In the 71 years since the Cannes film festival began, only 82 female directors have been invited to compete for its prestigious Palme d’Or – which averages out at roughly one woman a year. This year, Lebanon’s Nadine Labaki joined the ranks of the favoured few with Capernaum, her third and most masterful film to date, an urgent and impressive drama filmed on the streets of her native Beirut. In that alone, it marks a milestone for her, but then, Labaki has always aimed high. Since she graduated from directing music videos, all of her films have figured prominently in the Cannes selection – first the romantic, battle-of-the-sexes comedy Caramel (2007), then the slightly more provocative battle-of-the-religions comedy Where Do We Go Now? (2011). For both of these films, Labaki looked at her subject with a wry smile, even irreverence, but Capernaum shows a more serious side to the director.
Shot entirely with a cast of non-professionals and featuring a story that could be drawn from many of today’s headlines, it’s a powerful, compassionate film that could not be more relevant. The framing device is a court case, in which the 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is suing his parents – not just for neglect, but for having him in the first place, when they clearly have no resources or even a demonstrable willingness to keep him safe and fed. In flashback, Labaki reveals the run-up to this state of affairs, showing Zain’s chaotic family life in Beirut: his parents have no visible income, save the money they make from smuggling drugs to Zain’s incarcerated older brother.
Capernaum is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit
His life reaches a turning point when his parents make an unforgivable deal that will see his younger sister married off. Left distraught by this terrible turn of events, Zain takes to the road. Zain, though, is no ordinary child. He’s fiercely independent, and his little tough-guy routine brings flashes of streetwise humour, especially when a young woman, working illegally as a cleaner, leaves Zain literally holding the baby – her adorable one-year-old son, Jonas, with whom Zain forms a touching double act. Found in the streets by Labaki’s casting director, Al Rafeea carries the story with charisma and dignity, and the director shapes his journey into an epic road movie, shooting the city’s streets and markets as bright, bustling, immersive vistas, finding shimmering, heat-haze beauty and even poetry in the lesser-travelled parts of town.
Despite some of its darker moments, Capernaum is not so much a film about Zain’s past as his future, a story founded on a determined belief in hope. In that respect, the director’s own personal warmth shines throughout the film. A humanist at heart, Labaki wants us to walk with these people in their shoes, refusing easy answers to the questions she poses and even finding sympathy in her heart for some of the story’s apparent villains – like Zain’s mother, for example, who gives a proud and poignant speech in the courtroom, upending any judgments we might have made about her.
Although it deals with some harsh realities, Capernaum is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit – a battle cry for the forgotten, the unwanted, and the lost that offers hope in the most unexpected of places.
Q&A NADINE LABAKI
Where does the title, Capernaum, come from?
In French, this word is used to signify chaos or disorder. When I started writing the film, my husband put up a noticeboard, and we started writing down all the issues I wanted to explore: illegal immigrants, mistreated children, the notion of borders and their absurdity, the fact that we need a piece of paper to prove our existence, racism… At the end, I looked at the board and I was like, “C’est un caphernaüm” – “This is hell”
Are there any professional actors in the film?
Nobody is professional. Every single one of these actors is almost playing their own part [in real life]. So it was important for them, and also for me, to express themselves, to express their reality. For example, one of my actors has been living in exactly the same situation as her character. She’s been living for the past years in Lebanon without papers, which is illegal, and it was very touching in the press conference at Cannes when she said, “This isn’t a film. It is my life”