Following its premiere at Cannes film festival back in May 2018, Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum has fared exceedingly well in the international circuits, picking up a number of prizes and a nomination at the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film.

This powerful drama follows the story of 12 year old Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea)  as he navigates life through abject poverty, abuse and statelessness as a street kid in Beirut’s slums.

The film opens with a courtroom scene in which Zain is convicted for a stabbing, and ends back in the same courtroom as he sues his parents for giving him life.

Movie still from Capernaum

The narrative goes from sentimental to extreme very quickly. Zain is denied an education in favour of working at a nearby grocery store along with his siblings, and escapes after a series of dreadful events.

After his getaway, Zain encounters new challenges and meets new people who quickly become an integral part of the young boy’s life.

Movie still from Capernaum

The camera work from cinematographer Christopher Aoun plays with low angles, representative of a child’s point of view, weaving through busy Beirut street scenes where the children work day and night.

The title of the film, Capernaum, very aptly translates to chaos from french, as well as alluding to a town in the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is said to have performed a series of miracles. Some particularly harrowing scenes in the film include prison scenes where groups of illegal migrants are herded like cattle into large metal cages in preparation for shipment out of Lebanon.

What makes Capernaum so exceptional is the talent of the cast, none of whom are professional actors and were scouted by Labaki and her team from the streets of Beirut. Although the script was written in full previous to filming, the majority of the acting throughout the film was done by improvisation, including the scenes with the children.

Movie still from Capernaum

Zain Al Rafeea, who plays Zain in the film is a Syrian refugee, and as well as being naturally gifted, Labaki has put his exceptional performance down to his personal familiarity with many of the themes and struggles his character experiences.

Similarly, Yordanos Shiferaw, who plays Rihal in the film, lives a life parallel to her character. She moved to Lebanon from Eritrea to find work and was arrested temporarily during filming, along with the parents of the baby Yonas who plays her son in the film, for illegal status.

Reality and fiction are blurred at many points, and Labaki’s choice of using non-professional actors, as well as the subject matter of the film echo post-war Italian neorealist films.

The soundtrack, composed by the producer of the film Khaled Mouzanar is incredibly emotive and moving, yet manages not to overpower the rawness and reality of the screenplay.

Movie still from Capernaum

Capernaum is a film which successfully humanises issues that have been dominating news headlines for decades now, a necessary reminder that this is the shocking reality of many people today.

The issue of statelessness is also brought to the surface through the story of Zain, who despite being of Lebanese nationality, has no documents to his name, a fact which causes him pain and limitation throughout the film.

One line will ring true long after the credits have rolled – ‘Where are your papers? I need proof that you’re human,’ Zain is asked. Through the angry eyes of an innocent boy, Labaki savagely criticises a system in which a stateless individual is robbed of all humanity, a system powered by bureaucracy and no longer values human life, even that of a child.

Watch the Capernaum trailer:

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Image courtesy indicated in captions.


Sahar Esfandiari
Sahar Esfandiari

Sahar Esfandiari is a British-Iranian journalist writing on arts and culture from the Middle East and its diaspora. She holds a masters degree from SOAS, University of London and has perviously reported from Iran and Jordan. Instagram and Twitter @saharesfandiari

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