For years the Syrian War has been ongoing and neighbouring countries, like Lebanon, have been providing asylum for migrants and Syrian refugees who live poverty-driven lives. In Capernaum, the storyline follows Zain’s life and those he meets – a Syrian refugee named Maysoun, a migrant, Rahil – also known as Tigest – and her undocumented son. Through their lives, the film includes political issues of how war resulted in issues concerning refugees and migrants. The film also displays a growing social issue of poverty in every aspect – homes, clothing, lifestyle, food, water, surrounding community, jobs and more. The film uses an abundance of editing and timing between scenes to give the audience context and a visual to what is being discussed. In present time, they are attending the court case of Zain’s desire to sue his parents. Throughout this, there are flashbacks to scenes before that reveal what occurred in the past that led up to this point. With this editing, Capernaum has brought a change of perspective to not only society’s opinion and bias against refugees and undocumented migrants and as evil, as well as draw more attention to poverty’s impact on these communities.
This essay will examine how the film exposes the reality behind political issues associated with refugees and undocumented migrants as negative beings. Then, argue how Capernaum brings awareness to the effects of poverty in the lives of a migrant, a refugee and Zain. With this, camerawork and cinematography were used to highlight these issues throughout these topics. Overall, it will explore the idea that there is a misrepresentation of refugees and undocumented migrants and an underrepresentation of poverty in both today’s society and media.
2. Refugees and Undocumented Migrants in Films
“Western-made products of audiovisual culture . . . are rarely able to escape the same old traps of stereotyping and preconceived notions . . . of social issues, politics, ideology, religion, culture” (Anishchenkova 813). Capernaum was not produced nor directed by a Western individual (you could have talk/introduced the director here) and thus displays proper representation of the lives in the Middle East. Rahil is an Ethiopian woman who has an undocumented son and works several jobs. She ends up in jail for not having the proper documents because her forged one was soon to expire. Her arrest is made known without being explicitly stated after a stream of scenes of Zain trying to find Rahil. The scene opens with her in a darkened area to indicate that something is wrong and in the background of the scene, there are also police sirens going off, a form of diegetic sound, helping the audience realize she got arrested. This occurred after the scene where Rahil is telling the man that forged her documentation that she cannot afford the price he offers for a new one by using shot and reverse shot. The scene goes back and forth between the man and Rahil to illustrate that they are facing each other and interacting in conversation. Not being able to afford forged papers caused strain on her life since it resulted in a struggle to afford necessities for her and her son.
According to Amrith, “it is civil society organisations that assist migrants with documents, jobs, language and housing. Even then, many arrive . . . with little in the way of support, relying instead on local networks and their own agency” (462). This reality is seen in Capernaum because Rahil was not given any help to get housing, a stable job or at least some kind of funding. This also raises the issue addressed in the film about forging her documents. Arguably, it could be inferred as reinforcing the stereotype that migrants who come to one’s country are ‘ruining’ society. This includes known prejudice many have towards migrants who are believed to come to one’s country to take all their jobs and money. However, this is contradicted by the ‘why’ behind Rahil forging her documentation. In reference to research studies on Ethiopian migrant women, “inequities in health faced by migrants may be due to entitlement failures contingent on their migrant status (temporary contract migrants, or migrants with undocumented or irregular status)” (Fernandez 154). Therefore, it was due to fear of not getting healthcare or an adequate job to support her and her son since no documentation could lead to her son being taken away from her too.
Similarly, refugees are seen as poor or helpless and are often portrayed as terrorists because their need to escape their homeland and seek asylum elsewhere is interpreted as letting a potentially harmful person into another’s country. This is because their struggles are not often explicitly shown, and no one knows the full story. Maysoun talked to Zain about wanting to seek asylum in Sweden because she would have a better life there than in Lebanon. She would not be questioned about why she is there, obtain better living conditions and not have to sell anything to make money. “Registered refugees in Lebanon are not given the civil and political rights enjoyed by Lebanese citizens and have limited access to health or social services” (Chaaban et al. 25), showing that despite the need for asylum, Maysoun struggled to find safety and stability here. Other research found that “Syrian refugee youth have raised concerns of a ‘lost generation’ of children who have had their housing, schooling, and childhoods interrupted” (Habib A2). Therefore, children and youth refugees are not provided with the means that are essential to their growth and development. Instead, like Maysoun, they are forced to act like adults and find ways to provide for themselves rather than attend school, make friends and be a kid. Maysoun is assumed to not have parents or caregivers with her in Lebanon, which is why she was selling something each time onscreen. When Maysoun and Zain are together walking through the market, selling their items, there is a use of shallow focus. This allows the audience to narrow their focus on the two children in the foreground over the out of focus background to imply that their conversation is the superior part of the scene to the rest. Capernaum provided this insight to their audience by exploring more in depth what a Syrian child refugee’s life is like and provide more representation of their struggles, successes or even hopeful stories of one trying to achieve a better life.
3. Poverty in Film
Poverty is a major component in Capernaum and implies that a poverty-driven life is a significant factor behind political issues. This is underrepresented in society and media because many have normalized it to be a ‘natural’ part of society or even a ‘need’ for society to function and they do not consider the different types of poverty beyond the most basic definition.
