‘Capharnaüm’: giving voice to the voiceless

By Rebecca Harkins-Cross
Nadine Labaki on what motivated her exploration of turmoil’s impact on children

Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) and Zain (Zain al Raffa) in Capharnaüm

At first glance, he looks like he’s sleeping. A toddler who’s expended the last of his energy in a tantrum and flopped into deep slumber where he fell. Then you notice he’s prostrate on a beach, ripples lapping at his bloodless limbs.

Three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach became one of the defining images of the refugee crisis in 2015. The Syrian child, who drowned during his family’s passage to seek asylum, became the Syrian conflict’s Afghan Girl – the iconic portrait of steely-eyed teenager Sharbat Gula, snapped in a Pakistani refugee camp in 1984 – or “Napalm girl” Phan Thi Kim Phúc, the nine-year-old running naked down a rural road in South Vietnam in 1972 after her clothes had been burned off in yet another bombing.

Lurid, certainly, but difficult to ignore. Images of childhood innocence sacrificed in adult wars have the power to disrupt the news cycle’s unrelenting barrage, to rupture the bulwarks we’ve erected to inure ourselves against others’ suffering.

Kurdi’s story planted the seeds of Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third feature, Capharnaüm, a neorealist morality play in which the lost generation roaming Beirut’s slums literally puts the grown-up world on trial. “I thought, if this boy could talk, what would he say? What would he tell the world? What was he thinking when he fell in the water and started struggling with the waves?” says Labaki. “What did he think of us, the adults who put him in this situation? Did he know, when he was in this boat going to an unknown destination, where he was going? What were his dreams?”

Labaki looked for answers through an extensive research process, interviewing people across Beirut’s most disenfranchised neighbourhoods, before moving into prisons, detention centres and courts. The film is shot in real locations, using non-professional actors whose lives informed those of the characters.

“Some of these children, when I talk to them, they tell me, ‘I don’t want to be here. I don’t belong in your world. You don’t deserve me. I don’t know why I am born. I don’t know why they give me life if nobody is going to love me or treat me right or say a nice word to me.’ These children can’t be paying that much of a high price.”

Capharnaüm begins with Zain (Zain al Raffa), an undocumented Lebanese child whom a doctor estimates is 12-years-old, facing his family across a courtroom. “Why do you want to sue your parents?” asks the judge. “Because I was born,” he replies. That a boy who’s been tossed into prison like a man would be bestowed such legal redress is the one fantastical element in an impossibly bleak milieu. What seems like a deus ex machina for Zain, with Labaki herself playing his lawyer, allows the characters (and the actors) a public forum to voice the horrors inflicted on them.

When Labaki began researching, she found herself struggling against her own censorious instincts. “I saw children in a very, very, very bad state of neglect, the worst you can imagine: kids who are left alone all day in the house, kids who are cold, kids who are hungry … The first reaction that you have as a woman and as a mother is thinking, ‘How can she do this? Why does she do this?’” This soon changed when she heard the reality of these women’s lives.

In courtroom scenes she told the actors, “I’m not the director, I’m not Nadine Labaki. I am just the society that judges you. Just look at me and speak out everything you think about me and everything you feel and everything you’ve been through.” In an affecting moment Zain’s father implores, “If I had the chance I’d be a better man than all of you.”

Using handheld cameras, we see the streets from Zain’s point of view, moving with a kinetic energy through crumbling districts. Labaki finds a certain poetry in the geometry of abandoned apartment blocks or aerial shots of the haphazard cityscape. But unlike the fairytale of Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which imbued Mumbai’s slums with a troubling romance, this is a wretched world.

While other kids board the bus to school, Zain does grunt work at a local grocery store, peddles juice at night, and helps his mother with an elaborate scheme to sneak painkillers to prison inmates. Danger is casual and ubiquitous: strangers try to lure him into dark alleys, his boss grooms his blooming sister, Sahar (Haita “Cedra” Izam), and his mother, Souad (Kawthar al Haddad Bankole), uses slaps to communicate. Across a six-month shoot, the actors’ stories continued to feed into the evolving narrative.

This naturalistic aesthetic is a new approach for Labaki, whose previous two films, Caramel (2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (2011), deliver their politics through airy and colourful comedy. “I knew from the start that I needed time and that we needed to be very free in the way that we shoot – that we can’t paralyse [the actors] in the classical way of making films by being restrained in time … We had very, very long takes … I didn’t really ask them to act, I just asked them to be who they are in a certain situation that we have created.”

While Zain’s story may seem unrelentingly bleak, Labaki says what she shows on-screen is a sanitised version of reality. “You don’t see rape scenes. You don’t see real abuse. You don’t see real hunger. The situation is much more unbearable than what you see in the film.”

Capharnaüm also insists that these issues transcend state lines, with the latest figures estimating 280 million children around the world live in poverty. Zain and his siblings were born in Lebanon, but their lack of paperwork renders them officially non-existent; their parents didn’t have the money to purchase birth certificates. Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian migrant, has her visa cancelled after she leaves an abusive employer, and she must hide her baby son for fear he’ll be taken away. Life actually seems better for Syrian refugees, who at least have access to aid services.

During the shoot, Shiferaw was arrested as an illegal immigrant and detained. Considering how dangerous it is to be undocumented, it’s perhaps surprising how willing Labaki’s subjects were to open up. “People want to talk about their case, people want to share their struggle, their suffering … Every one of the actors felt that they were part of this mission. They felt that they needed to talk about it, they needed to put the problem out there.” With the assistance of organisations like UNICEF and the UNHCR, Labaki helped to remedy their legal status, and some were resettled abroad.

Like the photographs of Alan Kurdi, Capharnaüm’s recent Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film may open more eyes yet. “I want it to become a call for action,” says Labaki. That the film opens in Australia in the same week that the final four asylum-seeker children on Nauru prepare to fly to the United States for resettlement is a timely reminder that this story continues to unfold beyond the frame.

In the film’s final moments Zain stares directly into the camera to meet the viewers’ gaze, insisting that whoever looks back remembers his plight.


Capharnaüm is in cinemas now.

Rebecca Harkins-Cross

Rebecca Harkins-Cross is a writer and cultural critic. She has received several awards from the Australian Film Critics Association.

Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) and Zain (Zain al Raffa) in Capharnaüm

Read on

Image of Scott Morrison

A Pentecostal PM and climate change

Does a belief in the End Times inform Scott Morrison’s response to the bushfire crisis?

Image of Scott Morrison

A national disaster

On the PM’s catastrophically inept response to Australia’s unprecedented bushfires

Image from ‘The Truth’

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ‘The Truth’

The Palme D’Or winner on working with the iconic Catherine Deneuve in his first film set outside Japan

Image from ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Four seasons in 11 days: ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Céline Sciamma’s impeccable study of desire and freedom is a slow burn