Capharnaum: a film of hope in search of identity and a place to call home

Nadine Labaki, “Capharnaum” (2018)

I’m sure plenty of children around the world are serving time in juvenile centres for serious criminal acts including stabbing a man and crippling him for life as a result but not too many of those kids get the opportunity to phone a television current affairs show to announce that they’re going to sue their parents for bringing them into a rotten corrupt world that condemns them and their siblings to bleak, hopeless poverty and robs them of happiness and opportunities to play, go to school and learn to be decent human beings. That one 12-year-old boy called Zain (Zain al Rafeea) does so is a springboard into a documentary-styled drama focused on the twilight world inhabited by refugees, illegal migrant workers and homeless children, the relentless pressures on them to find their next meal and some shelter over their heads, and the extraordinary (and ingenious) risks they take to survive. The bulk of Zain’s story is told in flashback as he and his attorney (director Labaki herself) on one side of a courtroom face his parents Souad and Selim (Kawthar al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Youssef) on the other side while the judge (Elias Khoury, an actual retired judge) presides over the proceedings.

Zain lives with his parents and an apparent horde of siblings in a tiny Beirut apartment rented to them by a landlord whose son Assaad is infatuated with Zain’s 13-year-old sister Sahar (Cedra Izzam). Almost as soon as Sahar has her first period, the parents marry her off to Assaad and Zain rebels against the marriage and stomps off. He travels to another part of the city where he meets a transvestite called Cockroach Man (Joseph Jimbazian) who leads him to Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal Ethiopian migrant working various odd jobs and hiding her baby Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), knowing that his discovery by the authorities will lead to her deportation and the baby being sent to an orphanage. For several months, Zain babysits Yonas – at least until Rahil is arrested and jailed. From then on, Zain does his best to look after Yonas while trying to find work to get enough money to buy food and feed them both.

Eventually Zain reaches the end of his tether when he cannot get any work and leaves the baby with Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh) who promises to place Yonas with a foster family – in reality, Aspro works in trafficking desperate Syrian refugees to Sweden – so he can go home to find his papers so he too can leave Beirut. Once home, he discovers the dreadful fate that befell Sahar soon after she married Assaad and the boy vows vengeance on the landlord’s son …

Through Zain’s point of view, the precarious and unstable existence of an underclass with no papers that would prove their existence and identity is portrayed with a raw grimness occasionally lightened by humour (even if it’s on the black side) and the innocence of children like Yonas. In spite of the incredible, grinding poverty, the violence and abuse he suffers at home, and the pain he sees around him and experiences, Zain is still capable of compassion, love and care for those less able than he to defend themselves, like Sahar and Yonas. Zain al Rafeea, himself a refugee from Syria, delivers an incredible performance as a child struggling to survive yet yearning to know his true path and direction in life, and wanting nothing more than to know he is known and needed by society. Apart from Labaki herself, all the actors in the film are non-professionals and several of them actually were refugees or undocumented workers. In bringing their experiences to their roles, the actors helped give the film a raw and harsh quality.

No less than the cast itself, the poor neighbourhoods of Beirut, weighed down by floods of refugees from Iraq, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere, its bureaucracy and institutions unable to cope with them and illegal migrants from other countries, are a dramatic, often severe background in which the modern-day Oliver Twist tale plays out. Parts of the script do stretch credibility – is it really possible that the authorities manage to find Yonas among the crammed warehouses of people hoping to find asylum in Sweden? – and the ending can come across as unbelievably optimistic. Little attention is given over to how Zain’s parents came to be in their appalling predicament in the first place, how others exploit and manipulate them, and how and why they have given up hope for themselves and their children. The system which they and their son fall into cannot offer them hope and one presumes that after Zain serves his allotted jail-time that he will return to his family and possibly fall into trouble again.

The film offers hope that, for all the pain and horror he has experienced, Zain’s natural resilience, compassion and ingenuity that have served him and Yonas well will not only help him to survive but to thrive as well. The deliberate identification of Zain with the city he inhabits by “Capharnaum” make the boy a metaphor for the fortunes of Beirut and by implication, Lebanon and the Arabic-speaking peoples of the Levant.

