By Meena Mrakade
Capharnaüm (\kəˈfärnēəm\): a confused jumble; a place marked by a disorderly accumulation of objects.
With her movie Capharnaüm (2018), Nadine Labaki becomes the first Arab woman to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. In her film, we follow a possibly 12-year-old boy, Zain, who, already serving five years in prison for stabbing someone, is suing his parents for having given him life. Zain is one of the millions of people living on the streets and in the slums of Beirut, Lebanon, literal steps away from the wealthiest malls and skyscrapers of the city. Labaki chose to cast all non-professional actors in this movie; she and casting director Jennifer Haddad found miraculously talented children and migrant workers from the streets of Lebanon to portraying characters whose lives essentially parallel their own. In fact, she changed the name of the main character to Zain, which is the real name of the boy who plays him.
However, this was not all it took to give Labaki’s film the authenticity and rawness it had. She and her husband, Khaled Mouzanar, who also happens to have produced the movie and composed its score, spent three years researching and interviewing people from the poorest locations in Lebanon. Labaki states that the storyline of a child suing his parents for even bringing him into the world stems from a question that she asked almost every child she interviewed: “are you happy to be alive?” She says that she was shocked when young children responded that they would rather be dead.
In the film, Zain escapes his family home after his parents grotesquely sell off Sahar, his eleven- year-old sister, to marry a local grocer who is at least a few decades older than her. He then meets an Ethiopian migrant worker, Rahil, who is living illegally in Lebanon with her one-year- old baby, Yonas. When Rahil goes missing, Zain takes on the seemingly impossible task of caring for an infant on the streets. In real life, the actress who plays Rahil, Yordanos Shiferaw, was an illegal migrant worker and urges people to understand that this movie is not fiction. There are thousands of migrant domestic workers living illegally in Lebanon who end up being jailed.
Labaki creates a film so real that the audience feels their hearts in their mouths as Zain helplessly suffers in his attempt to survive; he is a 12-year-old child wise beyond his years with a vocabulary so tainted in profanity and eyes so filled with resentment towards life that you cannot help but feel his anger and frustration.
Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Jury’s Prize and got a 15-minute standing ovation, Capharnaüm has gone to win many awards and even receive an Oscar nomination, which it lost to Mexico’s highly acclaimed and deserving drama, Roma, directed by Alfonso Cuaròn.
Through the camera’s shaky movements and the chaos of the streets that transcend the cinema screen, Labaki poignantly tackles child poverty and endangerment as well as modern slavery in her incredibly touching third feature film, Capharnaüm.