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.