Diplomatic Viruses: a deeply disturbing film about a US military laboratory in Georgia

Diljana Gaytandzhieva, “Diplomatic Viruses” (Al Mayadeen, 2018)

Bulgarian journalist Diljana Gaytandzhieva gained fame early in 2018 for uncovering and reporting on shipments of weapons from EU countries through Azerbaijani airline Silk Way Airlines to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, some of which later turned up among terrorists in Syria, over a period from 2016 onwards: for this reporting, she was sacked by her Bulgarian newspaper employer. Recently Gaytandzhieva has been in Tbilisi, Georgia, interviewing residents living near the Richard Lugar Research Center, a military laboratory currently being utilised by the US Department of Defense, and hearing their complaints of smells and strangely coloured smoke emanating from that facility at night, and of pollutants smelling like rotten eggs being piped through their neighbourhood and into local waterways from the facility. Through her interviews and gaining access to documents from insiders, Gaytandzhieva finds that the facility is being used by the US government to research biological and chemical weapons, and that disease pathogens, mosquitoes and various chemicals are being transported as diplomatic cargo to the facility by people from the US embassy in Tbilisi. She attempts to get access to the laboratory and to speak to an entomologist apparently working there but is constantly rebuffed and threatened. At one point during her stay in Tbilisi, she is locked in her rented apartment and is forced to call emergency services to help her get out.

This documentary, filmed for Al Mayadeen TV news channel, and narrated by Patrick Henningsen (of 21Wire) off-camera, follows Gaytandzhieva closely as she uncovers one disturbing fact after another. Why is the US ferrying frozen human and disease pathogens as diplomatic cargo to the Lugar Center laboratory? Why is there an entomologist (Joshua Bast) working there? Is research being done on dangerous mosquito-borne diseases? Is there a connection between the work being done at the Lugar Center and an outbreak of Crimea-Congo haemorrhagic fever in Georgia back in 2014/5? Residents living near the Lugar Center mention four Filipino nationals being seriously injured and two of them dying: were these four people poisoned by dangerous chemicals at the facility? Why are researchers at the Lugar Center collecting DNA and RNA samples from Russian people? Why are there private companies also using the resources at the Lugar Center and what are their interests in doing so? Why did the Georgian government sign an agreement with the US Department of Defense in which Georgia has to give up control over what happens at the Lugar Center and over what researchers, government and private alike, do with effective diplomatic immunity?

To Gaytandzhieva and the Russian government, what the US is doing at the Lugar Center and in other laboratories in over 20 other countries is conducting research and experiments in biological and chemical weapons, often using human tests subjects, even communities, without their consent and with often dire consequences for neighbourhoods and even whole small towns surrounding these laboratories. In recent years since the US established military research labs in Ukraine, the number of exotic disease outbreaks including outbreaks of botulinism poisoning has risen alarmingly.

That the US is collecting and presumably testing DNA and RNA samples taken from Russian people should be of great concern: do the Americans plan to create a virus or bacterium that will target Russian Federation nationals but no-one else? How do the Americans propose creating a disease that targets specific ethnic groups but not any other? What they are doing is impossible in the case of Russians because Russians have absorbed many peoples in the past and will have a highly diverse genetic pool compared to other populations. Would the US be able to control the pathogen if it were to spread to nations outside Russia and into its own territory? (Would the US government even care?) The documentary digs fairly deep into issues of great medical, political and environmental importance.

This is a very worthwhile and important video to watch. Gaytandzhieva has done an excellent job at great personal risk to herself.

The Insult: a calculated and manipulative soap opera melodrama posing as a courtroom thriller

Ziad Doueiri, “The Insult” (2018)

On one level, this Lebanese film illustrates the power of an utterance to inflame hidden animosities and escalate them (in a rather melodramatic way) to a level where they apparently hold an entire nation in breathless thrall to their outcome. On another level, “The Insult” is a standard courtroom drama thriller that feels very manipulative yet pulls its punches when the various issues it raises become too much and too complex to handle within its narrow movie genre format. The plot and the themes might have been better dealt with in a mini-series that would also allow a deeper exploration of the main characters, their backgrounds and their motivations.

The film revolves around a chance encounter of two men, Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a mechanic, Christian Maronite by background and a supporter of the Kataeb Party founded by past Lebanese President-elect Bachir Gemayel (assassinated in 1982); and Yasser Salameh (Kamel el Basha), a Palestinian refugee. Hanna and his pregnant wife Shirin (Rita Hayek) live in a Beirut street undergoing repairs; their apartment balcony has an illegal drain attached to it that sprays water onto pedestrians below. A construction crew working in the street sees the water so foreman Salameh asks Hanna to let his crew correct the illegal drain pipe. Hanna refuses but Salameh and his men fix the drain pipe anyway. Hanna sabotages the work and Salameh swears at him. Hanna complains about Salameh to his boss Talal so Talal arranges for Salameh to meet Hanna to apologise to him personally. However when Salameh and Talal arrive at Hanna’s garage, the radio there is loudly blaring Gemayel’s anti-Palestinian diatribes so Salameh refuses to speak. Hanna taunts him with an inflammatory remark that mentions the name of former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, at which Salameh punches Hanna and breaks two of his ribs.

From then on, the action moves, as if predestined, from one incident into another. Some of these incidents are highly improbable except in a soap opera universe: one would think that Salameh, realising the trouble he is in, and having no rights as an alien in Lebanon, would try to disappear entirely instead of giving himself up to the police. Hanna and Salameh representing themselves in a magistrate’s court seems unlikely; what’s even more unlikely is that when their case escalates to a higher court and they need lawyers, Hanna’s lawyer Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), an establishment, pro-Gemayel supporter, and Salameh’s lawyer Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Bou Abboud) turn out to be father and daughter! At this point, the trial ought to have been aborted by the judge Colette Mansur (Rita Kassar) and new lawyers for the men appointed but it steams on ahead.

In the second court case, Hanna and Salameh’s backgrounds and possible motivations are drawn out in some detail as Wehbe senior and Wehbe junior argue back and forth in ways that flummox even the judges as well as the respective clients. The elder Wehbe discovers that Hanna himself is a refugee of a massacre of Christians in the village of Damour in early 1976 by leftist fighters aided by Palestinian militants. Salameh is found to have beaten a man (admittedly a soldier) so severely that the man becomes wheelchair-bound. Even Shirin’s history of miscarriages is dragged into the disputation as a possible factor in forcing her baby’s premature caesarean birth.

The pyrotechnics that erupt among Hanna and Salameh’s supporters in the courtroom spill out into the streets and into Lebanese news media with unfortunate consequences: the Hannas end up being stalked and their supporters chase a motorcyclist who ends up in a collision with a car.

While Karam and el Basha are good and intense in their roles, and Hayek evokes much sympathy as Hanna’s long-suffering wife, the film does have a calculating and manipulative feel as plot twist follows plot twist. Various hidden grievances come to the fore – in particular, Lebanese resentment at the presence of Palestinian refugees in their midst, sucking up jobs and social services, depressing wages, always wanting sympathy and attention for their problems, while Lebanese Christian victims of past Palestinian violence are ignored – but get superficial treatment. Stereotypes about Arab people abound: the men seem to be all excitable and immune to reason while the women are either rational or stoic in getting on with business and life generally. The Wehbe father and daughter pair are little more than stereotypes of an older cunning political conservative, pragmatic and slippery, versus an earnest if perhaps naive young liberal with so-called progressive opinions and views (and who ends up supporting faintly Communist baddie types). The film’s conclusion has all the appearance of being a stitched-up Band Aid solution that restores peace and stability without really dealing with the long-simmering frustrations and grievances behind Hanna and Salameh’s prejudices and enmity.

At times I wonder if “The Insult” was actually made more for a Western audience than for a Lebanese audience, as it seems to rely on gimmicks, stereotypes and tropes that faintly mock Lebanese people. Injecting identity politics where it’s not needed and presenting Lebanese society as though it were an ongoing soap opera melodrama seem disrespectful of the subject matter and the wider political and cultural issues that arise from it. We are all familiar with lawyers pushing their own agendas onto their clients, the news media sensationalising trials and various hangers-on wanting to profit from other people’s misery, and “The Insult” hammers all of these subplots onto the main plot for the purpose of building it up into something more outlandish and sensational than it should be. The result is rushed and often superficial as the subplots are never fully resolved: in one, the hapless motorcyclist gets no more than a minute or so on screen and disappears forever.

If Hanna and Salameh come to an understanding, it’s more through their shared experience of being little cogs in a machine system they cannot fully comprehend than through recognising similarities in their histories as victims of others’ violence. Viewers are likely to feel just as ground out by a manipulative plot that tries to plead for reconciliation and understanding but ends up not succeeding very well.