One of the more powerful films to emerge from the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum follows a few months in the life of Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a twelve-year old boy living and surviving in the slums of Beirut. The film opens with a framing narrative, in which Zain is suing his parents, Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef), both for their negligence as parents, and for having given birth to him in the first place. Through a series of flashbacks that comprise the majority of the film, we are then led through the events that brought Zain’s family to this impasse. First, an immersive and ambient segment submerges us in Zain’s daily life, as he scrounges for money by selling pharmaceutical pills and fruit cocktails on the streets around his home. Gradually, it becomes clear that the defining relationship in his life is with his younger sister, Sahar (Cedra Izam). Since his parents have so many children, and virtually no money, they are unable to look after any of them in any real way, forcing Zain to take Sahar under his wing.
After a while, however, it emerges that his family are planning to sell Sahar, who is twelve, to the landlord of their apartment, who is in his twenties, and who employs Zain on a part-time basis in his convenience store. As much as Zain might rail against this decision, he arrives home one day to find that Sahar has simply gone, and that a flock of chickens has been left in exchange for her. Unable to stomach his disgust with his parents any longer, he takes to the streets, and moves from one transitory situation to the next, before ending up at a local fairground, where he is taken in by Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal Ethopian immigrant and single mother who is working at the fairground in order to support her son Yordanos. Despite the fact that Rahil and Yordanos live in slum conditions, they also take in Zain, who is forced to care for Yordanos when Rahil simply fails to return home after work one day. Although she has been detained by immigration officials, Zain has no way of knowing this, and is once again forced to play the role of parent, this time to Yordanos, while Rahil languishes in custody, unable to make any contact with Zain or her employers.
The crisis of the film comes when Assad (Nour el Husseini), one of Rahil’s associates, offers to take care of both Zain and Yordanos – he actually plans to sell them on the black market – if Zain is able to get his identity papers. Upon arriving home, Zain discovers that Sahar has died in childbirth, and promptly sets out to murder her husband for revenge. While he only stabs him, the crime is serious enough to land him in prison for five years, where he contacts a radio presenter with the novel request to sue his parents, and then finds himself at the centre of a media furore, as a public prosecutor, played by Labaki herself, takes on his case free of charge. In these later stages, Capernaum never comes to any definite conclusion about Zain, his family, or the best way to solve the situation. Instead, the questions that it raises remain open as questions, much as the import of Zain’s situation remains open as a challenge to conventional narratives about the Middle East – especially those made for Western audiences – with the final shot freezing his first smile in the film, albeit a smile only put on at the request of the photographer preparing a new identity card.
That refusal to provide a comforting critical distance percolates the style of the film as well, which is extremely immersive without ever making the audience feel anchored or oriented in the world it is describing. Time and again, Labaki immerses us in the experience of homelessness – not just in the sense of characters without a literal home, but in her vision of a cityscape where the very idea of home is impossible to conceptualise for those living beneath the poverty level. With virtually every frame cluttered with chaotic configurations of people and objects, and most of the sequences shot from Zain’s low vantage point, no space ever feels truly private, and no space ever feels truly static or stable. As the action proceeds, it takes us through a series of increasingly precarious footholds on the urban texture, until it feels as if Zain is navigating and occupying narrower and narrower precipices in his passage through Beirut, culminating with the small highway shoulder that he trudges down every day, Yordanos in tow, to try his luck at the tent market close to the fairground.
While the film may begin with a series of drone shots, and occasionally revert to drone shots as it proceeds, these are always too anchored in the city to feel properly aerial, or to provide the audience with any illusion of detachment or objectivity. In fact, the drone shots do more to capture the impossibility of extricating ourselves from this miasma, always stopping just shot of an omniscient vantage point, or bleeding into the next shot before they can stabilise into a stately position of surveillance. From the air, Beirut seems even more occluded, fragmented, labyrinthine and honeycombed than it does on the ground, as evinced in a lyrical sequence that explores Zain’s first experience of the fairground, which tends to play as an intensified version of the city in which it is embedded. Riding the ferris wheel before anything else, he briefly glimpses the city from the air, but the camera quickly reverts to the perspective from the carriage as it descends back into the bowels of the ride, tightening its proximity to Zain in the process, until the whole point of the ascent simply seems to have been to clarify just how quickly the camera is dragged back into the miasma.
