wed 22/05/2019

Capernaum review - sorrow, pity and shame in the Beirut slums | reviews, news & interviews

Capernaum review - sorrow, pity and shame in the Beirut slums

Capernaum review - sorrow, pity and shame in the Beirut slums

Reality and fiction collide in Nadine Labaki's powerful exposé of Lebanese street children

Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) and Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole): waiting for documentation

An angry little boy, in jail after stabbing someone, stands in a Beirut courtroom and tells the judge that he wants to sue his parents. Why? For giving birth to him when they’re too poor and feckless to care for him. And he wants them to stop having children.

Fair enough. Director/writer Nadine Labaki’s Oscar-nominated third film – it also won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year - is in a different league to her two previous quite jolly features, Caramel and Where do we go now? It is a passionate indictment of the plight of Lebanese street children. Unregistered and without birth certificates or IDs, without rights to schooling or health care, they are neglected, abused, ignored by the state.

Capernaum, a French term meaning a place of disorder (confusingly, it’s also the name of a biblical village in Galilee) is almost a documentary. Labaki and casting director Jennifer Haddad found their actors on the street, living the lives they portray on screen, and the film is a mission statement. Filming took six months, research took four years. Reality and fiction constantly collide (even the courtroom scene features a real judge) and Christopher Aoun's cinematography shows us sweeping aerial views of a grey, jumbled, Beirut landscape.

It's certainly authentic. The actors didn’t learn lines; somehow Labaki and her crew slowly wove their plot around the people they found - no streets were closed off for shooting - and let life go on as they filmed in the souks and alleys. The result is sometimes almost too painful to watch, and you do long for a bit of respite. It’s overlong, as chaotic as its name, and the courtroom case, with the fumbling parents whining in response to Zain's condemnation, seems contrived. But there’s no denying the film's power.

Abuse, crime, jail, lack of documentation – all this is slum-dwelling Zain’s world. He is played by the extraordinarily charismatic 13-year-old Zain Al Rafeea, in reality a Syrian refugee, one of the millions living in Lebanon. He was illiterate when the film was made. After the courtroom scene, his life - the fictional one - is shown in flashback: he and his many siblings help their chaotic parents make a living by getting forged prescriptions for Tramadol from various pharmacies. They dissolve the crushed pills in water, steep clothes in it (the baby has to be chained up while this is done - health and safety) and deliver them to Zain’s brother in prison, who extracts and sells the liquid as Tramadol shots. Tasty.

capernaumTough, cursing Zain looks aggrieved yet also on the verge of tears, except when he’s with his 11-year-old sister Sahar (a delicate Cedra Izam, pictured with Zain, above), another street child who Labaki encountered selling chewing-gum. But somehow in spite of everything he’s developed a sense of honour and justice; he adores her and recognises the peril she’s in when her periods start (he turns one of his T-shirts into a sanitary pad and then starts stealing them for her from the supermarket). Now their parents can marry her off to the much older, predatory son of their shady landlord in exchange for some chickens. When this happens in spite of Zain’s attempts to stop them, he runs away in rage and despair, not that anyone notices much.

He ends up in an amusement park after meeting the eccentric Cockroach Man – a strange variant of Spiderman – on a bus. Things look up for a while. He finds affection and a fragile surrogate family with cleaner Rahil, an Eritrean illegal immigrant and her baby Yonas. Rahil (the wonderful Yordanos Shiferaw, who was arrested and had to spend two weeks in jail before the film producers got her out) has to take Yonas to work and hide him in the loo, so Zain’s a welcome addition – he can babysit while she’s working.caperWatching Zain take care of Yonas (the adorable Boluwatife Treasure Bankole – that baby - actually a girl - has got talent) is an extraordinary, funny, moving experience. Zain gives breast-fed Yonas his bottle (Rahil expresses milk for him before she leaves for work), entertains him by angling a mirror to catch the neighbouring shack’s TV cartoons while inventing a foul-mouthed soundtrack, keeps him out of harm’s way. They’re a happy little unit until one day Rahil doesn’t come back. Of course, she’s been arrested for lack of documentation, though she’s been trying desperately to find ways of getting legal status (this thread involves Cockroach Man, who also brings some light relief). Somehow Zain has to cope with poor Yonas alone, and it’s agonising to watch what he’s driven to do. He's longing for papers too so he can leave the country - Sweden is the promised land - and he wants to help Yonas in that direction. People-traffickers lie in wait.

It’s impossible, as you watch the credits roll and see the names of the countless judges, NGOs, social workers and detention centres that were involved in the film, to separate fact from fiction. Labaki, who has a cameo role as Zain’s lawyer, is making a documentary – she has also started a foundation - about the cast and what happens to them after the shoot. Zain is in Norway with his family, a fairy-tale success story, going to school for the first time; Cedra Izam has also been given a new start; but Treasure and her mother were deported to Kenya. No one emerged unchanged after making this film, says Labaki, and you believe her.

Labaki found her actors on the street, living the lives they portray on screen, and the film is a mission statement

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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