At the 71st Cannes Film Festival, filmmaker Nadine Labaki received a standing ovation. It was not just her talent as a filmmaker that was applauded, but also for the formidable potential of all refugee children that was just waiting to be seen, recognised, which is what this film talked about. Capharnaüm, as the name suggests, is the chaos of that ensues in a society that has permitted too many horrors, to such a point that an urchins of the suburbs of Beirut sues his parents for having given birth to him. A story close to the fable but burning it truths, filmed as close to reality by a pioneer and her killer team: over two years of researching, brutal casting on the ground and six months of filming with cameras on shoulders, 500 hours of film with a 12-hour long first version. Back to a time that goes well beyond cinema, by one who has now been included in the jury of the Oscars. Excerpts from the interview:
How was this film born?
First with immense frustration and tremendous anger all that was going on in the world, towards the hell that we were living in, and the daily image of Beirut of poor children living in extremely neglected circumstances, thrown all over the place, begging, young girls being sold under the guise of marriage, children separated from their parents, things that should not exist.
After Caramel (2007) and Et maintenant on va où? (2011), you have, for this, taken a harsh and dizzying dive into devastated neighbourhoods of Beirut. Of which we emerge completely shaken up and dumbstruck.
I still have trouble talking about this experience, the more it was improvised in a familial and passionate way, the more we were carried by our cause. At the beginning I wanted to understand. Over the two years I went everywhere, prisons, detention centres for minors, to the poorest areas. I spent my days in juvenile court, I would get in incognito and simply observe. As a result of continually being in contact with these children they started to trust me, and the most heartrending bit was their response to my question, “Are you glad to be alive?” They always responded with a no. It was because of having listened to all of their experiences that the story of a boy suing his parents for having brought him into this world without insuring a loving and safe life for him was born. I wanted to, at all costs, make the voices of these children heard.
What is your relationship with Lebanon and Beirut, where you live?
It is a love-hate relationship. I draw from the contradictions of the country. At times I say that our region is cursed. One cannot live in Lebanon without feeling engaged. For me art and being engaged in politics, both go together.
All the characters in your film are played by not professional actors and are real. Even the judge in the film is a real life judge. This adventure was a lot more heart wrenching than the scenario, I wrote it with two other screenwriters, and based on situations that the actors of the film had experienced, some who even went through those experiences again like Yordanos Shiferaw, the young Ethiopian without papers who played the role of the mother of the baby was actually stopped by the authorities during filming.
Tell us of little Zain, who magnificently and valiantly carried the film on his little shoulders, and of the incredibly expressive baby that he takes under his wing in the story.
Zain is a Syrian refugee who lives on the streets, he was imposing at first glance. He has loving parents but he has had a difficult life, he just about knows how to read and write, and I wanted to know where that profound sadness came from in his large and wise eyes. In looking at his raw improvisation and his scenes with the baby, previously named Treasure, I could not believe my eyes. I have never asked of my actors “to act”, and we have, without stopping aimed at evolving their honest and realness in the scenario, primarily by letting the camera roll between takes. Capharnaüm is an unending dance between fiction and reality, but things just happened on this film, even from all the obstacles we faced, it cannot be explained. This project was simply blessed.
In what manner could this film already change the future of these young protagonists?
Zain’s family was able to relocate to Norway, with employment and he will be able to attend school. We are working with the United Nations to also help the family of the little girl who played Zain’s sister Sahar. This film should be able to help other families and educate the law to modify itself. Millions of refugee children are waiting to be recognised.
With the notion that cinema can help make society better?
Yes, I truly believe in that. Certain critics gave thumbs up to my film on misery but a journalist in the Parisien wrote to defend what is depicted in Capharnaüm, he wrote, “discard the misery of the world.” I exaggerated none of it. This misery, it exists, the number of neglected refugee children is not reducing or even remaining stagnant for that matter. We all have to, together, think of solutions to this ever-increasing problem.