Opinion: Labaki tells it as it is in Oscar nominated ‘Capernaum’

Photo Credit: (Fares Sokhon/Variety)

Laura Albast
BU News Service

BOSTON – “Capernaum” will leave you weeping in shame and discreetly trying to recover. Even the weak-hearted must see Nadine Labaki’s most recent and poignant epic, and to your dismay, there is no recovery.

“Capernaum” is not a film – it is reality. It is everything that is ugly about Lebanon. It is a story about what goes unsaid and unseen in this Levantine country. Though “Capernaum” borrows its name from an ancient biblical city condemned to hell, it is inevitable that one will recognize the neighborhoods of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, on screen.  

Nadine Labaki, the film’s director and a Lebanese icon, said that the film was intentionally made to overwhelm its viewers.

“We need to understand the enormity of this injustice that is not only towards kids but towards a whole community of people that end up being completely excluded from the system,” said Labaki. “It was important for you to be overwhelmed, because this is the reality, and the reality is even more overwhelming [and] ugly than what you see in the film.”

Zain (Zain al-Rafeea), a boy assumed to be 12 years old (since he has no identification papers to confirm his age) tells the story from his perspective. He speaks about how he lives in a slum with his siblings and irresponsible, ignorant parents. He is in court, sentenced to five years in prison for stabbing a “son of a bitch”, as he puts it. He is also suing his parents for giving birth to him.

Though he is small in frame, anger engulfs Zain and he is pushed to take responsibility to survive at a young age. He does not go to school, but spends his time working as an errand boy, helping his mother smuggle drinks into prison for his older brother. He finds some solace playing with his sister, Sahar, whom he loves dearly.

His desire to protect her pushes him to hide signs of her menstruation; he washes her underwear and steals menstrual pads for her, in fear that their parents will sell her off to their landlord to be married. However, his attempts are in vain – his parents give Sahar to the landlord in exchange for some chickens.  

Zain runs away from home and finds shelter with an Ethiopian refugee, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who works at a restaurant in an amusement park. Rahil takes care of Zain while he helps her babysit her son, Jonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). One day, Rahil does not come home because she gets arrested for not having proper documents. The film shows a strikingly real depiction of Zain’s struggle as he cares for Jonas while looking for food and work. Pedestrians ignore him and the baby.

A smuggler eventually tricks Zain into giving up Jonas, promising the protagonist $400 and safe passage to Europe. Zain returns to his home to grab his identification papers, only to find that they do not exist. He also discovers that his sister has died, prompting him to stab her husband, the landlord.  

The film ends on a relatively tranquil note – Zain’s identification papers are made, and Rahil is reunited with her son as she is deported. Still, as a viewer, the somewhat happy ending it is not enough. The film shows you that there are people suffering, and they will continue to suffer regardless of results displayed in the movie.

 The film’s cast is made up of brilliant non-actors who give raw performances of their daily lives. Zain is a Syrian refugee who fled Daraa in 2012, and has recently been resettled in Norway. He is off the streets and attends school. Yordanos is an Eritrian refugee living in Lebanon, and three days after filming the scene of her character’s arrest, she herself was jailed for not possessing identity papers. Treasure, the infant actress, was born to migrant workers in Lebanon. She and her mother were recently deported back to Kenya while her father was deported to Nigeria.

I wonder if Lebanese members of parliament, leaders of sects, political student activists, and municipal politicians have seen “Capernaum.” Few probably have, and most will never see it. What they have done, however, is gloat about “Capernaum” being nominated for the Oscars. If it wins, it will be granted a tweet or two from a number of ministers, who even then will not have seen the film. This is a disgrace because the film makes a call for tangible action.

NGOs, media outlets, and volunteers can spark dialogue and save only a small number of those who live like Zain, Jonas, or Rahil. However, the responsibility remains with the leaders of Lebanon, and many countries beyond to give individuals dignity regardless of sex, race, religion, age, or nationality. Dignity is not the property of the political elites.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of Boston University News Service.

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