To whom do we afford a childhood? And what does that word even mean when one’s young life has been characterized from the beginning by war and displacement? Nadine Labaki’s devastating Capernaum asks us to grapple with those questions as we’re immersed in the life of Zain, a 12-year-old Lebanese boy living in the slums of Beirut with his family.
We meet Zain as he’s being escorted by a prison guard to a courtroom, and quickly learn that he’s serving time because he “stabbed a sonofabitch.” His parents have also been subpoenaed because he’d like to sue them both for bringing him into the world. The trial is what structures the film; we bounce between it and the events meant to explain both of these so-called crimes.
“Capernaum” is a word meaning chaos or disorder. Labaki, a Lebanese native, was walking home one night from a party in Beirut when she passed a mother and toddler begging on the street. Pregnant herself when the incident occurred, it was foundational to her desire to make a film about the city’s impoverished population.
Known for taking her time with her projects, Labaki began research for Capernaum in 2013—spending four years visiting the neighbourhoods she sought to highlight and speaking to their residents—and officially premiered it last year at Cannes. There, it competed for the Palme d’Or and won the Jury Prize, securing its feasibility as an awards season contender.
Chaos isn’t conveyed solely through Capernaum’s dramatic conflicts; it’s really a chief part of its characters’ lives. Zain and his family are not refugees themselves, but live in dire straits and in a country with the highest number of Syrian refugees per capita, many of whom are homeless or living in tent cities. The family also lacks identity papers, having no money to pay for them. As Labaki told The Globe and Mail, “They are invisible to the system. […] They are born and die without anybody knowing.” The film’s sound design brilliantly exploits this precariousness: Every child always seems dangerously close to stepping into busy traffic, or otherwise being dropped by an overburdened mother or sibling.
Though some critics have dubbed the film “poverty porn” (a label which Labaki resents), it arguably avoids falling into this trap. Capernaum is, to a much greater degree, about the resourcefulness of a preteen boy; one who has learned out of necessity how to navigate, and make the best of, a system built to confine him and his family/ies. Perhaps it’s also relevant that aside from Labaki herself, who appears only scarcely in the film as Zain’s lawyer, the cast is comprised of first-time actors whom she met during her visits to Beirut’s slums.
This idea of resourcefulness is key to the film’s heart. Zain spends much of Capernaum fashioning contraptions out of found materials, sometimes for his own needs but most often to make a friend or sibling smile. In an early scene, he’s the first to notice that his younger sister, 11-year-old Sahar, has gotten her period, and quite literally gives her the shirt off his back to use as a makeshift pad (until he’s able to steal some real ones, of course).
Zain and his family live in uncomfortably close quarters, and this proximity has obviously fostered a certain closeness between the siblings. They cuddle as they sleep, sometimes holding each other’s faces as they do so. So, when Sahar is married off to the family’s landlord in exchange for a few chickens, a heartbroken Zain runs away to another part of the city with nothing more than a garbage bag full of belongings. He there meets Rahil, an Ethiopian woman residing illegally in Lebanon who’s secretly raising her infant son, Yonas. Rahil welcomes Zain into her home, and he becomes a nanny of sorts to Yonas while she goes to work. But then one day, she never returns.
The bulk of Capernaum involves Zain and Yonas travelling Beirut in search of Rahil, gradually bringing us closer to the scene of our protagonist’s crime. It’s at its strongest in these moments, exploring the relationship between the two unlikely brothers, wherein Zain feels unable to leave Yonas behind. The film does lack structure somewhat, and its major conflicts seem to resolve themselves in a way that some viewers will find unrealistic. But it nevertheless humanizes the living, breathing people at the heart of the migrant crisis—particularly its children, who’re forced to grow up before their time—in a way that network news and certain world leaders are wholly incapable of.
by Sydney Urbanek
Sydney Urbanek is a writer and the founder of Reel Honey. Based in Toronto, she writes about film, music videos, and chronic illness. She knows the “Telephone” choreography but please don’t ask her to do it. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @sydurbanek.