Suffer Little Children
CAPERNAUM Nadine Labaki on how reality and fiction intertwined during her film’s production…
Lebanese director Nadine Labaki arrives for our interview with a fetching beaded bag bearing the legend “Be The Change”. It’s an uplifting and empowering sentiment that extends to her latest film: a moving portrait of a young boy growing up poor in Beirut, which she hopes will make audiences “change their perspective” about a marginalised sector of society that’s all too often ignored.
Making Capernaum has certainly been a life-changing experience for the director of Caramel and Where Do We Go Now?, who spent six months crafting the film with composer husband Khaled Mouzanar and a cast of unknown actors they literally lifted off Beirut’s streets. “The challenge was to capture the reality and you cannot do it just like that,” she says with regards to the extended shooting schedule. “You have to be at the service of your actors, where usually it’s the other way around.”
Taking its title from a town cursed by Jesus whose name has since become a synonym for chaos, Capernaum tells of a 12-year-old boy called Zain (puckish Syrian migrant Zain Al Rafeea), who takes his parents to court… for having
him in the first place. It’s a fanciful concept, yet one that reflects the feelings of many of the children whom Labaki spoke to as part of her research.
“I would ask them, ‘Are you happy to be alive?’ and they would say ‘No’,” she remembers. “‘Why was I born if there’s nobody to love me? Why give me life if I am to be raped and treated like trash?’ The fact Zain sues his parents is a symbolic gesture in the name of all of those children.”
The fictional Zain’s life is definitely no picnic. Running away after his shockingly young sister is forced into marriage, he befriends an Ethiopian cleaning woman (Yordanos Shiferaw) with a baby called Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) who Zain is obliged to take care of when she is arrested.
Life mirrored art during production when Shiferaw was herself detained, a fate that also befell Bankole’s real-life mum and dad. “When we were shooting the scenes where Yonas is alone, she actually was without her mother,” says Labaki. “The film kept reminding us we were working with real people in real situations having real struggles.”
With more than 500 hours of rushes by the end, the potential is there for a longer cut or even a TV series. A greater priority for Labaki, however, is ensuring her actors are safely settled with legitimate documentation. “They are part of my life now so we have to find solutions,” she explains. “For once, I didn’t want the happy ending to be confined to the screen…”
ETA | TBC FEBRUARY / CApERnAUm opEns nExT monTh.
lost yoUth Zain Al Rafeea stars as 12-year-old Zain, who goes on the run in Beirut.