Capernaum – a child’s-eye view of a conflicted world

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Arwa Haider writes about the Lebanese film Capernaum, which has been nominated for an Oscar. It tells the story of a child who sues the world, through his parents, for giving him this life. Published on BBC on February 12, 2019.

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Within the first few minutes of film-maker Nadine Labaki’s Oscar-nominated movie Capernaum, we see a skinny kid of around 12 (Zain Al Rafeea, whose on-screen character was named after him), being led to a courtroom. His handcuffs are removed; we learn that this is not Zain’s first court appearance – but this time, he is the plaintiff.

“I want to sue my parents,” Zain tells the judge. His jaw juts defiantly, though his gaze is wounded as he explains: “Because I was born.”

Capernaum’s title is a nod to the French term for ‘chaos’ (as well as a doomed biblical village). Its modern Beirut-set narrative portrays abject child poverty and neglect, vividly and without sensation; its cast is largely non-professional. Its perspective centres on Zain’s experience: his slum confines with his parents and numerous siblings; his natural child’s instinct to play between gruelling shifts of work; the looming fate of prison (like his elder brother) rather than school; the scarcity of food, warmth or love. Zain’s survival instinct and innate dignity is echoed by that of Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian worker without legal papers, striving to raise her infant son Yonas, and to avoid deportation. The film is both fiercely pertinent and part of a tradition of cinema that presents a child’s-eye view of a conflicted world.

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“I was thinking about this film for a long time,” Labaki – who is also a writer and actress – tells BBC Culture. “It started with the Syrian refugee crisis; you see it everywhere on the streets in Lebanon: children working; selling gum; dragging gas canisters along. You feel frustrated, then so futile. I remember thinking when I saw Aylan Kurdi (the three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned in 2015, as his family attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea): what would this child have told us about what he’s been through? Because we’re dragging these children like puppets through our decisions: whatever wars we come up with; the systematic chaos we create.”

Labaki recalls noticing a young child begging with his mother late one night on Beirut’s streets – the boy was too exhausted to stay awake, but too uneasy to rest. “I got so angry; how did we get to the point where we deprive a child of the most basic right, to close his eyes and sleep? Give me the strength to do something about it; what can I do?”

Capernaum’s conception began with a sketch that Labaki drew that night: “It was the face of a child with his mouth wide open, and he’s shouting with all his strength at the adults around him: ‘I don’t belong in your world; I don’t want to be here’… Now, I see this image, and it’s Zain standing in front of society and saying: ‘No more; you don’t deserve me’.”

From the ground up

The film’s story formed through intensive groundwork, with Labaki and her co-writers visiting and speaking to children in shelters, detention centres, juvenile prisons and impoverished neighbourhoods. “One boy told me: ‘I don’t know why I was born, if nobody’s going to love me or say one nice word to me in my life, and I’m never going to have a kiss before I sleep from anybody’,” she murmurs. “Of course, the experience changed me. I met kids who use very harsh words to describe themselves; many of them don’t even know when they were born, because they were never registered. It hit me that this was going to be the story of a child who sues the world, through his parents, for giving him this life.”

Street casting was key to Capernaum; while Labaki acted the lead parts in her previous films Caramel (2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (2011), here she has a brief supporting role, as Zain’s lawyer. Otherwise, she points out that the script essentially served the non-professional actors, and that nearly all of these talents brought their real-life experiences to the process. Al Rafeea himself is a Syrian refugee (“Acting’s easy,” he brightly told a press conference at Cannes, where Capernaum won the 2018 Jury Prize); Aleppo-born Haita Izam (who plays Zain’s younger sister Sahar) had been selling gum on Beirut’s streets when she was cast; Shiferaw had been forced to support her family as a young orphan, and ended up living illegally in Lebanon – she was actually arrested during the filming of Capernaum; Boluwatife Treasure Bankole (the one-year-old girl who plays Yonas) was deported to Kenya with her mother.

The presence of untrained actors lends an unaffected rawness, empathy and crucial sensitivity to the film.

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