Nadine Labaki has changed. Her life after her latest movie, Capharnaüm, is no longer the same. From Cannes to Beirut, the Lebanese director has demonstrated how a story can transcend cinematic boundaries to become a turning point in the life of others.
Nadine Labaki enters the cinema hall in the heart of Beirut, beautiful and elegant as always, in her white ensemble. Her eyes radiate a mix of awe, happiness, anguish, and anticipation. She disappears again for the premiere of her movie Capharnaüm, which was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize. It’s also been chosen by Lebanon as its official entry for next year’s Academy Award for best foreign language film.
The director of Caramel (2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (2011) chose a title that evokes the misery of chaos. On the screen we discover a different Beirut, one that you wouldn’t notice unless you wanted to, a hidden layer of this strange city. Zain, the 12-year-old protagonist (played by Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea) lives in poverty and has decided to sue his parents for conceiving him. He’s trying to fight against their neglect and the cruelty of a society that doesn’t acknowledge his existence. The first scenes take place in real-life narrow, suffocating rooms, lacking water, electricity, warmth, kindness, and safety. The screen confronts us with a reality we refuse to see because we feel powerless towards it.
Labaki decided to confront this helplessness with her camera, with what she knows best: filmmaking. “Making movies is what I’m good at,” she says. “Cinema is the means through which I can best express myself. I use it to limit the effects of the destruction all around us, and to assume my responsibility as a member of this society but also as an artist. I believe equally in the importance of the artist’s commitment to defend her society’s causes as I believe in cinema’s ability to effect change.”
The director, who has also stepped in front of the camera to act on occasion, knows what it means to leave a movie theater a different person. “A word, a phrase, or a scene can change your perspective. I am not talking only about movies. This also happens when you read a book. But cinema has a far greater impact, it is stronger than the most powerful speech. If a film succeeds in influencing its viewers, this impact might reach various levels, and this is what pushes me to explore deeper and more important topics after every cinematic experience.
Labaki feels responsible both as a film director and a human being. “I respect the view that claims that cinema should be appreciated as a form of art and entertainment, and that art should be protected from being explicitly documented. As a director, however, I work tirelessly to prepare new work. Making movies leaves me exhausted. And so the objective of my films cannot be only artistic, it has to be placed at the service of a greater social cause. I am convinced that politics needs art to change our reality, which in turn requires us to be committed and to show interest in what is going on around us. Art is the only medium for change.”
Consequently, Labaki decided not to ignore the suffering of the marginalized children on Beirut’s streets. These children are either victims of economic unfairness in a social system that doesn’t protect the rights of all citizens, or victims of wars and regional conflicts, who have fled from destruction in Syria only to experience a slow death in Lebanon. “How can I witness this injustice and turn my back to it?” she asks.
“Many are turning their backs because the dilemma is formidable and leaves us feeling incapable of doing anything. Others think that helping a beggar means supporting a mafia. I wanted to know how this child, who sticks his face to the car window when it stops at the traffic light, lives, what he thinks, and how he sees the society that marginalizes him. Nobody notices those children, they are non-existent in the eyes of society because most of them don’t have official papers that confirm their existence. Most of them don’t know how old they are. They have never celebrated their birthdays.” Is this the symbolism behind the scene in Capharnaüm depicting a candle being blown out on a cake’s leftovers? “Every scene is loaded with references to what I saw when I was preparing the making of the film,” she confirms.
Zain’s smart eyes immediately draw in the viewer. Having escaped from his parents after they sold his sister to the landlord, he ends up living in a shack with Rahil, an Ethiopian woman played by Yordanos Shiferaw, babysitting her one-year-old child. The relationship between the two boys, their gazes, and their desire to survive, are the most haunting scenes in the movie. Labaki speaks profusely about Al Rafeea.
“Zain looked different from the first moment I saw him. During my moments of anger towards the world at the beginning of this adventure, I drew a picture of a boy screaming at a group of adults. This boy looked like Zain to a scary extent. Something bigger than us made me discover this brilliant boy with a searching intelligence.”
