morning and passed by a mother and her child that were dozing off but couldn’t sleep.
“We were not giving them the right to sleep. It struck me: Everything that this kid is going to know for the next two, three years is this half-a-meter sidewalk. It’s his only playground,” she told NPR.
Motivated to expose their ordeal, Labaki spent four years building relationships with Beirut’s most marginalized families. On her journey, she saw the dark confines where refugees and undocumented persons languish. These districts are often unknown to residents that live and gather in Beirut’s vibrant yet gentrified districts.
Despite its honesty, some critics call “Capernaum” ‘poverty porn,’ a label that deeply troubles Labaki. In her view, the only alternative to not showing the impoverished neighbourhoods of Beirut – which comprises a large chunk of the city – is not showing any disturbing images at all.
“I agree that I haven’t been in their shoes. But I spent four years talking to them, to become their voice,” she told the Globe and Mail.
While Labaki has never lived on the street, she has endured unprecedented hardship. Born in 1974 – just a year before the Lebanon’s 15-year civil war – she grew up with the sound of bullets and bombs echoing around her. To cope with the war, she often rented video cassettes from a shop in her building, lending her an escape from the conflict.
By the age of 12, Labaki knew she wanted to become a film maker. “Capernaum” is now her third major film and perhaps the most controversial. Putting accusations of ‘poverty porn’ aside, a more honest critique of the film is that it implies poor people shouldn’t have children, rather than solely condemn the social and political factors spawning the poverty epidemic in Beirut.
But what can’t be disputed is that “Capernaum” has changed people’s lives. The film, said Labaki, was consulting with the UN from the very start. The film, after all, touches on issues that the UN has long tried to mitigate, including child poverty, child neglect, child labor and the Syrian refugee crisis which has uprooted and traumatized hundreds of thousands of children.
“The [UN refugee agency] helped Zain get to Norway,’ Labaki told the LA Times. “He’s there now, with his parents, overlooking the sea. It’s like a fairy tale.”
The UN is also helping other kids featured in the film, giving Labaki hope that their lives can change for the better too. But for the rest of the underprivileged children in Lebanon, the film can only do so much to help their ordeal.
That doesn’t mean there is no value in raising awareness. Scott, the critic from the NYT, laments that the buying and selling of children – a very dominant theme in the film — reflects the despairing reality where human bonds amount to little more than human transactions.
Worst still, he says that the film shows how street children are pushed to become ‘shrewd materialists,’ which is depicted by how Zain always tries to strike a deal or work an angle whenever he is dealing with adults or peers.
That said, critics believe that “Capernaum” is an unequivocal success. It’s not only a fairy tale and an opera, claims Scott, but it’s also a howl protest and anthem of resistance.