In ‘Capernaum’ Nadine Labaki gives voice to Lebanon’s invisible children

When the film Capernaum begins, audiences are immediately struck by the dramatic stand the film takes on the nature of poverty and neglect of children. A 12-year-old named Zain, in juvenile prison for stabbing someone, has sued his parents for neglect, telling the judge he’s suing them because they “gave him life.” While hearing this statement from a child is startling, director Nadine Labaki, says it came from actual conversations with children living in similar circumstances. In Capernaum, Lebanon the community has been devastated by such widespread poverty that societal infrastructures have eroded to the point where entire families live invisible lives. In this place Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) lives with his large family, struggling daily to secure food and shelter. The bleak, naturalistic approach to the material has earned the film high praise from critics and audiences since debuting at Cannes, where it won the Jury Prize, making Labaki the first Arab filmmaker to take home a major award at the prestigious festival.

Lesley Coffin: Were there specific events which came up that motivated you to make this film?

Nadine Labaki: For me, it was just spending every day on the streets of Lebanon, seeing all these children facing so much neglect and hardship on a daily basis. I just decided to try to do something, to turn this anger into action. These kids didn’t ask to be here, they’re paying a very high price for our own mistakes and conflicts. So for me, I just wanted to learn how and where we failed these kids. What’s their point of view of the situation and of the adults who failed them? I started doing a bunch of research and interviewing kids. I went to courts and prisons for minors. And when I asked most of the kids if they were happy to be alive, most of them said they weren’t and felt that they were just being punished for reasons they don’t understand. So I wanted to tell the story of one child that would rebel against the abuse.

Lesley Coffin: The decision to tell the story with this thread about a child suing his parents for allowing him to be born into this situation could be seen as controversial because of the blame it places on his parents. Was that an aspect you had to wrestle with, figuring out how to talk about the parent’s responsibility facing such hardships themselves?

Nadine Labaki: I felt that it was all part of one vicious circle going on. The parents are the first victims of that, and I tried to make that very clear. I found myself in the situation all the time, of being judgmental. And in the film, they’re literally brought before a judge, in a courtroom, to be judged. And I found myself asking how these parents could be so neglectful of their children. How could a mother leave her children in an apartment all day, knowing they might hurt themselves? And most of the time, all it took was 10 minutes of talking with their mother or father to be shaken into understanding their position. You don’t know who’s right or who’s wrong, they’re as much of a victim as the children because they’re part of a system that’s broken. This abuse and neglect comes from desperation and ignorance, and also, life starts to feel like it’s just too hard. And I wanted the parents to also have the opportunity to express themselves. In the film they stand in front of a judge and look that judgmental face in the eyes. When his mother says, “who are you to judge us, you’ve never been in my shoes” she was speaking to me in the film as the counselor, but also to the audience. Parents are to blame, but they share the blame with the government and the larger society. But I think a child who doesn’t understand why they’re being mistreated would place the blame on their parents.

Lesley Coffin: I know that most of the film was improvised and you hired non-professional actors. Were those monologues given in court by the parents written out or did you ask them to improvise them as well?

Nadine Labaki: I talked to them about the situation and told them what the scene was about, but then they were expressing themselves in real life. Each one of them talked from their own experiences. The woman who plays Zain’s mother, Fadi, couldn’t afford to register her children. She gave her children water and sugar because she couldn’t afford any other food. She’s living in a community where everyone’s invisible from society, excluded because they don’t have any papers. They knew what they were talking about and they said it because that’s how they felt. When his father said, “I don’t know better” he said that because this is the way he was raised as well. I wanted the film to always be a mixture of narrative and real-life. I wanted to tell my story but also be as close to reality as possible. And to do that, I had to use their real stories. Also, to avoid making something which would feel manipulative or like I intervened too much. We did that with the actors, but also with the set design and lighting. To feel invisible while still navigating that reality towards the fiction.

Lesley Coffin: I read that you filmed more than 500 hours of footage. Did you have the narrative locked down before filming or did you find the narrative structure during the edit?

Nadine Labaki: No, we had a very specific script going into the film. So when we go to the edit, we edited everything chronologically and that gave us a 12-hour first cut. But chronologically, it was the story we were telling. And then we had to edit it back and keep cutting it. And there are magic moments we lost, I’m still struggling with losing those scenes because I really loved them.

Lesley Coffin: The first and last part of the film’s almost exclusively told through Zain’s perspective. And the second part you kind of split the point of view with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw). Why make that choice?

Nadine Labaki: For me, the film is the story of a child who’s going to become an adult at a very young age. And when he meets this woman, he becomes a part of her family. He becomes the father of her child when she disappears and is an adult by the end of the film. Zain certainly would have met someone like her. So she’s part of his life and we had to tell her story because she’s living a life which is extremely problematic in Lebanon. The struggles of migrant workers and modern slavery is an important story to tell.

Lesley Coffin: How has the film been received in Lebanon?

Nadine Labaki: It’s going to be released in Lebenon in December so I’m very eager to hear what people think?

Lesley Coffin: Has the cast had an opportunity to see it?

Nadine Labaki: Yes, we did a special screening for the whole cast and crew.

Photos: Nadine Labaki and Zain Al Rafeea/Photo by Fares Sokhon, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Treasure Bankole as Yonas, Zain Al Rafeea as Zain/Photo by Fares Sokhon, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Capernaum will screen at the Hampton’s International Film Festival this weekend and be released in theaters this December

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