Capernaum captures the mean streets of Lebanon from the POV of children

Director Nadine Labaki on how location and casting make her Oscar-nominated film feel like a documentary.

Zain al Rafeea and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole in Capernaum

Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum opens with a 12-year-old boy (Zain al Rafeea) who has taken his parents to court; he is suing them for giving him life when it’s clear that they had no interest in doing what’s best for him or providing him with even the barest of necessities. From there, Capernaum backtracks to Zain’s life as a reluctant street urchin.

Growing up in a chaotic, violent household with parents who have little time to devote to their many children but seem to be committed to making more, Zain is mostly a pawn in his family’s illegal money-making ventures. After his beloved older sister is sold off to a much older man, Zain escapes and hides in an amusement park where he’s befriended by Rahil (Yordanos Chiferaw), an Ethiopian woman who works cleaning the park. Rahil is in Lebanon illegally, and she has a young son named Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) that she can hardly take care of while still working. Zain becomes a reluctant babysitter for the adorable Yonas, a role that takes on added importance when immigration services take Rahil into custody.

Though Capernaum is clearly a fictional story with written dialogue and blocked out scenes, shooting in the poorest and most population-dense areas of Lebanon immediately affords the film a documentary-like texture. What happens to Zain and Yonas might be make-believe, but what happens behind them isn’t. Without the luxury of closing down streets or hiring extras that can be directed, Labaki is left making cinema out of barely controlled chaos.

“There are advantages and there are disadvantages,” says Labaki. “Because we’re shooting in natural locations, real locations, with real people who each have their own struggle and their own story. I think being immersed in it is psychologically draining, because you’re almost shooting in a sewer! We’re talking about neighbourhoods and slums that don’t have the most basic sanitary conditions. No clean water, no electricity… nothing! You’re there with them shooting all day immersed in their surroundings and their lives and at the end of the day, you go back and you sleep in a warm bed. This was emotionally very difficult, I think, for everyone that was on the shoot — emotionally draining, because that guilty feeling never leaves you. It’s almost like you don’t have the right to go sleep in a bed.

“That was very difficult, but that was also the way we shot. There’s no actors, there’s no extras. We never really closed the roads or asked people to shut up or really stop what they were doing; we’d generally shoot with everything that was happening around us. In a way, you blend in so well; it was fascinating to see that sometimes people did not even notice. For example, in the scenes in the souk where the kids are talking to the vendor, we were shooting in a real souk with everybody there. Everyone was still walking in and out of the frame. Sometimes people would walk up and try to buy things from him while we were shooting! That was fascinating to see, and I think it was the most rewarding thing about shooting in those conditions. Sometimes, you need to blend in so well that people just live with us and don’t notice us anymore. I never really had to ask someone not to look in the camera.”

But Labaki was also surprised — and shocked —to see how certain scenes played out in that environment. In one scene, Zain decides to leave Yonas and hope that a grown-up will find him; the camera, appropriately, sits quite far from where the two of them are sitting on a sidewalk.

“People actually don’t look — they don’t see them,” she says. “It tells you so much about what we’ve become as human beings. How used to this we have become. It was very difficult, but it also allowed us to really capture reality. That was the intention, that’s why it feels like a documentary.”

Nadine Labaki

The vast majority of Capernaum’s cast is non-professionals. Labaki herself (who plays a lawyer in the wraparound sections of the film) is just about the only cast member with any acting experience. Consequently, Labaki hired actors whose real life stories matched those of the characters; al Rafeea really was an illiterate Syrian refugee when he was cast in the film.

“Zain fled the war in Syria when he was five or six years old,” she says. “He came to Lebanon and lived in a very poor neighbourhood — in one of the slums depicted in the film. He never went to school, he grew up in the streets and knows the violence of the street. He’s been also, I think, exposed to abuse and mistreatment… the only difference between the real Zain and the Zain in the film is that he has loving parents. Otherwise, everything he’s seeing and doing, he knows it. The same thing applies to Yonas — Yonas is actually a girl in real life, and she’s the daughter of two migrant workers living illegally in Lebanon. When she was born, she was also illegal — she wasn’t registered. She was a forbidden child, in a way. A non-existent child. The mother comes from those slums, the judge is a real judge. Everybody is playing their own role.

“The writing process was in parallel with the research process,” she continues. “We did four years of research and wrote the script according to what we saw in that research. Research means going to those places and spending time talking with children and their parents, going to court, watching the justice system work, going to police stations, going to NGOs that work with children, to prisons… I know every single problem depicted in the film and I’ve seen it from so many different angles. I’ve seen the failures of the system and it allowed me, really, to write this film. When that process was done, we started looking for the actors — before we even had the money we needed to start production. To me, it was important to know that if I didn’t find the actors, I was never going to do the film.”

Though Zain remains the revelation of Capernaum, I was perhaps even more struck by the “performance” of two-year-old Bankole in the film. She takes the centre stage as few essentially pre-verbal children are ever allowed to – or are capable of doing, for that matter. It’s a tricky thing to have a very young child on-screen this much — doubly so when you consider that, you know, babies grow.

“It’s why we shot chronologically,” she says. “We knew that. It’s half a year — half a year in a child’s life is too much! Treasure started walking during the shoot! At the end of the film, you can see she’s walking you can see her evolution, but also that Zain is growing and changing physically. Even the way he held Yonas is completely different from the beginning to the end. I made it a point that they don’t know each other well at the beginning of the film, and so they’re almost sniffing each other like wild animals at that point. (laughs) And then slowly, you see them become closer and closer. By the end of the shoot, Zain was really reacting to Treasure as if she were his own sister — and it’s the fact that we shot chronologically that helped us a lot.

“I think what you do is just direct organically, in a way,” she continues. “You cannot be very structured. You cannot be doing a film the way you’re used to. You have to be very free, you can’t be afraid. If it doesn’t happen today, it can happen tomorrow. If it doesn’t happen tomorrow, it could happen in two months. It’s about being aware of that. We would shoot certain reactions that were not supposed to be for that scene, but we’d film them because it would help us two days later. We’d have to be clever and know children well; I think the fact that my daughter was almost the same age as Treasure when we were shooting helped. I was breastfeeding at the time, and that put me in the same situation as Rahil, in a way. Viscerally, you know kids — you know how they’ll react, you know when they’re hungry, you know when they’re happy. You know all those emotions and all those reactions. And you’re working with nature — raw nature — that makes sense. Children are not formed or altered by society’s codes of conduct. They’re just raw. They make sense.” ■

Capernaum opens in theatres on Friday, Feb. 1. Watch the trailer here: