Film Forum hosts Q&A with ‘Capernaum’ filmmaker Nadine Labaki

On Friday, December 14, Film Forum screened the film Capernaum from acclaimed director, writer, and actor Nadine Labaki, boasting 18 awards and 16 nominations. Nadine Labaki’s tear-jerking, powerful movie Capernaum follows a young boy of roughly 12 years old in Lebanon. In the film, Labaki takes us through a whirlwind of a story showing the struggle of a child fighting for survival. Capernaum reminds us that for many, the inescapable life stuck in poverty is still a hugely neglected issue.

Below is a Q&A with Nadine Labaki (NL) conducted by Film Forum (FF):

FF: You have previously talked about sticking all your ideas on the wall and creating a story thread from them. Could you talk about where the title came from and what the process was?

NL: Yes, absolutely. I’ve known the word ‘capernaum’, or ‘caphernaum’ in French, and ‘kafarnahum’ in Arabic, since I was a child. I used to use it in school to impress my teachers, and it signified chaos, disorder. It was originally the name of a biblical village that was cursed by Jesus, and it was also the village where Jesus made his first miracle. It started being used throughout history to signify chaos and disorder and hell, in a way. So before we started writing the script, we put all those themes on the board: child labor, migrant labor rights, children’s rights, the absurdity of having to have the papers to prove that you exist, the absurdity of borders, and early marriage. We would look at all those themes, and once I looked at the board and thought, “This is capernaum, this is chaos, this is hell, we’re living in Hell”. That’s how it all started with the title. Then we started researching and writing the whole thing. When I used to use it  in school, I was surprised that not a lot of people knew what this word meant. I didn’t know why I knew it. I remember looking up sophisticated words in the dictionary to impress my teacher, and this is how it came about.

FF: This was one of the most amazing child performances I’ve ever seen. What was the process of interviewing children like?

NL: It was very difficult because it was during the research phase. We tried to capture the reality and come back and try to weave the scenes into a real life in a story. During the whole process of interviewing and talking to the kids, and we saw hundreds and thousands of kids, I was  always looking for [the] actor. I was looking for Zain everywhere; in every child, I was looking for him. It was a long process. It took 2 years of research until we finished the script, and I hadn’t found Zain yet. Obviously I found many, many very interesting and amazing kids, but I hadn’t found the child we were looking for. Although the script was finished, we didn’t have any money to start the film yet, and I didn’t want to start the whole process [of pre-production] before finding Zain. I gathered a group of amazing people who were willing to help me with the casting and they went everywhere in Lebanon. It was a street cast. The casting director saw him [Zain] in one of those slums that is very similar to what you see in the film, and he was playing next to his house. She interviewed him, and when I saw the interview it was obvious;you can’t miss it. He was everything we had written in the script.

FF: There’s quite a blend between reality and fiction in this film. What was the filming process, and with the enormous amount of footage, how many hours did you shoot over how many months?

NL: 500 hours of rushes, which we shot over 6 months. The first version of the film was 12 hours. We were open to whatever life was going to give us. Of course we had a solid script, the structure and the story were very important, but in between, we were open to whatever life was going to give us. It was a collaborative process [with the actors]. I felt that I wasn’t entitled to impose what I had written or imagined. I knew that this was a starting point and there was so much more to explore with the actors themselves because they were living in almost the same circumstances and the same story, so we had to always be collaborating during the whole process. Zain was also collaborating because he knows what we’re talking about, he knows the suffering that he’s portraying on the screen, and he knows that he is being the voice of those kids. Zain has had to fight to exist all the time. He lives in circumstances much worse than what you see in the film, the only difference is that he has loving parents. He had to work, had to run errands just as in the film, he had to work in a shop as a delivery boy. He never went to school and didn’t even know how to write his own name, which was only 3 letters. The nice story now is that his family has been resettled in Norway and he’s going to school for the first time in his life. He is really regaining his childhood.

FF: Can you also tell us about Yordanos Shiferaw who plays his [Zain’s] friend?

NL: She was also living in the same circumstances [as in the film], the only difference was she did not have a baby, but she was living illegally in Lebanon; she had run away from many different employers. She was living with no papers, nothing, and was living in fear all the time. So when we started shooting, it was difficult at the beginning because she didn’t trust anybody. She was scared when people approached her, and when the casting director talked to her. It took some time and then she started to be more trusting. She’s amazing, you can see it; she’s been through a lot. She was an orphan at the age of 3. She had to live and take care of her own with her brothers and sisters. When she came to Lebanon, it was also very difficult for her because of the sponsorship system in Lebanon. Unfortunately, it’s almost like modern slavery. During shooting, we shot the scenes of her getting arrested in the cybercafe, and 2 days later she was arrested in real life because of the same problems. She stayed in the prison for 3 weeks. Not only that, at the same time, the parents of Treasure also got arrested because they were in the same situation as her [Yordanos]; illegal migrant workers in Lebanon. So when we were shooting those scenes where Treasure is on her own, she really was on her own without her mom. We had to take care of her for 3 weeks until we were able to get everybody out. We were actually capturing reality as it was happening. It gives you the sense that you’re on a sort of a mission in a way, because this is not just a film, there’s something else happening there.

FF: I know you’ve opened today in the United States, and you want to do other things in the States, but you do want to take it back and show it to the Lebanon Government?

