This memorable feature from Nadine Labaki seems to provoke love or hate. Cast with predominantly non-actors, it is for the most part an extraordinary film that shows the awful reality of the life of Syrian children well below the poverty line in Lebanon.
Beginning and ending with the only scenes that feel heavy-handed, we see 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) brought to a court room from the prison where he has been sentenced to 5 years. He wants to sue his parents for giving him life. His backstory then unfolds and we see what has brought him to this moment of furious despair.
His parents are scroungers, drug dealers and drug takers. He has many siblings but it is 11-year-old Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam) whom he loves the most. With her he can be joyful amidst the daily work fetching and carrying for shop owner and landlord Assaad (Nour El Husseini). Zain’s tenuous hold on happiness falls away when Sahar is sold and he runs away, finding refuge at an amusement park. He meets another outsider, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian refugee who works while trying to hide her one-year-old son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). She gives Zain a place to sleep and he in turn looks after Yonas.
What is remarkable about this film is the naturalistic performances from the child actors and the sense you’re watching reality unfold, rather than fiction. Labaki must’ve shot hundreds of hours of film and the edited result is thoroughly believable. Apparently, the young actors were all playing characters very similar to their own lives; Zain was found on the streets, playing with friends, and had been living for a year with no papers. Labaki says “I created this organic way that allowed us to be invisible. We needed to become invisible in order to just let things happen. And it was like a choreography between fiction and reality. Most of the things in the film are not scripted.”
What the film highlights, which may not be immediately apparent to outsiders like me, is the reality and ramifications of living without documentation. It’s an issue for Zain (the character and the actor) and it means the neglect of children is effectively invisible. The word Capharnaum (or Capernaum) comes originally from a village in Palestine where Jesus preached but in French it has come to mean a hell or chaotic disorder. The inference is clear that the lives of those marginalised through nationality or poverty or youth is a hell that only the social structure or system can address.
Those who hate this film seem to take exception to Labaki; that she is stealing stories, exploiting the poor and making misery porn. It seems to be part of an ongoing issue with her as a person that perhaps is grounded in political concerns rather than her merits as a filmmaker. Also criticised is the ultimate message of the film, as emphasised by Zain in the final courtroom scenes, that people like his parents shouldn’t be allowed to have children. It’s easy to see this as a simplistic condemnation of the poor as being to blame for their situation, rather than highlighting the need for greater social and governmental support to ensure the well-being of children.
The ending is really the only aspect of this film that was a let down for me. Zain’s speech sounded like the filmmaker devising what would provoke the most emotions and didn’t sound like the authentic voice of his character. If you chopped off the courtroom scenes that bookend the film, I think you’d have a much stronger story, albeit a tad bleaker and less commercially successful. Less likely to be nominated for an Oscar.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.