Capernaum: Authentic portrayal of circumstances through the ‘actors’ real-life experiences and outstanding screenplay

  1. Introduction

Minority representation in the film industry has been slowly increasing over the years and has been a matter of discussion for a while now.  According to Elizabeth Haas, author of Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films, for a production to be considered a “minority film”, it must constitute four characteristics; be directed by minorities, feature many minority actors. Emphasize race-related social and political issues, and be created primarily for minority audiences (Haas 292).  The film Capernaum, which translates to “chaos” in English, follows the chaotic life of Zain El Haji as a twelve-year-old boy living in the slums of Beirut, Lebanon.  This film is in the flashback narrative, as the movie follows Zain’s life in Beirut, leading up to his trial, where he is suing his parents for child neglect.  As the film progresses, it will occasionally flash forward to the trial, where it is revealed that Zain is serving a five-year sentence in jail for stabbing someone who he refers to as “son of a bitch”, who is his eleven-year-old sister’s, Sahar, husband Assad.

The film also follows the story of Rahil, who is an Eritrean refugee on the verge of her papers expiring, housing her own baby who has no papers at all.  She takes in Zain when he runs away from home, and Zain is forced to take care of her baby when she was not able to renew her papers and therefore arrested.  Zain ends up giving her baby away in exchange for an odd sum of money he needed to live, which outlines how a lack of support for women in Rahil’s situation makes them more vulnerable to human traffickers.

Capernaum, directed by Nadine Labaki, is a poignant drama that addresses many themes throughout the film, but the two that stand out the most are the hardships faced by refugees around the world and the theme of poverty, which in this film is specifically focusing on Lebanon’s impoverished children.  The excellent demonstration of both these themes were made possible by the director, as her whole cast of actors have never acted before, especially child actor Zain Al Rafeea, who plays Zain in the film, as he is a Syrian refugee and once worked as a delivery boy in the streets of Beirut, just like his character.  In this Essay, it will be argued that Nadine Labaki creates a real, authentic world in Capernaum, using mise en scene, specifically set design and acting, to portray the theme of poverty, and taking struggling minorities off the street, and turning them into inspiring actors, who play their roles flawlessly.

2. Poverty and the focus on Lebanon’s impoverished children

When dealing with the theme of poverty, the type of film that is usually produced is a documentary, to give the viewer a more realistic experience.  Labaki opted for a drama film to display the slums and struggles of Beirut, and the award-winning film gives the viewer a great representation of poverty and impoverishment, both visually and in the dialogue.  She achieves this by essentially putting u, the viewer, “in the scene”.  The movie is shot in Lebanon, which is where the movie is also set, and is not artificial in any sense, as there was no specific set for the film.  It was shot on the streets, and normal citizens of Beirut who go along with their day are passersby in the film.  The set and Cast for Capernaum are so convincing in their roles of the film that you are not able to tell the paid actors from the film to the citizens of Beirut minding their business and going along with their day.  The presence of untrained actors gives a sense of rawness, empathy and crucial sensitivity to the film, and makes the film feel so authentic to the viewer.  The portrayal of the little boy Zain lost in an unjust world is very pure and realistic.

It can be said that Labaki’s film is inspired by her personal experience with the topics discussed in this film, as she did grow up in Lebanon and dealt with these problems first hand.  “As a child of the Lebanese Civil War, Labaki had seen her share of violence, which caused her to be even more disturbed by the familiar images of impeding death and destruction” (Sinno 1).  The transformative power of film as a whole comes into effect, as attention will more likely be brought to issues like the ones addressed in this film if they are conveyed to the public eye in forms of entertainment that a majority of the population enjoy.  The themes of poverty and impoverishment of children in foreign countries have been conveyed in foreign films in the past, but none have been directed by someone who has experienced all there is to experience in a struggling country like Lebanon and has not reached the level of popularity and attention that Capernaum has received since it debuted in 2018.