NL: Yes, absolutely.

FF: What do you hope will happen there?

NL: I think it’s the only way for me to feel like I’ve come to a closure with the film. It’s very difficult to let go when you feel like there’s so much more to do. For me, it doesn’t stop at the borders of a film. It should become a conversation and this is how, I think, the healing starts. My duty is to take it beyond just a film, so we are going to show it to the government, organise round tables, and talk to different ministries. We are getting a lot of help from the UN, UNHCR, UNICEF; that’s how Zain got resettled, and that’s how most of the kids are going to school now. There’s a movement that has started to happen and we need to take it further. There is a lot of cynicism in this world with people telling me that ‘you’re dreaming, nothing’s going to happen.’ Even if nothing will happen, still, I think we need to try, we have to try.

FF: Where do we go now with the worldwide immigration? How do we get a grip on the reality of the people trapped in this immigration nightmare?

NL: This picture [Alan Kurdi on the beach] was a turning point for me. When I saw this tiny little body lying there on the beach, I started imagining this whole journey and what happened before he got there. You can’t help wondering if this child could talk, what would he say, how would he address us adults who have failed him in a way. He was paying the price of our conflicts, our wars, and our failing governments and failing systems. Of course, I don’t have a solution, but for me, a child is a child. No matter where they are coming from, whether they are a Syrian refugee, or separated from their parents at the Mexican border, or carrying a cement block 10 times his weight because he has to feed his parents, etc., a child is a child. That’s what we should be looking at. At the end of the day, those people are just trying to survive.

FF: Dickens made laws change. Do you believe in the power of storytelling?

NL: Absolutely. I believe in the power of art, in the power of cinema, because it actually humanizes the problem instead of hearing about it in the news, and in a sort of abstract kind of way, you’re actually seeing the struggle through a human being. You’re giving it a face; a face of a child, a mother, a father, a family. You’re actually seeing it, you’re empathizing with it, you’re identifying with this person that you’re seeing on the big screen, and it moves you differently. When you know you’re watching people who are living in those same circumstances, it has an even bigger impact on you because you know that you’re leaving this theater today, whereas these kids are still stuck there in that same struggle.

FF: Was there any precedent about the idea of a child suing the parents?

NL: No, that was the only fantasy in this film. In reality, a child cannot sue their parents because they need to have a legal guardian in order to sue anyone. In that case, his legal guardian is his parent, so he cannot sue his parents. So this was the only symbolic fantasy in the film. But it was inspired by those discussions that I used to have with those children. We’re talking about children who have been facing extreme neglect, children who have been abused, raped, and children who have been living on the streets, in prisons, and in shelters. I used to ask them one question at the end of the conversation: “Are you happy to be alive?” Unfortunately, most of the time, the answer was “No, I’m not happy to be alive, I wish I were dead. I don’t know why I’m here, I don’t know why I was born, if anyone’s going to love me”.

FF: It seems like at the end, you [the lawyer] are the savior, the court is the savior. Why are you showing the government as the savior?

NL: The absence of the government is actually in every frame of the film. I don’t see the government as the savior. The film ends on the scene where the folder is being filed among all these files and you know what a chaos this government is and what a chaos this system is. The chaos of the system is in every single frame, in every situation in those slums, in the gutters, the way nobody even looks at the children. I don’t see how the government in the savior.

FF: Did this 500 hours of footage require a lot of patience?

NL: Yes, of course we knew from the start that we needed time to create these relationships between us, the crew, and between the actors themselves. Time was very essential. There was no fear; if it does not work today, it will work tomorrow. We had to be at their [the actors] service, we had to adapt to their personality, to their rhythm. Especially when you’re working with the children; it was such a nurturing experience. They are pure in nature. They are a nature that is not altered, or informed by society’s codes or politics or hypocrisy. What you need to do is create the right situation for them to react in their own instinctive and true nature. At this point of shooting, my daughter was the same age [as the baby] and I was breastfeeding, so I used to see myself in Rahil. She was my mirror, in a way. There’s something instinctive in motherhood that made me know when Treasure was hungry or sleepy. There’s something about just knowing children. You can’t expect children to do what you want them to do when you want them to do it. It’s impossible. You just have to wait for the right moment. There was not, at any point, the word “action” when we were shooting. You have to really just know when to start shooting. My cinematographer was just a blessing, because he was very patient, he knew what the film needed. My crew was just amazing. If you watch the making of, they were just dancing around the actors. They were there to try to capture the moments of truth and reality.

FF: We should give your editor’s name too, he was very patient!

NL: Yes, Konstantin Bock!

FF: And your cinematographer?

NL: Christopher Aoun.

An audience member also praised the piece as “Amazing work” to which Nadine responded with:

NL: Yes, I was blessed with an amazing crew. We changed as human beings. It was a very nurturing adventure for all of us.

Q&A at Film Forum

Featured photo: Director Nadine Labaki and Capernaum star Zain Al Rafeea at the 71st Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Photo: Reuters

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Sophia is currently a student of classical music. She joined FF2 Media in 2018, and loves working with everyone on the team because not only does it promote women's roles in films, it also opens her up to more works done by women. Sophia is so glad that there is a space that is full of women alike in their passion to bring more attention to females who are just as capable or even more capable than men in the industry.
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