A moving tale of poverty and childhood

I would ask the kids, ‘Are you happy to be born?’ They would respond, ‘No! Why did my parents bring me into this world if they’re not going to take care of me? Capernaum will close the Cork Film Festival with a moving tale of poverty and childhood, writes Helen Barlow.

Lebanese writer-director Nadine Labaki is an effusive 44- year-year-old who recently became the first female Arab director to win a major prize, the Jury Award, in the Cannes festival.

That prize-winning Beirut-set tale will also close Cork Film Festival on Sunday.

“I’ve never felt a special situation of being a female filmmaker, I’m just a filmmaker,” Labaki insists. “I’ve never felt I have more or less privilege. I’ve been lucky to be in that situation, but I also understand it’s not that way for other women in my country and for women in the rest of the world too.”

Ever since she burst on the international scene with 2007’s Caramel, about the intersecting lives of five Lebanese women, Labaki has been entrancing us with highly charged socio-political stories of ordinary but very special people.

Her follow-up, 2011’s Where Do We Go Now? focusing on a group of Christian and Muslim women who band together to ease the tensions in their village further burnished her reputation.

Capernaum will likely take Labaki to the Oscars as the film has been gaining momentum since Sony Picture Classics picked it up for the US market in Cannes.

If you love films with kids, Capernaum is a heartbreaker. It follows an impoverished Beirut boy, Zain (played by Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea) who is suing his parents for bringing him into this world, given what he has had to endure in the slums of Beirut. For starters he has no official papers and even his parents do not know his official age, which doctors ascertain as 12.

We watch in flashback and learn what led him to this position and to his current predicament as he is currently serving a five-year sentence for stabbing someone. It turns out he fled his cramped family home after his drug-dealing parents sold his beloved sister to their landlord for a few chickens.

He ended up living with Rahil, an Ethiopian refugee working illegally and living and in a slum with her infant son, Yonas. The crux of the story shows how when Rahil is detained by the authorities, the resourceful Zain takes care of Yonas (played by Boluwatife Treasure Bankole).

Labaki cast non-actors with experiences close to their characters and says the secret to the film’s success is that she had a long period of time to work with her young leads.

“We decided to produce the film ourselves so we could have this freedom,” she explains of herself and her husband, Khaled Mouzanar, also the film’s composer.

I wanted to be able to shoot one more hour or spend the whole day waiting for Yonas to smile or to do whatever we needed him to do. I was so fascinated with who these people are, with their reality, that I never wanted them to act. I just wanted them to be themselves. So I adapted my story to their reality and not the other way around.

Labaki says the story of Lebanon’s neglected children had “been working on me for some time. This is a sight you see every day, children who are excluded from the system who are completely invisible. I wanted to learn more.”

She visited prisons for minors and attended court proceedings dealing with their cases.

“In my four years of research I talked to many kids and at the end of the conversation I would ask them, ‘Are you happy to be born?’ They would respond, ‘No!’ and with lots of anger. ‘Why am I here, why did my parents bring me into this world if they’re not going to take care of me?’”

The premise of Zain taking his parents to court may stretch credulity (Labaki plays his lawyer as she has been his supporter in real life and helped him relocate to Norway where he now lives with his family.) Yet any stretch of the imagination is forgiven as her casting is impeccable.

“Finding the kids was almost a mission impossible,” she admits.

“Our casting director found Zain on the street. He was playing with his friend and they engaged in some discussion and filmed them. It took me two minutes when I was watching the rushes to understand I’d found Zain.

"Treasure is the real treasure of the film. She’s just amazing and she was almost living the same situation in that she’s the daughter of migrant workers who were working illegally in Lebanon.

Treasure didn’t have papers but now she does. She went back to Kenya and can go to school but until the film she was non-existent.

Capernaum is the closing film of Cork Film Festival on Sunday at the Everyman.

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