In “Film and the Representation of the Poverty. Touristic Mobilities in Developing Countries,” Donatella Privitera argues that,
The image that we construct for a country is often the image that has been created in our minds from . . . watching films that have been shot in the country. Film may be an effective tool to change people’s image of a place (277).
Capernaum was filmed in Lebanon and throughout the film, poverty is made known through Rahil, Maysoun and Zain and the environment around them. In the first few scenes, a couple of aerial camera shots of the city are used to set the scene and environment that the film will take place in. This is also known as ‘god’s vision’ because it is shot from the sky as if he was looking down. Shown are homes and buildings very close together – all beat down, old and rusty – alongside small, filthy streets. This gives the audience the impression of the level of poverty present in Lebanon and those who reside there. The audience becomes more aware of what poverty looks like in a third world country, but also previews that poverty-driven lives play a critical component in larger political issues.
According to Alexandre, “the Lebanese Government cannot provide employment opportunities for both the Lebanese people and the refugees, despite some of them having the necessary qualifications” (1148). Due to this, many migrants and refugees cannot afford to obtain the means to live and are forced to take extreme measures to provide for themselves. With Rahil, the countless number of jobs she has are seen when she goes around asking for her paycheque, but no one can give her even more money because hiring an illegal migrant is illegal. Like many migrants, she went elsewhere to obtain work to send money back home to her family. In a scene of this, a high angle camera shot focuses on Rahil as she tells her mother that she cannot send money because she is struggling to afford things like her forged documentation. This allows the audience to interpret that at this moment she feels immensely powerless and vulnerable. Similarly, in all scenes with Maysoun, she is seen selling something at the market to earn money because she is not old enough to work a real job.
With Zain, you see the dirty clothes he wears, his lack of food and small apartment he shares with his parents and many younger siblings. In one scene, Zain’s father talks about how he married off Zain’s sister in hopes of her having a better life – with a real bed, good food, clean water, a shower, a blanket and more. This takes place in the courtroom where a close-up shot is used to focus in on his expression. At this time, he is feeling guilty and extreme sadness because he never knew that this would lead to her death when all he hoped for was for her to have an improved life. This close-up shot allows the audience to see the pain in his eyes as he explains this and that he never wanted nor knew this would happen.
“Multidimensional poverty conceives of deprivation not only as lack of material goods, but also as deficiency in other important areas such as social capital, human capital, power, and voice (Mowafi and Khawaja 262). This form of poverty is also seen as a normalized aspect of society, but the film contradicts this. Both Maysoun and Zain lack an education that could provide them with good skills and knowledge to acquire better jobs in the future. Yet, they cannot attend school because they cannot afford it and for Zain, him being the only oldest in the family at home, he works to provide for them. Nonetheless, Maysoun, Rahil and Zain all feel powerless in their situations and struggle to find a voice or a sense of security. This shows that both forms of poverty are one of the leading causes behind politically complex issues like documentation, migrant workers and refugees. Therefore, working on solutions to end or at least minimize poverty, would be a start to solving greater political matters.
In conclusion, major political issues in Lebanon of refugees and undocumented migrants are portrayed in Capernaum and illustrate how poverty is important to consider. This film brings awareness to the misrepresentation of undocumented migrants and refugees and shows that they are not ‘evil’ or ‘stealing’ from the country’s citizens. Instead, it highlights that they are fighting for a better life, more stability and that they only work illegally or are poor because they are struggling to get by with what they have. In addition, the film sheds light on the underrepresentation of how poverty affects one’s life and is a leading issue behind these types of complex political affairs. Capernaum was able to grab their audience’s attention with controversial matters that reveal the hardships and reality of what other factors weigh one down to get them into such a complicated position. With more accurate knowledge and awareness of these large political and social issues, Capernaum gives their audience a chance to imagine or create new methods to combat these issues from a broader scope – starting with poverty.
5. Works Cited
Alexandre, Laurice, et al. “An Investigation of Migrant Entrepreneurs: The Case of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon.” International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behavior & Research, vol. 25, no. 5, 2019, pp. 1147-1164.
Amrith, Megha. “Urban Marginality and the Affective Lives of Migrants: Representations in Film.” Third Text, vol. 29, no. 6, 2015, pp. 459-472.
Anishchenkova, Valerie. “The Battle of Truth and Fiction: Documentary Storytelling and Middle Eastern Refugee Discourse.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 54, no. 6, 2018, pp. 809-820.
Chaaban, Jad M., et al. “Poverty and Livelihoods among Unhcr Registered Refugees in Lebanon.” Refugee Survey Quarterly 32.1 (2013): 24-49.
Fernandez, Bina. “Health Inequities Faced by Ethiopian Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon.” Health and Place, vol. 50, 2018, pp. 154-161.
Habib, Rima. “K-04 Conceptualizing Child Labor in Conflict Settings: The Case of Syrian Refugees.” Occupational and Environmental Medicine, vol. 76, no. Suppl 1, 2019, pp. A1-A2.
Mowafi, M, and M Khawaja. “Poverty.” Journal of epidemiology and community health vol. 59,4 (2005): 260-4. doi:10.1136/jech.2004.022822
Privitera, Donatella. “Film and the Representation of the Poverty. Touristic Mobilities in Developing Countries.” Almatourism, vol. 6, no. 4, 2015, pp. 269-281.