We joined director Nadine Labaki for an exclusive screening of her latest film, the award winning Capernaum, set in sprawling Beirut, at a cinema in NYC. She offered a brief Q&A after the screening. Here’s a review of Capernaum.
Set in the present-day slums and shacks of back-alley Lebanon, Capernaum (original title: Capharnaüm) documents, as written, the story of a boy attempting to sue his parents. However, it’s barely a court drama. Director and writer Nadine Lebaki’s story darts all over the social issues of today: a chaotic and not beautiful portrait of child abuse, negligent parents, human smuggling, trafficking, prison crowding, and more. It is a story that works hard to explore all of these issues from the point of view of a precocious Zain (played effortlessly by Zain Al Rafeea), who’s home life is chronically troubled and threadbare as he has no documents and doesn’t even know his age due to his poor and reckless parents. His ritualistic lifestyle is handled through gritted teeth, but he is patient until the potential that his sister could be given away to marriage becomes unbearably real. This sets off a multi-week excursion on his own, where society’s dwindling interest in his livelihood is countered by other invisible people such as refugees and illegal workers supporting each other the best they can.
Nadine Lebaki’s directing style is raw and clear- some of the most stunning yet heart-wrenching moments are domestically violent yet graciously choreographed- bottled-up rage spilling into the street (often literally) in a moment of extreme emotion. Critics are quick to assign moments of the movie to be competing for your emotions- such as Zain’s sister being sold into marriage. These moment should be raw and rare and confusing and worrying. It is not about competition. Nadine’s story does try to weave in many social issues, and it is mostly successful, but viewers are absolutely pummeled with an overwhelming amount of stress.
Zain ends up in the shack home of Rahil (Yordanos Shifera), an Ethiopian refugee who has a child. She works odd jobs and ends up trusting Zain to oversee her child’s day-to-day life, something Zain is somewhat already inclined toward doing, given his caregiver status in his real home. Rahil is detained for working illegally in the country, and Zain is left to care for her son, played flawlessly by Boluwatife Treasure Bankole. The repetitious yet pure interactions between Treasure and Zain add a strong desire for their success, even as Zain is worn down. The holy land of anywhere but here captures Zain’s interest, and he returns home, only to learn his dear sister died after her marriage. This leads Zain to stab her husband out of rage.
The mostly startling and treasured moments in Lebaki’s work are the seconds of peace, despite dire circumstances. They are the moments of Zain’s siblings huddled together in a room- often sleeping, or in Rahil’s oddly-cozy home in the slum, complete with dim lighting and an inflatable pool for her son. Fadi Yousef‘s performance as a smuggler and shop keeper is also delightful if not resultantly sinister. His personality is based on pop culture and his status. It is the contained style of status that regionally looks impressive. Throughout the film, there are moments of regional intrigue and observational wit, be it a peculiar setting; a funny circumstance; a backhanded remark from Zain.
This film is heavy, but its lows are matched with oddly satisfying highs of hope. Its documentary style and realist execution (literally- most of the actors are indeed refugees or have lived the circumstances presented in the film) may confuse people for being a true story, but it is indeed a composite. Look toward it for a degree of hope, but mostly to understand that this is reality. Heavily researched and as legally accurate as possible, the film is ultimately entertaining and not academic. However, there is a point. And in the Q&A following the screening, Labaki remarked: “I love cinema because normal people are raised up and their issues cannot be ignored. You just have to watch”.
Nadine Labaki, one of three women directors among the 21 in competition at Cannes Film Festival, said she filmed 520 hours of footage over six months as her novice actors, many of them young children, improvised – to achieve the intense realism. The film is the official Lebanese Foreign Language submission for the 91st Academy Awards. The film ultimately took home the Prix Du Jury (Jury Prize) at the festival and has a December 14, 2018 release date in the US theaters.