by Nika Jalali
Poverty is the world’s leading issue, affecting more than 836 million people. However, this subject is commonly avoided by filmmakers and Hollywood directors as it does not appeal to all audiences and turn out box office hits. Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum challenges this issue by presenting a film about poverty and refugees and bringing the life of underprivileged and underrepresented children living in the slums of Lebanon into perspective for a global audience. It shares the story of an assumed twelve-year-old boy from Beirut, named Zain, who has been charged guilty and serving a five-year prison sentence for stabbing someone. As the film continues, Labaki takes the audience back to before the occurrence of this incident, showing the spectators the circumstances set for him by the society and the reasons behind his choices and actions.
Through the use of cinematic techniques and elements and her experience with sociopolitical issues presented in the film, such as refugees and poverty,Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum is able to forge the society presented and exhibit the life of real people; take on a feminist approach in order to address difficult and sensitive topics including underrepresented communities such as children refugees; and convey the issues within society that cause such problems.
2. Forging Middle Eastern Societies and Presenting the Life of Real People
The Middle East is often refrained from for Hollywood films, and movies from such countries have been long avoided for American and European film festivals. This is mostly due to the political conflicts between developing countries and the USA. However, in the past decade, this has started to change. Many films such as The Salesman, A Separation, Outside the Law,and The Insult have become nominated and won awards for their political message and representation of their societies. Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum is one of these films. Although a fiction, Capernaum presents the life of real refugees living in Beirut, Lebanon and the chaos and struggles of their everyday lives. At the beginning of the film, the setting is established through an overhead shot of the slums of Beirut, showing the corrupt and neglected neighbourhood. Short, medium shots of the two main characters, Zain and Rahil, dressed in stained clothes, standing in dirty rooms are also shown to introduce the audience to the state of living of these characters. In order to create an accurate representation of the society, Labaki has chosen to film Capernaum on the streets of Beirut, in the midst of the people. This has allowed her to show the world and people living in Lebanon, who drive by these communities every day, to take notice of these living conditions and to transport her audience to a different life for the rest of the movie. Many directors choose this methodology because they believe in “the influence of geography as a process of territorial identity and inspiration” (Privitera 270). Another strategy used by Labaki to forge the society of the film was using non-professional actors with similar lives as the characters. Through street casting, she was able to find children with the knowledge and wisdom of having lived in poverty-stricken families and neighbourhoods. For example, the role of Zain was given to Zain Al Rafeea, who himself was a Syrian refugee. This method for casting is used in many films, including Alfonso Cuarón’s ROMA, to create a sense of realism and bring identity to the characters. Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum forges an accurate poverty-stricken middle eastern society through a realist approach, ensuring that her audience feel the chaos and issues of the people living in these communities, and the characters in her film.
3. The Feminist Approach of Nadine Labaki
Female filmmakers often use a different approach than male directors, focusing on aspects such as motherhood and rape. As a Lebanese female director, Nadine Labaki approaches the issues present in Capernaum through a feminist perspective. Although, she has chosen a young boy as her main character, her other heroes remain female. Her plot follows the journey of Zain’s struggle to fight for the freedom of his sister, Sahar, from being married at a young age to caring for Rahil’s baby, Yonas, while she is at work. He is the protector of Sahar and Yonas and it is through his love for them that he is forced to commit crimes, such as stealing and stabbing. After watching his sister be taken away to an older man’s house, Zain runs away, and meets Rahil. Labaki uses her as another method of showing female heroism. As an illegal immigrant from Ethiopia, with forged migrant documents which are due to expire soon, Rahil tries her hardest by working and attempting to gain enough money to receive new documents in order to protect her child from being deported. In addition, as her child does not have proper documents, she is forced to hide Yonas in a basket while at work to avoid anyone from finding out, and feeding him in the bathroom during her breaks as she does not have the opportunity to hire a caretaker. It is also because of Rahil’s motherly instincts that she takes Zain in as part of her family, even though she has barely enough money to support herself and Yonas. Thus, to ensure that the children will not go hungry and to celebrate her child’s first birthday, she steals leftover food from her job. As the film progresses and Zain is left home to take care of Yonas, he becomes a motherly figure, protecting Yonas and always putting him first. This is especially presented when Zain goes with Yonas to the Syrian Refugee Camp to receive some food and after being asked, “What exactly do you want?” (Capernaum 1:20:13), he responds, “Whatever you have, but most important is milk and diapers” (1:20:19). This proves his love for Yonas and how a mother, even at her worst moments, will put her child first. Nadine Labaki uses a feminist approach to address the social and political issues related to refugees, children, and women in the middle east, and raise awareness about simple topics such as marriage of young girls and the power of men over women in conceiving children.
