For her third film behind the camera, Capernaum, Lebanese actress-director Nadine Labaki has found a powerful way to marry the urgency of the non-fiction format with the emotional impact of drama. Although its premise is invented – 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a child in a Beirut prison, goes to court to sue his parents for bringing him into the world – the harsh reality of his life is not, and in flashbacks we come to see how Zain’s perilous journey has led him to this sad state of affairs. Filmed using a cast of non-professional actors, Capernaum was a critical hit at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where its director was awarded the prestigious Jury Prize, and her film received a 15-minute standing ovation at its premiere. It’s also Lebanon’s entry for an Academy Award and received a Golden Globe and BAFTA nomination for Best Film Not In The English Language.
What inspired you to make this film?
I’m sure I’m not the only person being moved by what’s happening around us, especially when it comes to children we see neglected everywhere, on the streets. It’s like they’re becoming part of our daily lives, and it’s not a sight you only see in Lebanon, it’s everywhere in the world. These kids didn’t ask to be here, whether they’re Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese or Latin American – I mean, what’s happening with these [migrant] kids on the US border is, for me, the same thing. Children are paying the price for our stupid decisions – our stupid governments, our stupid conflicts – and we are not finding solutions for them. But I also feel somehow responsible. If I don’t say anything, if I don’t use my tool – which is filmmaking – or my position as a public figure, I am part of the problem. I cannot stay silent.
Was it always your intention to take a child’s-eye view of this situation?
Yes. I thought, “Ok, so I feel this frustration, but what must the child be feeling?” What inspired me the most were two images. Do you remember the picture of the child who was found drowned on the shore of Turkey in 2015? That picture went round the world and everybody saw it. I thought, “If that child could speak, what would he say?” And then, later on, I saw another child at the traffic lights in Beirut. He was about two years old, with his mother, sitting on a traffic island, and he couldn’t sleep because it was too noisy and uncomfortable. I thought, “How did we get to this point? This is a crime. This child only wants to sleep. He doesn’t want anything else. We’re depriving him of his most basic right.” And it hit me: why do we allow this? We just say, “It’s somebody else’s child, not mine,” and we dehumanise the problem. I thought it was time we humanised it.
How many children did you see before you found Zain?
We saw hundreds of children in the research period, and then more when the casting process started. My team would go everywhere, talk to people and interview them on tape. When I saw Zain, it was obvious. Everything about him said this is the child. He has these very sad eyes that show that he’s witnessed a lot. He’s actually in the same situation as his character. He’s a Syrian refugee who couldn’t go to school in Lebanon, so he grew up on the streets. You can imagine the violence of the streets, the abuse he suffered, even though he has loving parents.
Is it true you cut your own part right down to the bare minimum?
Yes. I always knew I was going to work with people that have a similar experience in life, and not actors. They had to be who they are, not act who they are. So there was no space for acting in this film. I was the only actress in this situation, and I felt like I was lying. I felt I was not right.
What steps did you take during the shoot to look after your cast?
It was a big responsibility. Both during the movie and afterwards, I knew they were going to be part of my life and family, and I had to look after them. It was not a choice – it was a duty. I’ve been working very closely with various organisations to ensure that all families receive help, and now the next step is for everybody to be in school. There’s no way that those children are going to be back on the streets any more.
Capernaum is released on 22 February. Previews from 1 February