So compelling is the pull of the city, above and beyond any narrative exigency, that the film often spirals out into freeform ambient segments in which the impossibility of extrapolating a coherent narrative from the streets and the impossibility of extrapolating a coherent sense of private space start to feel like one and the same thing. That freeform quality is clearest in the second act, when Rahil has been detained, and Zain is forced to care for Yordanos, taking us further from adults than at any point in the film, embedding us deep in the world of street children. During these scenes, Capernaum plays more as a documentary than a work of fiction, so it’s perhaps not surprising that Labaki plays Zain’s lawyer, the judge is played by a retired judge, and Zain Al Rafeea is an actual refugee himself, having arrived in Lebanon from Syria when he was eight. That documentary element crystallises during the courtroom scenes, which strenuously advocate for a radical break with the Lebanese past, and with the role that tradition plays in Lebanese culture. In their own ways, both of Zain’s parents take this position – Selim by blaming the connections between pride and fertility in Lebanese culture, and Souad by refusing to allow others to judge her because they can’t conceive what she has had to sacrifice to the tasks demanded of her as a mother.
Yet even Selim and Souad’s protestations are undercut by Zain’s brutal challenges to their parenthood, and to the role played by parenthood in Lebanese culture itself. When asked about his grievances, he simply replies that “I’m sick of parents who can’t take care of their kids,” and when asked “What do you want from your parents?” he responds that “I want them to stop having children.” In a more conventional film, the innocence of childhood might be taken as a reproach to the system, and a reminder of the right way to act, but in Labaki’s hands it is the rhetoric of reproductive futurity itself that is the real problem with the situation she is describing – the idea that invoking parenthood, as Zain’s parents do, can justify anything, as Zain’s parents appear to believe that it can. What Zain is resisting is not simply the mistreatment of children, but the figurative burden placed on childhood innocence to solve societal problems, or to act as a horizon of representation around which those problems can be ignored, repressed or massaged into a more sentimental narrative.
For all that the film might resemble these more sentimental exercises on the surface, then, Labaki seems intensely aware that this sentimental burden placed upon children is exactly the problem that is taking place in the world she describes – a problem that films catering to Western audiences often perpetuate as much as they properly address. After all, the way that Zain’s parents market Sahar to her twenty-something spouse is eerily similar to the way films market children to adults – by infantilizing her, covering her in makeup until she becomes a kitsch simulation of an adult, only for her family to discover, in the most traumatic way, that she is not yet able to inhabit adulthood. By contrast, Zain, and the other children in the film, are never beatified as innocent, but for that very reason never simply presented as miniature adults either. Instead, Labaki evokes childhood as an emergent state, shot through with a dispersed and diffuse perception, but also capable of remarkably focused moments of survival and self-sufficiency. In effect, Capernaum argues for a more documentary, matter-of-fact attention to the lived experience of children in Beirut, rather than yet another film that luxuriates in their innocence at the expense of their actual lives.
For that reason, Zain achieves a presence and intensity that few children in Western cinema, or made for a Western audience, ever attain. While the film is pretty long and packed with small quotidian details – the original cut was reputedly close to twelve hours – it works perfectly to capture the scale and breadth of Zain’s character, his independence, but also his need for someone or something reliable to be dependent upon. The brilliance of this combination is that it can present children as protecting other children from adults, taking on the role of adults, and even achieving independence from adults in certain situations, but without ever being simply cast in the role of “little adults” themselves, with all the kitsch paraphernalia that goes along with that. The result is one of the most striking performances from a child actor that I have ever seen, along with one of the most deftly directed performances from a child actor, easily on a par with the great childhood roles provided by the neorealists. While Marcello Fonte’s role in Dogman can’t be faulted, and Capernaum may have received the Jury Prize, it’s hard not to feel that Al Rafeea deserved the Best Actor prize at Cannes this year, since his performance is one of the most different, unusual and sustained to come out of the festival in some years, and one of the most brilliantly directed.