Director: Nadine Labaki
Screenwriter: Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily and Michelle Kesrouani
Zain Al Rafeea
Haita ‘Cedra’ Izam
Kawthar Al Haddad
Fadi Kamel Youssef
Boluwatife Treasure Bankole
Runtime: 123 mins.
Australian release date: 7 February 2019
Previewed at: Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney, on 29 January 2019.
Nadine Labaki’s Capharnaüm (Chaos) has justly already won numerous awards at festivals around the world and it’s also the Lebanese contender for Best Foreign Language Film in the up-coming Academy Awards, having won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year. Employing a mostly non-professional cast from refugee and displaced backgrounds, the film is a realistic portrayal of disenfranchised people who must struggle to make ends meet in a society that regards them as second-class citizens. This is a film that should be compulsory viewing for those who live in the first world who have no real understanding of what it must be like to have nothing and, often, no-one to care for you. It focuses in particular, but not solely, on the plight of children and examines the situation of a 12-year-old boy, Zain.
The film opens in a courtroom where Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), under guard, is putting forward his case against his parents, who he regards as utterly irresponsible in that they are unable to provide a caring, nurturing environment for their seven children and yet they keep reproducing. When the judge asks, “Why are you suing your own parents?”, Zain responds tersely, “For giving me life.” As his story unfolds, we see that Zain is an intelligent, observant lad, who understood that his beloved sister, Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izam), was in danger when she started to menstruate so he tried to keep this fact hidden from their parents. He knew that she would be handed over into an arranged marriage once considered ‘a woman’ and, sure enough, when the subterfuge was discovered, Sahar was quickly married off to their landlord, the creepy local shop-keeper Assaad (Nour El Husseini). Heartbroken, Zain took off for life in the streets, befriending a young Eritrean immigrant, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), and her baby, Yonas (the delightful Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), who he looked after when Rahil went to work. Without papers, they lived in a slum dwelling where the baby’s cries needed to be tended to or a nosey neighbour would complain. When Rahil didn’t return one evening, Zain had to go out searching for food, so he made a cart from a skateboard and an old saucepan to transport Yonas, quite a beefy child, to the market and back. However, when Zain could no longer cope looking after his young charge, circumstances took him back to his parent’s home. What happened next led him to the film’s opening courtroom scene and the reason why the boy is under arrest.
When interviewed about the film’s script, Labaki says that Zain is representative of many undocumented children in Lebanon. From an early age he is treated as a lackey, denied an education, and made to work a variety of odd jobs. He also has to assist his mother Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) in smuggling opioids into prison where an older brother can make a living by selling them on. The family live in a tiny, run-down flat where they all sleep together on mattresses on the floor and food is scarce. In short, his young life has been nothing but ‘chaos’, as Labaki shows (Christopher Aoun’s hand-held camera adds to this sense of chaos, by getting into the thick of the claustrophobic interior and street scenes). The adults, too, face terrible situations on a daily basis, avoiding the authorities while trying to find work and feed their families. She states that nothing in Capharnaüm is made up, except the courtroom drama because a child could never put forward such a case without the endorsement of his parents. Catch 22! She used the device as a way of drawing the various strands of the story into a manageable drama. The performances by all the amateur actors are staggering because they are drawing on events from their own lives to portray their roles. The face and eyes of the young Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea, in particular, tell you that here is a boy who has experienced much more that any child should. Labaki explains, “I think it would have been impossible for actors to portray people with such heavy baggage, who are living in a hell. In fact I wanted my film to get under the skin of my characters rather than the other way around.”
In making a neo-realist film that recognises the desperate situation facing refugees, the director of Caramel and Where Do We Go Now? hopes that, “…if I’m able to just make you look at a kid begging on the street in a different way, I’m happy.” Capharnaüm is an amazing film on so many levels - it opens the door to compassion and understanding in a judgmental world. While it may not win the Oscar (it’s a highly competitive field), this is a film that deserves to be seen far and wide.