Can you picture a little boy suing his parents for giving him life? Well that’s exactly happens in the hard-hitting film “Capernaum” which follows the life of Zain, a street smart 12 year old boy and his journey through hardship. According to the official synopsis, “Capernaum was made with a cast of non-professionals playing characters whose lives closely parallel their own.” The film highlights touchy subjects such as child negligence, early marriage, and means of survival. It was was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and is Lebanon’s Official Selection for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2019 Academy Awards. We spoke to Nadine Labaki the film’s director recently and you can check out what she had to say below.
The Knockturnal: Ok, first and foremost, what was the inspiration behind the film? Is there a particular reason behind the story that is being told?
Nadine Labaki: Yes I think it’s really inspired by all this injustice that we’re witnessing. I think with children in general in the world, whether those children are separated from the families on the Mexican border or children living on the street or even children who are working. There was a child that drowned and was found on the shores of a country that didn’t accept refugees. I don’t know if you remember that image of the child that was found dead who had drowned and I thought, “if this child could talk, what would she say? What would she tell the world? What would she tell us?” And that’s how it all started. I was mainly inspired also by all the sights of those children that I see in Lebanon especially. I was coming back home one night from a party and I see a child on the sidewalk with his mom and she was just trying to sleep but couldn’t because it was very uncomfortable so I just thought if she could also talk, what would she tell me? How did we get to that point of depriving them [children] of their most basic right? This is how it all started. It started with research, understanding more, and digging more. Listening and talking to those children. The script was a result of all this research.
The Knockturnal: I love that. I think it’s great that it’s also from a child’s perspective and the things that we see Zain going through. There aren’t a lot of films like that from a child’s perspective. Now, I read that you intended on using mostly non-professional actors for this film. Is there a particular reason for that decision? Can you tell me a little bit about that? Are most of the actors non-professional? How did that go about?
Nadine Labaki: All of them are not professional. None of the actors that you see have any experience in acting. They’re not actors actually, they’re real people from real life and that’s the one intention I had from the beginning. I think it’s a completely different approach and also as a viewer, I think you empathize with them when you know the person in front of you on the big screen is actually living that same struggle and coming from that same place. That same struggle, that same experience, that same story– I think it does have a completely different impact. This was my intention. I wanted to capture reality. I didn’t want them to act, I just wanted them to be, to be who they are in that situation. So it’s very important that I almost capture their reality and adapt to their reality rather than make them adapt to my script, even though there was a really solid script, this script also needed to adapt to them.
The Knockturnal: And congratulations I know the film has already received a few accolades like the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. What does this all mean to you? How excited are you about that?
Nadine Labaki: I think it’s an amazing victory, not only for us as crew members but also the team who has worked on the film because we have all worked so hard. This adventure completely changed us as human beings, both physically and mentally so it’s a big victory. It still is a big victory, every time the film is seen and every time it gets an award. Also for the actors who in real life are struggling to even exist. Nobody looks at them, they’re almost invisible, non-existent, and now all of sudden they’re in the biggest festivals in the world, they’re being applauded and appreciated for exactly the same reason. So I think it’s a huge victory. Most of them before going to Cannes they didn’t even have papers, none of them, so we had to finish the papers on time so they could be able to travel and all that so yeah, it’s an amazing victory.
The Knockturnal: Definitely and I also hear that the film is a runner up for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2019 Academy Awards. That is huge, congrats, that is amazing.
Nadine Labaki: Yes. Absolutely.
The Knockturnal: We are in a time where representation matters.
Nadine Labaki: Exactly, exactly. And we’re not focused only on people in the Middle East, there are invisible people where there is poverty around, whole communities that are invisible. You can find them everywhere in the world. They surround every big city. Invisibility is something anyone can relate to in a way.
The Knockturnal: Definitely, and speaking of relationships and what people can relate to, the dynamic of brother and sister between Zain and Sahar, that is something that people can relate to. The bond of brotherhood and sisterhood. Can you tell me more about that and how that idea came into play for the film in particular?
Nadine Labaki: I think it’s something that in a way I used to see a lot too. Children sometimes are so deprived and suffer so much that sometimes they become the parents of their own parents. They become responsible in a way for their own family. So Zain, he’s acting very responsibly in the film even though he’s been through so much and he took care of them. This was very important to see how responsible he is, how he took care of his sister and how later on he took care of Yonas. It’s very important to show that, and also to talk about another theme that was very important to me and that theme was early marriage. And how in these families, early marriage is very common and very possible and more common than we actually think.
The Knockturnal: And that’s still going on today?
Nadine Labaki: Yes. It’s actually rising. It’s not only going on today, it’s becoming very common because it’s something that the families resort to when they have no other choice because they need money and they need to survive. This is sort of the transaction. Those children, those girls, are being sold under the excuse of being married, but they’re being sold. It’s transaction. And it’s becoming more common than we think.
The Sony Pictures Classic will hit theaters on December 14th. Check out the trailer for Capernaum here: