by Steven Prokopy
Both a beloved actress in her native Lebanon and an internationally acclaimed director, Nadine Labaki has created what is easily her finest work in the powerful, gritty CAPERNAUM—the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and recently shortlisted for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. The movie tells the story of a young Lebanese boy named Zain (Zain al Raffea), who opens the film in court, suing his neglectful parents for giving him life with, he believes, no intention of caring for him properly. That part of the film is metaphor and social commentary, but the rest of it is sadly based on the harsh reality of the real world.
Zain lives on the streets of modern Beirut, where he meets Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian refugee, and her infant son Yonas (actually played by a baby girl named Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). When Rahil is arrested for living in the country illegally, Zain takes it upon himself to care for the baby as best he can, which is to say not very well. With its primary cast made up entirely of first-time actors, director/co-writer Labaki approached the making of the film differently than her more tightly scripted pervious efforts (CARAMEL, WHERE DO WE GO NOW?, and the RIO, I LOVE YOU segment “O Milagre”), allowing her actors to behave and respond naturally and adjusting her screenplay to their abilities and spontaneity. The result is a vibrant, lyrical and emotionally devastating work that is moving in ways that no other film was in the past year. It also finds small moment to be hopeful, which feels significant in the lives of these characters.
We spoke recently to Labaki about pulling the film and her cast together and how it likely has changed her life and way of working forever. The film opens at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, January 4.
Question: The title of the film is translated as “Chaos,” which seems appropriate. But I understand the word meant different things in different contexts. What does the word mean to you in the context of this stories of so many lost people like the ones in your movie?
Nadine Labaki: Capernaum was originally the name of a biblical village, but it was cursed by Jesus at some point [when he said, "you will be thrown down to Hades!" because of their lack of faith in him as the Messiah]. So this word started being used throughout history and literature—especially French literature to signify chaos and hell and disorder, because it was cursed. When you look it up in the dictionary, it says it’s a place where there are thing on top of each other in a very disorderly manner. For me, I used that word a lot at school to impress my teachers—instead of saying “chaos,” I would say “capharnaüm” in French. It’s something that I knew very well, and when I started writing this script and putting on the board to organize our thoughts about all the themes we wanted to talk about—child labor, statelessness, the absurdity of having a piece of paper that states that you exist, the absurdity of borders, the refugee crisis—I looked at the board and at some point I said, “This is capharnaüm, it’s capernaum, it’s complete chaos. It feels like it’s all cursed.”
You said one of the definitions is to be like it is in hell. That’s makes sense in the context of your film.
Yes, hell and disorder.
The films you’ve directed seem to be about specific issues in Lebanon. Before you even start the writing process, do you decide what the issues are that you’re going to explore, do you come up with characters first? What is the process the go through in terms of the writing?
It started with wanting to understand the sight of those children everywhere, especially when you live in Lebanon with the refugee crisis. The situation is very hard for Lebanese and for Syrians. So a lot of kids find themselves on the street because of the economical situation, and it’s very hard and there’s too much poverty, so you see a lot of children on the street. Unfortunately, there are times when you don’t see them—you decide not to look at them, you decide even with this boy standing in front of your car window, you look ahead, you don’t turn toward him. It’s hard to be made to feel like you’re helpless to do anything about it, so you just keep going.
So I started thinking about what goes on in the head of this child as he’s standing there looking at you not looking at him. How does it feel to be ignored or non-existent in the eyes of the world? Unfortunately, this is what we’re doing; we’re ignoring the problem. This is how it all started. I just wanted to understand what does on. I didn’t want to create or invent a story or imagine what goes on. I wanted to really know what goes on. It all started with a lot research. We really went everywhere, into the most difficult neighborhoods in Lebanon. We spent four years going from one place to another. We also spent a lot of time in courts, watching how the justice system works. Talking to parents; understanding their point of view. Meeting with social workers and just researching.
And we spoke to a lot of children, and I’m not talking just about unhappy children; I’m talking about children who are deprived of their most basic and fundamental rights, children who have seen extreme neglect or been raped or beaten up or otherwise abused, to the point where they don’t feel anything. And I used to ask them, always at the end of the conversation, “Are you happy to be alive?” And most of the time, the answer would be “No, I’m not happy to exist. I wish I were dead. I don’t know why I am here, paying the price for something. I don’t know what it is. Why do they give me life if nobody is going to love me or feed me when I’m hungry? Or if I’m going to be raped or abused or hear a nice word in my life?” The reality is much harsher than we think. What they feel is beyond anger; they don’t feel anything. They are emotionless, in a state of trauma from being so neglected and abused.
You see kids with blank eyes. So I wanted to translate this anger. Sometimes, kids in this situation don’t even know when they are born. You ask them, “How old are you?” and they say “Approximately 12.” Or they don’t know. So these kids have never celebrated coming into this world or been told they are important. The way they describe themselves is so harsh. They say, “I’m nothing. I’m an insect, a parasite, I’m trash, a dog. A dog is better than me.”
Going back to the idea of being on the street and people looking through you, you’ve actually taken that to another level by taking this 12-year-old boy and challenging people “Let’s see if you can ignore him while he’s taking care of an even younger child.” And you put the camera across the street, and it seems like you’re observing real reactions—or non-reactions—to them.
Yes, exactly. That’s what’s so shocking. It’s so shocking to see that. I never had to tell someone “Don’t look at the camera or these kids.” We’re so used to this sight that people actually don’t look. We see kids in the same dangerous situations every day, like the scene where the kids spend the whole day on the concrete block separating two highways at a traffic light. They are in continuous danger the whole day; they can only walk on this half-meter block. If they go on either side, they die because they’ll be hit by a car. We see this, but we don’t react or look; we just continue.
Another thing you capture so profoundly that a lot of Americans may not understand—although I’m guessing more and more are beginning to—is the emotional impact of being someone who doesn’t have papers and what that does to someone’s self worth. They are treated like they’re not human, and if you’re like that from birth, like Zain is, how that can damage someone.
From the moment they are born, they are non-existent because they aren’t registered. A lot of them are born and die without anyone knowing they were really there. Before many of them are even born, the mothers decide that they are going to put them in an orphanage. From the moment, he is conceived, he is destined to be a child without parents. It’s very shocking to know that we even are allowing this to happen, and we just live with it and are not protesting on the streets about it.
The framework of the film is this trial. Where did that idea come from? I’m guessing that’s not something that’s happened, but it doesn’t feel unjust either.
No, that’s not real. I was inspired by what the children were saying. “Why am I born? Why do they do this to me? Why do they give me life if they aren’t going to take care and love me?” It was inspired by them, because they say the word “right. It’s not right. They don’t give me my rights.” These kids find themselves in front of the law many times or in jail, so they know that word. I was inspired that and if I wanted to translate this angry Why?, it’s going to be this story of a child who is suing his parents for giving him life. It was something that just hit me. And by suing this parents, he’s actually suing the whole system because his parents are as much a victim as he is, of course.
How did you find these two wonderful child actors, as well as Yordanos, who plays the mother, Rahil?
None of them have acted before, and they are almost playing their own parts—each one of them has almost the same story. Zain is a Syrian refugee, living in Lebanon for the past eight years under very difficult circumstances because of the war. He was living in a very poor neighborhood in Lebanon, he never went to school, and he used to spend the days in the streets, so the streets were his school. You can imagine what he learned there—abuse, mistreatment, disrespect. He’s treated like all street children, so he knows what it means to be in this situation. The same for Jonas, who in real life is named Treasure—she’s a girl. Treasure is the daughter of two migrant workers, living illegally in Lebanon, also invisible—it’s illegal for them to have children in Lebanon, so she was in exactly in the same situation. So it was wild street casting, where the whole crew would go out and look and search, and this is how we found them.
Once you knew you were going to use these particular actors, did you get time to spend with them and explain the process and what you were interested in doing? How did you ease them into it? Because it’s not like real life, yet you wanted this to feel like real life.
Yeah. I think the fact that you spend time and create this special relationship and trust, they start understanding that they are collaborating in the process. They are becoming the voice of this voiceless community, in that they are representing each one of them, whether it’s the parents or Zain, everybody is talking in the name of the community they represent, and they felt this mission. The beginning of the shoot was very hard because sometimes you think “What am I doing? This is going to impossible. I’m never going to be able to deliver. It’s too hard. They cannot do it.” But then slowly, you start building this trust relationship, and they feel important and that their voice is important. They feel like they are part of it and part of this mission. They need to represent the people who are in the same situation the right way, and it gives them wings. In real life, they are struggling to exist because they don’t exist, they don’t have papers, they are illegal and outcasts. People don’t see them. But in this situation, they feel important. What they have to say and their struggle is actually important. People will not ignore them or not hear them. The film is making them resonate even louder. This gives them a lot of strength, and we were all in this together as part of this mission, whether it was the actors, the crew, the writers, producers—everybody was so viscerally involved in the project. We’re not the same anymore; we’re changed for life.
