The lives of others

Nadine Labaki on Capernaum and the way the refugee crisis affects children

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Capernaum (Capharnaüm) director Nadine Labaki on Zain al Rafeea: "He knows the violence of the streets, he knows abuse, he knows mistreatment."
Capernaum (Capharnaüm) director Nadine Labaki on Zain al Rafeea: "He knows the violence of the streets, he knows abuse, he knows mistreatment." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Nadine Labaki's Capernaum (Capharnaüm), Lebanon's Oscar entry and Cannes Film Festival winner of the Ecumenical and Jury Prize, and the Prix de la Citoyenneté, is executive produced by Susan Rockefeller and Joslyn Barnes (Lucrecia Martel's Zama), Joana Vicente and Jason Kliot (Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes, Todd Solondz's Welcome To The Dollhouse), Candice Abela-Mikati (David Robert Mitchell's Under The Silver Lake), Danny Glover and others, with associate producer Anne-Dominique Toussaint.

Nadine Labaki on Yordanos Shifera as Rahil: "She had run away from her employer."
Nadine Labaki on Yordanos Shifera as Rahil: "She had run away from her employer."

Capernaum, shot by Christopher Aoun, has a great performance from Zain al Rafeea with Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Fadi Youssef, Kawthar al Haddad, Elias Khoury, Joseph Jimbazian, Haita 'Cedra' Izam, and Nadine Labaki as the lawyer for Zain.

Capernaum intercuts between Zain's (Zain al Rafeea) life on the streets and scenes in a courtroom, because he decides to sue his parents (Fadi Youssef and Kawthar al Haddad) for bringing him into the world to neglect him and his siblings. There is the anti-superhero Cockroach Man (Joseph Jimbazian) at a rundown amusement park, who, as fate wants it, leads Zain to the place where he encounters Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), a refugee from Ethiopia, and, hidden away, her baby Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole).

Zain left his parents and numerous siblings after his beloved little sister Sahar (Haita 'Cedra' Izam), eleven years old, was married off against her will. Little Zain and even littler baby Yonas end up being thrown together to fend for themselves in a world full of chaos and violence, where decency is a sheer impossible luxury and the outlook of the smallest profit determines most grown-up's behaviours.

Nadine Labaki on Zain al Rafeea in Capernaum (Capharnaüm): "You see how tiny and small he is, but at the same time, he's very fierce, he has a very very strong personality ..."
Nadine Labaki on Zain al Rafeea in Capernaum (Capharnaüm): "You see how tiny and small he is, but at the same time, he's very fierce, he has a very very strong personality ..." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At a sneak preview at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York, Nadine Labaki joined Matthew Reynolds, Regional Representative of UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) for the US and the Caribbean, for a conversation on the lives represented in Capernaum.

The filmmaker started out explaining why she chose to tell the story from the perspective of the children.

Nadine Labaki: Unfortunately when you live in Lebanon this is a sight now that you see very very often. Children on the street where they are begging or selling gum or working or carrying heavy loads - loads that are sometimes triple their size. This is a sight that is becoming almost part of our everyday life in Lebanon. Because of the refugee crisis and the fact that we've hosted over a million and a half refugees - and it's almost half the population.

So the sight of people on the street is really, like I just said, something that you see very often. I remember very very clearly that moment when I saw the picture of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee child that was found dead on the beach in Turkey. I'm sure that image none of us can ever forget. When I saw this tiny little body, almost sleeping peacefully, I thought, if this child could talk, what would he tell us? How would he address the world and us, the adults that failed him? Because this is what we're doing, we're failing these children.

Zain with his lawyer (Nadine Labaki)
Zain with his lawyer (Nadine Labaki)

They're paying the highest price for our fault, our decisions, our conflicts, our wars, our failing systems. They didn't even ask to be here. Whether it's a Syrian refugee child, or whether it's a child that is being separated from his mother at the Mexican border or a child working in India, or a Lebanese stateless child - a child is a child. And they are paying the highest price for what we're doing.

Children make the most sense. And their point of view on the world is the purest. It's less informed by society's codes and politics. So I wanted to see the world and what's happening in our world through their eyes. I wanted to understand what goes on in the head of this child that is standing next to my car window, looking at me not looking at him. Because that's what we do.

We are oblivious because we don't want to look, because sometimes it's too hard to look. So we don't. We keep going and we ignore the problem because sometimes it's too big. What can we do? We can't save all the children, so we'd rather not look.

Zain with his mother Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad)
Zain with his mother Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad)

I thought, how does it feel to be completely invisible for him? Because he is invisible. In most of the cases he's not only psychologically nonexistent but he's legally nonexistent. Because 99% of these children are paperless. Because it costs money, I'm talking about the Lebanese system, to register a child.

