Arts & Culture

The Stunning Capernaum Tells a Gripping Tale of Refugees in Lebanon

Director Nadine Labaki on what it was like to work with real people to tell a story of children caught in the limbo of conflict.
IMAGE COURTESY SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
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One could be forgiven for confusing Capernaum, the new film from Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki, for a documentary. After all, the movie—which will be released in the United States on December 14—uses real people (not professional actors) to tell a heartrending story about the also-real refugee crisis in which Lebanon is mired right now.

But Labaki’s film, which is Lebanon’s entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscars race and was nominated recently for a Golden Globe in the same category, isn’t true; it only feels that way. In fact, Labaki and her cast, including 12-year-old star Zain Al Rafeea who plays a young boy attempting to sue his parents for bringing him into such a troubled world, worked off a script she wrote after months of research into what life is like for the undocumented children on the streets of Beirut.

Her efforts have paid off. The film won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year and has taken home awards from festivals in Miami, Mill Valley, Stockholm, and São Paulo among others, and this week it’s being screened at the United Nation headquarters in New York. 

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Capernaum director Nadine Labaki

Here, Labaki discusses how she made her film and the unexpected results that have come along with it.

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This is a movie that follows the truly gutting things that can happen to a young refugee in Lebanon. It’s not an easy story. What made it one you wanted to tell?

The sight of children in the streets, especially in Lebanon with its refugee crisis, is a constant reminder that poverty is growing. Lately I’ve seen lots of children who work, who don’t go to school and are becoming a real part of our daily lives. You see this injustice toward those children, who never asked to be here but are paying the highest price for our conflicts and mistakes. You can’t help but want to act; I felt responsible and like I had to do something about it. So, I decided to make a film to find out what goes on in the heads of those people who are completely ignored. I wanted to understand.

What can someone do to start to understand a problem like that?

This started with a lot of research, which got me talking to these children and beginning to understand the communities they live in. I was seeing their parents’ point of view, and beginning to understand their problems and the way their communities are connected. You can’t talk about one of their problems without talking about the others, and then you have to observe how the law reacts. We really wanted to figure out why we allow such injustice to happen. That research became my script.

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When it came to casting, why use real people and not actors?

It really felt like a small miracle every time we found someone to appear in the film because of the fact that sometimes non-actors have trouble, even if what their real experience resembles what they’re trying to portray in a film. It’s not easy to stand in front of a camera, so sometimes you feel like you can fall in love with a personality in real life, but on camera they lose something. It was a big bet every time, but we found our people; it was a long process of street casting. You really think you’re not going to find them, but then you meet someone and see in them that they are the character.


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Capernaum star Zain Al Rafeea, at left, was only 12 years old when the film was made.

Zain is the movie’s lead and is really incredible. How did you two meet?

As soon as I saw Zain, I had no doubt that he’d be our hero. He was small because of malnutrition, he had sad eyes that tell you he’s witnessed difficulty, he had a certain wisdom. And when you start working with that raw nature, that’s not informed or altered by society’s codes, you listen to what makes sense. He hadn’t been spoiled by the adult world yet. So, you create a space where he can feel free and at ease and try to intervene in ways that won’t paralyze. It’s a nurturing experience for me also, as a filmmaker.

The movie’s been racking up awards and bringing attention to the issues you’re highlighting. Did you expect it to have this kind of impact?

Instinctively, you know that you’re doing the right thing. Sometimes you’re confronted with these very special moments of truth, and something in you knows because you’re personally connecting to the scene, seeing the real lives and struggles of actual people, and I knew in a way that it would connect with other people. You can’t escape that we’re all human beings who empathize with other people’s problems.

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Capernaum has been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Foreign Language

And life imitated art during the making of the film. Wasn’t an actor whose character was arrested for not having the proper papers arrested herself?

Yordanos Shiferaw was arrested two days after we shot a scene where her character got arrested, and for the same reasons. Our characters were in some cases illegal, with no papers, and so were the actors. It took a lot of time to fix that, and during that time she was arrested because she didn’t have her papers. The parents of the little girl who played the baby, Yonas, were arrested also, so when we were shooting scenes when the baby was without her mother, she actually was without her mother. It was disturbing to see how life kept imposing reality on us and reminding us that what we’re talking about is true.

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Though the film did help Zain and his family find a new stability.

They were resettled in Norway. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was able to help us, and all of his family was resettled and now they’re living there and the children are going to school. They’re in a gorgeous house overlooking the sea, and it’s just an amazing thing. He’s learning to read and write, and he’s going to have a future.

You’re on the road promoting this film and seem to have a busy awards season coming up. But have you planned your next project?

The aim was to go beyond the borders of film and become a discussion. I want to organize screenings for the government and talk about how we can change things. It might sound ambitious, but we have to try. It would be too hard to say now I’m moving on to another film; there’s still a lot to do here.

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*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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