With her casting director, Jennifer Haddad, Labaki sought out people whose lives mirror those of her characters and describes her relationship with them as a form of love. She directed them to be themselves and not to act. “My instructions took them back to their own lives and pains. It was enough for them to recall a real-life episode similar to a scene in the film for the tears to come pouring down. I used to disappear when the acting started. I wanted to erase the boundaries between reality and acting. We never used the word ‘action’ during shooting. Actors usually serve the script but in this movie we all served the actors.” In fact, it didn’t take long for reality to intrude into the filming process.
“Three days after the start of filming, Shiferaw was incarcerated, as happened in the movie. The family of the actor who played her small child, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, was also arrested for the same reason: illegal residency in the country. And so Treasure experienced reality during the filming of the movie, and ended up temporarily staying at the house of the casting director during her parents’ incarceration.”
The film, which turned the actors’ lives upside down, also changed the life of its director. “During screenwriting, I visited areas of abject misery. I didn’t want to imagine a child who lives in hardship but rather tried to convey a certain reality. I wanted to be the voice of these children. We visited prisons and filmed inside the notorious Roumieh facility, under the bridge in Adliya, where we pass every day without knowing what happens there.” The experience changed her in many ways, including her vision of life and the way she behaved towards others. She even experienced a sense of guilt growing inside her.
“The feeling doesn’t allow me to enjoy pure joy, to feel pure happiness with my family. It follows me in my travels, evenings, and events. I can no longer live my life without feeling what other people are suffering. I have witnessed untold tragedies. This movie doesn’t depict the whole ugly truth. The truth is more horrible than its representation, and the negligence these children experience is indescribable. I met children with empty eyes. They do not play or smile. They lost feeling because of torture, lack of care, verbal and physical abuse, and rape. They are truly ‘the wretched of the earth.’”
But this darkness is illuminated by the knowledge that Al Rafeea now lives the life he deserves. “Zain, his parents, and brothers were all granted political asylum in Norway. He now stays in a large house and goes to school. When we started filming, he couldn’t write his three-letter name in Arabic. He can now read. I’ve always felt that this talented and wise boy will live a worthy life.” The young Bankole also retuned to Kenya and will start her first year of school. Shiferaw decided not to return to Lebanon after the Cannes festival.
Capharnaüm also transcends cinematic boundaries, just as Labaki intended. “I wanted the movie to trigger public policy debates that lead to legislation affecting the lives of marginalized children. NGOs are undertaking tremendous efforts, but the load is huge, and a more concerted effort is needed,” she says. A few years ago, she even stood for Beirut’s municipal elections, and she’s considering eventually working in public service. “My duty is to try to engage in politics in my own way. My goal is to take advantage of the position I have reached in a smart and positive way to serve my community.”
Her passion for cinema is what gives her life meaning – even motherhood doesn’t always soothe her angst. “My two children give me love, tranquility, and spiritual nourishment. I feel satisfaction in their presence, as if I don’t need anything else. But they don’t calm this anxiety which pushes me to work. I feel every project I do will be the last. My life and destiny are attached to it. Now, I’m in the toughest stage. I wake up every morning searching for a new idea.”
Perhaps it is the legacy of civil war that lives on in Labaki’s generation. “Wars make you uncertain of what tomorrow will bring. This anxiety that we experienced during the conflict makes you want to use every moment and achieve all that you have set out to do. I feel that the sand of my time is running out, and I have to make use of every second.”
Photography: Drew Jarrett
Style: Katie Trotter
Makeup: Tiziana Raimondo at the Wall Group
Hair: Franco Argento at the Wall Group
Set designer: Kaduri Elyashar
Photography assistant: Corinne Mutrelle
Style assistant: Clotilde Franceschi
Producer: Carole Cieutat at Onirim
Fashion coordinator: Danica Zivkovic
Shot on location at Hôtel de Crillon, Paris