So those children have no chance to even survive in the world; ever since the moment they are born they are nonexistent. They grow up not having a right to anything. They can't have the right to education, to health, they can't travel, they can't work. So they end up living on the margins of the margins of our societies and cities.

Nadine Labaki continued to speak about the importance of her casting for Capernaum.

NL: It was very important that we worked on this film with people who almost have the same situation, or the same story or the same struggle. Because I think cinema can have a much bigger impact when it's actually showing the real struggle, putting a face on the real struggle, it's humanizing the problem. You see it through a real child who is actually living that same struggle.

Zain's parents (Fadi Youssef and Kawthar al Haddad) with the judge (Elias Khoury)
Zain's parents (Fadi Youssef and Kawthar al Haddad) with the judge (Elias Khoury)

At the same time it's a fiction. It's a written story but it was based on all the research we had done. When we were shooting reality kept imposing itself in a way. Zain [Zain al Rafeea] is a Syrian refugee. He's been living in Lebanon for the past eight years in very difficult circumstances in one of those very very deprived neighbourhoods. So he's never been to school.

The only difference with the film is that he has loving parents. They didn't send him to work, but Zain used to work in a supermarket from time to time as a delivery boy and he grew up on the streets. That's all he knows. He knows the violence of the streets, he knows abuse, he knows mistreatment.

You see how tiny and small he is, but at the same time, he's very fierce, he has a very very strong personality, he's wise, he has this foul language he learns on the street - so he is everything we had written.

We did a street casting for maybe four, five months. This is how we found everybody. As soon as I saw the interview, it was obvious to me that he was going to be our hero.

Zain with his sister Sahar (Cedra Izam) overlooking Beirut
Zain with his sister Sahar (Cedra Izam) overlooking Beirut

Labaki talked about Rahil, played by Yordanos Shiferaw and baby Treasure.

NL: Rahil was almost living in her real-life situation. Her name is Yordanos and she's been living in Lebanon also for the past six years in very difficult circumstances. Unfortunately under the sponsorship system in Lebanon they are not allowed - it's sort of modern slavery - they cannot live unless they live in the house of their employer.

If they're unhappy there, they are considered stowaways. If they run away from their employers they are in an illegal situation. They don't have their documents, they're not even allowed to stay in the country.

Rahil was in that situation. She had run away from her employer. She was living in the same circumstances, no papers. A very dangerous, difficult life all the time, very precarious. When we interviewed her [Yordanos Shiferaw] in the beginning it was difficult because she wasn't trusting. She can't really talk about her situation. So we took some time for the casting director [Jennifer Haddad] to build this trust relationship.

Nadine Labaki on Zain al Rafeea leaving his life in Beirut behind to resettle in Norway: "He's playing in the garden and the forest and no longer playing with the knifes and the sharp objects on the streets."
Nadine Labaki on Zain al Rafeea leaving his life in Beirut behind to resettle in Norway: "He's playing in the garden and the forest and no longer playing with the knifes and the sharp objects on the streets."

And then I saw her and we started talking about her situation. What's crazy is that during the shoot - when we started shooting we weren't able to legalize her papers yet. In the meantime we started shooting. After we shoot that scene where she gets arrested, two days later she gets arrested in real life. For exactly the same reasons. Because she didn't have papers.

Not only that. The father and mother of Yonas [Rahil's baby in the film], who is actually a girl in real life. Her name is Treasure [Boluwatife Treasure Bankole]. She was a real treasure. They get arrested with Rahil at the same time. They were all in the same illegal situation.

So when we're shooting those scenes with Yonas on his own in the film, she was actually on her own in real life. We took her and the casting director raised her for three weeks until we could get everybody out of prison. But when we were shooting she was actually alone. Life kept imposing itself.

Sometimes we were wondering what are we filming exactly? Why is this happening? And how big this mission is becoming. Three years of research and writing and six months of shooting. We have over 500 hours of rushes, two years of editing. The way we were like one family doing this is because we felt that we were part of something bigger than us.

Zain on the road with Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) in the pot on the skateboard
Zain on the road with Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) in the pot on the skateboard

Labaki gave an update on the life changes for her protagonists.

Zain now is resettled in Norway. We were collaborating with the UNHCR and UNICEF [United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund] during the whole shoot. Zain is living now in Norway with his friends and siblings.

Everybody's going to school. He is going to school for the first time in his life. He has a nice house overlooking the sea and he's playing in the garden and the forest and no longer playing with the knifes and the sharp objects on the streets.

Yonas, Treasure, is now back in Kenya. She is also going to school. All the kids that were actually kids from the streets and begging, are not there anymore. Now we set up a Capernaum foundation in order to sustain this and to be able to help them.

Capernaum (Capharnaüm) is in cinemas in the US and will open in the UK on February 1, 2019.

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