I was going to ask, how did this process change your life by the time it was completed?
You’re not the same anymore. You can’t live life normally anymore. There’s this guilt feeling that doesn’t leave you; you can’t enjoy a normal day with your children anymore. It’s like you’re not there because you’re always thinking about what people are going through. It’s like you don’t have the right to live normally. It doesn’t leave.
You must see a lot more when you walk down the street than you used to.
Of course. You’re obsessed with it. You see nothing else.
Going back to the process of working with your actors, how do you direct an infant, because she might be the best actor of them all.
She’s a very aware kid, very responsive, present, clever. And I know children that age because my daughter was approximately the same age when we were shooting, and I was also breast feeding her at the same time, and there was a kind of reflection. There was something very strange going on, almost like a miracle. I used to know when [Treasure] was hungry or sleepy, when we could film her or not, what we could do to trigger some sort of reaction from her. I was so fascinated with the way she was reacting to everything. I was also very lucky to find her. We also had to be patient with her; we shot for six months, so over 500 hours of rushes, and time allows for this.
You have to know when to become invisible as a filmmaker, when to interfere, when not to interfere, how to grab that moment, but you also have to know that you can’t expect things to happen when you want them to happen. You have to be free to go back and shoot a second time on a different day and not be flustered or paralyzed by the classical way of making films. And the fact that my husband [Khaled Mouzanar] produced the film also gave me this freedom of deciding whether I was going to shoot a scene for a week or finish it in two hours. I’m free to do whatever I want, and that gave everyone of us wings because we’re not scared of anything, we take our time and explore and give ourselves the time to let things happen and not rush into it because we have such limited time. You should know how to blend into the surroundings, not to block or paralyze the actors and give them the space and freedom to not be afraid and be who they are and not act—because I never asked them to act. I asked them to be who they are.
You must have known before shooting that there would be these challenges that you’d never had to deal with before. Is that part of the excitement of being a director—to find ways to overcome and worth with these apparent obstacles, many of which you created for yourself?
Absolutely. Even when I was writing the script and thinking about these images and scenes, sometimes I would ask myself “What am I asking life to do for me?” I’m asking for a miracle. I’m not going to be able to ask a child to refuse milk because it’s not from it’s mother. I’m just asking for the impossible. That child is not going to be able to do that, but this is it. You give yourself those challenges because it gives you the adrenaline to work and keep going and accomplish those sort of miracles. It’s a beautiful challenge.
Your film is the official submission from Lebanon for the Academy Awards, which has been the case for all of your features. But this one had to feel so special.
Yes, this one is the most special. It was a life-changing experience for me.
What do you want people thinking about after seeing this film?
That each one of us is responsible in a way. We need to do something about it, because we cannot continue this way. It’s the biggest crime we could be committing by staying silent. We are actively participating in this crime, and we should do something about it. It’s impossible to keep going when we know the reality is harsher than this. What we show in the movie is nothing compared to what these kids are going through every day. When you know there are millions of children across the world in this situation—I don’t know if I told you that, but there are approximately 280 million children across the world living this way. When you know those figures, how can you sleep again?
Do you have more difficult stories you want to tell moving forward?
Yes. I don’t know now. It’s difficult not to move forward because it’s tough to let go of this one. But there are so many things to say and so many problems to solve. I’m not saying I’m going to solve them, but I want to be able to talk and think about them and explore an alternative way of thinking and help society think differently than it’s been thinking.
I’m sure you’ve been asked about the possibility of working in the Hollywood system, but would you even want to work on a film that you didn’t have this type of personal connection to?
I think it’s very difficult. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Maybe one day I’ll read a script that I feel very close to or strongly about, but it’s difficult because I age thinking of film. I feel 10 years older now having made this one. It takes so much energy and life and soul, so it really needs to count for you. I’m not opposed to it, but it would have to be something I strongly feel.
Nadine, it was a genuine honor to talk with you. Best of luck with this and thank you so much.
Ah, thank you so much.
Steven Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com). For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker & actor interviews under the name “Capone.”
CAPERNAUM Opens Friday, January 4th at the Music Box Theatre. CLICK HERE for Showtimes & Advance Tickets.