4. Social and Political Issues in Capernaum
Capernaum is a highly political film as it presents the lives of underrepresented people and blames society for their issues. The film starts with the problems of the society, showing moments of corruption including young boys smoking cigarettes and playing with wooden guns; a twelve-year old boy, later known as Zain, in handcuffs; and his court meeting with the judge because he has sued his parents for bringing him into this world and revealing that he is currently serving his sentence in jail because he “stabbed a sonofabitch” (Capernaum 0:07:27). Following this scene, Nadine Labaki uses a flashback to a few days prior to Sahar’s marriage, showing the circumstances of Zain’s life. He is forced to go from one pharmacy to another, asking for tramadol for his “sick” mother using a prescription. When he returns home, the audience watches as the tramadol is illegally smuggled into prison for Zain’s brother to make money. Throughout the film, Labaki shows scenes of cruelty such as child labour and child abuse, along with frequent close-up shots on Zain and other children. She uses the innocent faces of kids to provoke empathy and emotion in her audience, and show the pain and wisdom of these children, as they are the victims of society. In addition, the director uses shot reverse shot as the school van pulls up every day in front of the store where Zain works, to show his lack of education—a major issue with poor families. “Poverty directly and indirectly affects children’s development and educational outcomes during their initial years of life” (Kohler 272). Thus, often poverty-stricken families will continue to live in the same way for many generations, as their children never receive a proper education. In addition, these children, as shown in the beginning of Capernaum, often suffer from “frustration, fatalism, and feelings of powerlessness” (Hashemi 83), which lead youth to participate in “radical movements—defined as insurgency and political militancy—thereby causing further regional violence and instability” (83-84). Capernaum also presents the lives of hundreds of Ethiopian refugees, similar to Rahil, who have been placed in jail for fleeing their country illegally. At the beginning of the film, the audience is shocked to find out that a child has stabbed a man and continues to commit more crimes. However, by the end, as Nadine Labaki has allowed the viewer to walk in Zain’s and Rahil’s shoes, as well as to see the reasons behind the parents’ actions, the spectator is forced to think about how they would have acted if placed in a similar situation. Thus, Zain, although a criminal, becomes the hero and victim of the society.
Although, many have seen poor families and know about the topic, not all take action or promote help. Capernaum directed by Nadine Labaki and screened in 2018 creates a global awareness about the innocence and suffering of children, especially those born in families affected by poverty. These children are often forced to work from a young age to support themselves and provide for their siblings. In addition, due to their lack of education, boys and girls are married off as soon as they hit puberty to take some burden off their parents. In some countries, girls also receive dowries from the boy’s side, which helps the parents make money instantly. Moreover, because of the man’s control over the woman, and the illiteracy of both, as soon as they are married, they start to have many children. These sensitive topics are not easy to present or talk about and problems of these lives create circumstances that are difficult to control. Film, however, has continued to imagine and forge societies that help address social and political issues related to these topics and underrepresented communities, because contrary to the right and wrong in religion and law, there is no right and wrong in the arts. Thus, a boy who has received a five-year jail sentence for stabbing someone can be shown as a hero and victim in a film.
6. Works Cited
Capernaum. Directed by Nadine Labaki, Mooz Films, 2018.
Hashemi, Manata. “Aspirations, Poverty and Behavior among Youth in the Middle East: Some Theoretical Considerations.” The Muslim World, vol. 107, no. 1, 2017, pp. 83-99.
Kohler, Maxie, et al. “Poverty.”Childhood Education, vol. 89, no. 4, 2013, pp. 270-274.
Privitera, Donatella. “Film and the Representation of the Poverty. Touristic Mobilities in Developing Countries.” Almatourism, vol. 6, no. 4, 2015, pp. 269-281.