3. From Struggling Refugee to Powerful Actor

Capernaum’s outstanding production as a film is rooted in their casting choices.  Aforementioned, Labaki experienced troubles growing up in Lebanon, but she is not the only one involved in the movie who has.  Zain, the little boy whom we follow throughout the whole movie, is played by actor Zain Al Rafeea, who was a Syrian refugee separated from his parents before he was discovered by Labaki.  The Eritrean immigrant Rahil who Zain meets later on in the movie, played by Yordanos Shiferaw, was also a refugee from Eritrea before chosen by Labaki to play a similar role in Capernaum.  The actors in the award-winning film have never acted before, and for most, have experienced the exact same troubles that the character they play in the film has had to deal with.  This type of casting leads to what is called ‘method acting’, in which M Evren Eken sees that it “serves as an affective bridge allowing the audience to sense how it feels to be a warrior in combat zones, how it feels to be shot at, and why soldiers act and feel the way they do” (Eken 212).  This quote can instead be interpreted as how through Zain’s performance, specifically his visual acting and his dialogue, the audience can really feel what it is like to be a little boy in his situation.

With a cast so authentic and experienced, not particularly in acting but in the themes showcased by the film, Capernaum strikes gold and gives the audience the most accurate representation of what problems are really going on behind the scenes in foreign countries, like Lebanon.  Both Zain and Yordanos were minorities entering this film as actors and essentially played their own real-life selves as film characters in a way.  This can be seen as empowering to others who might be in the same or similar circumstances as them because they can look up to Zain and Yordanos, see what they have done as more prominent minorities, be encouraged by their roles, seek to bring more attention to their issues, and most importantly, feel like they are not alone in this world. 

In the past, Labaki has acted in the lead parts of her films, like Where Do We Go Now? (2011) and Caramel (2007).  In Capernaum, she took a briefer role as Zain’s lawyer through the trial.  For Labaki to ditch her usual role in her own directed movies, this proves that street casting was very important to her and was the key to triumph for this particular movie.  Having the cast in Capernaum be directly involved in the topics discussed in their past life, it gives the audience the belief that the story they are telling is true and could not be replicated any better by well-known actors.

4. Conclusion

In the process of filmmaking, directors must envisage a way to translate a screenplay into a complete film, in such a way that they achieve their vision for the film.  A director will attain this fully only when they consider all the factors that go into creating a film and then create a final product worthy of release, through which the film becomes noticed by its intended audience.

Nadine Labaki has successfully created a film that has been not only noticed by its targeted viewers but one that has grabbed the public’s attention globally.  The way Labaki brings notice to the themes addressed in this film is what separates it from other films that have tried to achieve a similar dream.  The attention paid to creating a realistic and authentic set, one that replicates the city—specifically the slums of Beirut to perfection, and to the flawless character portrayal by the cast, was successfully achieved by many aspects, but two in particular:  past experience and minority representation.  Labaki’s experience growing up in Lebanon gave her the ultimate edge to create a film representing the struggles that were once a part of her own life.  The specific casting of minorities like Zain and Yordanos, in essentially playing themselves in the film gave the audience a personal connection to their characters, through their method acting, which ordinary actors from Hollywood would not be able to replicate if chosen for a film like Capernaum.  If one of these two key components were to not exist in the film, it would not have reached such a big audience and wouldn’t be so highly regarded, as they are essential to the film’s authenticity and breakthrough on the global stage.  The film overall conveyed the theme of poverty and impoverishment of children in Lebanon and brought attention to it by providing the audience great detail into the lives of those who live in the slums of Beirut and small, but powerful characteristics which made the film a must-see, no matter who you are.

5. Works Cited

Eken, M Evren. “How Geopolitical Becomes Personal: Method Acting, War Films and Affect.” Journal of International Political Theory, vol. 15, no. 2, 7 Mar. 2019, pp. 210–228., doi:10.1177/1755088219832328.    

Haas, Elizabeth, et al. Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films. Routledge, 2015

Sinno, N. (2017). “May the War be Remembered but Not Repeated: Engendering Peace in Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now?” College Literature 44(4), 615-643. doi:10.1353/lit.2017.0036.         

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