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Capernaum: A film for all societies, all times

Jan 30,2019 - Last updated at Jan 30,2019

Lebanese director Nadine Labaki's film “Capernaum”, nominated for best foreign entry in this year's Oscars, is a film for all societies, all times, all countries and continents. The story line, an echo of Charles Dickens' 19th century novel, “Oliver Twist”, is of childhood lost to abuse, poverty and tragedy. The books of Dickens and other early social reformers had a major impact on governments' policies, and still resonate with our contemporaries. The UN, which provides humanitarian aid to the poorest of the poor and victims of natural disaster and war, has praised the film.

This tale is particularly pertinent to the present day since, according to Oxfam, 26 global billionaires own as much as the 3.8 billion people, who constitute the poorest half of the planet's population.  Inequality is greater than ever before and growing.

Labaki was born in 1974 in a Beirut on the brink of civil conflict, and spent her first 17 years dealing with war's trials and traumas. While watching films, she was able to escape into a "different reality", she told an interviewer from the Indian Express.

She was educated in Lebanon and shot her first three films in that country, becoming a national icon for cinema buffs and intellectuals. She produced her first feature film, “Caramel”, about the daily lives and problems faced by Lebanese women, and presented it at the Cannes festival in 2007. But neither war nor dealing with women's issues prepared her for “Capernaum”.

Research consumed two years and took her into the slum streets of Beirut and the dingy corridors of Roumieh prison. She and her team spoke to judges, lawyers, social workers and neighbourhood folk, and searched for actors. She wanted to employ actors who live the way their characters in the film do and bring their own experiences to the film.

She stated, "I didn't feel entitled to imagine a life I've never lived." When visiting imprisoned children, she asked if they wanted to live, many replied, "No". She and her colleagues had to become immersed in harsh conditions about which they could not become "judgemental".

Labaki's film tells the story of an imprisoned 12-year-old boy who sues his poverty-stricken parents for bringing him into the world. The boy, Zain, decides to take legal measures after his 11-year-old sister is sold for a few chickens into marriage to their landlord’s horrid son.

When the judge presses Zain, a boy with no birth certificate, therefore no identity, on the reason for suing his parents. He replies, "Because I was born." Asked what he wants from his parents, he responds, twice, "I want them to stop having children."

In flashbacks, the film explores the grim realities faced by Zain and others existing hand-to-mouth on the rough streets and in the dark alleyways of a gleaming metropolis on the glittering Mediterranean shore.

The star is a Syrian refugee boy, Zain Al Rifeea, 12, who had been working as a delivery boy in Beirut. Labaki chose Zain because he understood the role he was meant to assume, although he could scarcely read or write. He and the other novice child actors followed simple directions and improvised. “Capernaum” was shot in 520 hours over six months and required two years of editing.

Zain Al Rafeea has won several acting awards for his compelling performance. Born in Deraa in southern Syria, he and his family fled the war in 2012 and found refuge in Lebanon. After the completion of the film, the UNHCR, the agency that provides for refugees, resettled them in Norway, where Zain lives in a house with a garden, and for the first time in his life sleeps in a bed and goes to school. Labaki said, "He's regaining his childhood."

In an interview with Gulf News, she spoke of "a certain fear of refugees in general around the world", which is building walls to exclude them. While this fear keeps growing, "you see this kid with so much potential and so much wit and smart and heart and so much resilience and strength, you cannot help but break all the clichés you might have in your head".

Other actors were not as fortunate as Zain. Co-star Yordanos Shiferaw, a refugee from Eritrea, plays an illegal immigrant who adopts Zain when he flees his abusive parents but she is arrested and confined in an overcrowded cell, leaving him to care for her infant.

"After the arrest, I was arrested for real," she said, "I lived exactly the same thing." It took two weeks for Labaki's team to secure her release, enabling her to return to the film.

After shooting ended, the baby boy, in fact a girl, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, born in Beirut to African parents, was deported with her mother to Kenya, while her father was sent to Nigeria.

Although the Lebanese authorities cooperated in the filming as Labaki is an influential personality in that country, “Capernaum” is not a pretty tourist advertisement. It portrays lives of brutality, resignation and, where Zain is concerned, revolt in a country once known as the "Paris of the Middle East".

Lebanon hosts 1.2 million Syrian refugees, the largest number per capita. Labaki observed
"...their story is very painful". She intends to ensure the world understands this.

The title “Capernaum” refers to a town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus is said to have preached and cured the sick. The alternative title, “Capharnaum”, means a "confused jumble".  When shown at the Cannes festival, the film received a 10-minute standing ovation and the Jury Prize.

Labaki is the first female Arab director to win a major award at Cannes. Before being nominated for the Oscar, “Capernaum” had collected other awards from round the globe. She is also the only female to be on the list of directors nominated for the Oscars, and one of very few Arab women to compete for the award although, in Lebanon, women outnumber men on the film making scene.

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