TV & Movies

Capharnaum: Art and life collide when refugees and street people act in a confronting drama

Zain has every reason to be angry. He is only 12 – at least, that is his parents' best estimate – but already a criminal. He has spent most of his life hungry, scrabbling on the streets in between slaving in the shop owned by his family's landlord and helping his parents smuggle opioids into the local jail, where his brother can make a living behind bars selling them to fellow inmates. He never went to school. Now he faces jail himself, but what chance did he have? Meanwhile, his parents keep having children. Even he can see – perhaps he sees better than anyone – how unscrupulously, irresponsibly feckless they are. So he takes them to court and sues them. Their offence: giving him life.

Director Nadine Labaki readily admits this could never happen. "It's very symbolic, of course," she says in Cannes, where her film will go on to win the festival's Jury Prize. "A child in real life cannot do this; he would need a guardian to file a complaint against anyone and his guardians are his parents, which makes it impossible." Which makes it all the wackier to find this device in a film that is otherwise scrupulously realistic; Labaki, aware of her own privilege as a popular actress and now lauded film-maker in Lebanon, researched poor neighbourhoods for four years while piecing her story together and says repeatedly that every detail in Capharnaum, which means "mess", is drawn directly from life.

Director of Capharnaum Nadine Labaki behind the scenes with lead actor Zain Al Raffea.Credit:Madman Films

But it was that exhaustive research, she says, that compelled her to include those brief court scenes. She wanted some forum where the characters were able to speak for themselves, to make their own cases in the face of the audience's judgement. "Because I was in that situation a lot of times," she says. "I visited a lot of families, so sometimes I would enter a small apartment in a crowded building – and it is not really an apartment, it is a room – and I would see a three-year-old kid on his own with his sister or brother who is five or six. I would ask 'where is your mother?' 'She is not here.' 'How long do you stay alone in the house?' 'All day.'

"And I found myself sometimes hating the mother, being very judgmental. How can she do this? These kids can die! He just can climb over the balcony and throw himself off! There are many, many like thousands of cases like that, people who die from neglect. And sometimes it took only two minutes of conversation with the mother to completely shift my point of view and make me feel ashamed of even daring to judge her.

Newcomer Zain Al Raffea in Capharnaum.Credit:Madman Films

"How could I? I have never been in her situation, never felt the difficulty of her life, I've never had to feed my kids water with sugar because there is no milk." Casting herself as Zain's lawyer, Labaki faces down Kawthar Al Haddad, who plays Zain's mother Souad, on screen. "And when she is talking to me, saying 'you don't know what I went through', she is not Souad, she is Kawthar looking me in the eyes and challenging me. 'You think you know? You know shit!' So the court scene allowed us to do that."

Most of the characters were cast from the streets; Labaki spotted Zain Al Rafeea, who plays Zain, playing with friends. "In real life, Zain is a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon in very, very difficult conditions, conditions worse than what you see in the film," says Labaki. "The only difference is that he has loving parents, parents who are able to take care of him despite the difficult financial situation they are in. Zain has been confronted by a lot of violence. I know that from the foul language he has – sometimes when he swears, even as an adult, sit is so shocking I want to close my ears – and I know it from the stories he tells me." On set, he began to learn to read and write for the first time. He had come to Cannes too. "It was amazing today and very touching to see him sign an autograph and write his own name."

The fictional Zain runs away from home when his parents sell his vivacious younger sister Sahar (Cedra Izam) to their landlord Assad (Nour el Husseini) for a few chickens and a break in the rent. A couple of old eccentrics he meets while dossing at an amusement park try to help him get papers in a comically Kafka-esque encounter with bureaucracy; a cleaner at the park, an Ethiopian refugee living illegally in Lebanon called Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) lets him move into her slum room to look after her one-year-old son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). Then she disappears, snatched by the authorities, which leaves young Zain literally holding the baby.

Working with real refugees and real street kids meant that life and art continually bumped into each other, Labaki says. "Two days after we shot the scene where Raheel gets arrested, she was arrested in real life for the same reason: she doesn't have papers." The parents of the child cast as Yonas were arrested at the same time. "So when we were shooting all the phase in the film where Yonas – who is actually a girl – does not have parents, where his mother disappears, she lived with the casting director of the film."

Remarkable performances from the young cast of Capharnaum.Credit:MIFF

At some level, that chaos was what she needed. "I wanted that; I created with the whole crew this system that allowed me to improvise and react quickly to what was happening." And she never panicked. For reasons she still doesn't understand, she was sustained with an unreasonable confidence that they would all be released, get papers and they would be able to resume shooting. "I don't know what it was, this force or strength I had during this shoot, this shoot definitely changed me as a human being, I am not the same person."

Capharnaum sounds grim and, of course, it is: watching Zain's parents contrive to sell off his beloved sister to the paedophile landlord is particularly excruciating. Anyone who is familiar with Labaki's previous films (Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?) will know, however, what a knack she has for finding comedy in the cracks of any crisis. Even desperate people make jokes, smile, kick a football. And even though there is no satisfactorily happy ending – a person without a legal identity finally gets papers, but then what? – the whole film is infused with a kind of optimism.

Labaki says that, like everyone else, she felt helpless in the face of the refugee crisis, but at least she could make a film about it. "I wanted to be able to take that frustration and make something out of it. And I truly believe in the power of cinema, I believe in the power of art in changing things, in opening the door a little bit. If I'm able to just make you look at a kid begging on the street in a different way, I'm happy. I want to shed light on the problem to open a debate about it. I don't know if we will ever find a solution, but at least we can try."

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