Three important things have to be said about this film. Right off the top Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s (Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?) film Capernaum, a play on the word cahpernaum which means chaos, is my favourite film of 2018. Big statement! To back it up I say that it is the film whose story moved me the most, whose acting was the most mindblowing and which stayed with me the longest. I have been thinking about it often after seeing it a couple of days ago and my first impression has changed none.
Second, it is highway robbery that 12-year-old Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee making his onscreen debut, was not nominated in the Best Actor category. His turn in the film is stunning. More so when you find out he is not an actor. Rather a young boy which during the casting call, Labaki found and was wise enough to see his potential, it became apparent that he was so perfect for the role the director decided to change the name of the character to that of the young boy. The realistic way he delivers his lines and the breadth of the emotions he conveys is mind blowing. Especially from an untrained and so young actor. So realistic a portrayal. Probably because he had somewhat lived Zain’s life as Al Rafeea himself had to live and survive on the streets as a refugee.
Last, I will never complain about my life again. We are so lucky here. Don’t have to deal with war and all it brings with it. The crushing poverty and the ensuing refugee problem in Lebanon. All so difficult. It puts many in precarious situations we do not even have to contemplate in this part of the world. Especially hard hit are vulnerable sections of the population like women and children.
From about minute two of the film my heart was broken. Broken for many of the characters especially Zain. It was apparent how tough their lives were. Brutal tale of poverty and life on the streets. Not an easy watch in any respect. You sit on the edge of your seat not wanting any more tragedy or pain to happen to Zain, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw – first film) and her son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). Even though there are some “bad” guys in the film, you find it hard to judge them. Whether it be Zain’s parents, Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad – first film) and Selim (Fadi Yousef – The Football Pitch), or Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh – first film), the human trafficker, you hate what they do, but not them. It is just a case of horrible situations resulting in people doing what they have to in order to survive.
Because the story is told so well you end up not judging any of the characters and their behaviour. Applause goes to Labaki. She has done a marvellous job bringing this difficult and loaded story to the screen. You get to witness it up close and personal due to her tight camera shots, but you never feel like you are intruding. A delicate tightrope she walks. Subjects like poverty, being undocumented, parental care, freedom, and living in situations that force humans to make difficult decisions which many would find unsavoury are touched upon. Labaki shows that she is a talented and brave filmmaker. Taking this story she co-wrote and using a cast made up of non-actors, Labaki has made a film which is full of questions and compassion leaving judging to lesser others.
Young Zain and his many siblings, who live in poverty in Beirut, do what they have to in order to help the family survive. Many of them work on streets peddling food and juice for store owner Assaad (Nour El Husseini – first film) and Zain even delivers heavy tanks of propane to people. Street smart, but not afforded the chance to be book smart as his father refuses to allow Zain to go to school, such is the life of an undocumented family.
Going from bad to worse after his sister Sahar (Haita Cedra Izzam – first film) is sold into marriage at the age of eleven to Assaad, Zain decides to leave home to go to live with his grandmother. After being distracted by Cockroachman, who he meets on the bus, and the sight of an amusement park, Zain gets off the bus. Hungry, without money or a place to stay, he attracts the sympathy of another undocumented person, Ethiopian single mother, Rahil. She takes in Zain, primarily as she thinks he can take care of her infant son while she seeks work.
Zain becomes the primary caregiver to the young child. A huge responsibility that grows even more so when Rahil, without a permit, is arrested. Using all of his street smarts, Zain does what he needs to in order to get money and food for him and Yonas. Despite his heart of a lion, you can see that even this amazing 12-year-old is going to reach his breaking point.
After that happens, Zain himself is arrested after an incident and finds himself in the same jail as Rahil. Once in court, he decides along with his lawyer (Nadine Labaki) that he is going to sue his parents. For what, you ask? For bringing him into the world.
Debuting at last year’s Cannes this small film (budget was a relatively small $4 million) has bowled over most who have seen it. At Cannes it won the Jury Prize and its success has continued to it obtaining a nomination at the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language category, a first for an Arabic film directed by a woman. It screened at TIFF and other festivals, now it is enjoying general release in North America.