The Oscar-nominated director is forever changed after making her tough hybrid fiction film about life on the streets for world weary Syrian refugee children.
8 Feb 2019 - 4:21 PM  UPDATED 5 Mar 2021 - 1:06 PM

Capernaum releases into Australian cinemas as a 2019 foreign language Oscar nominee. The film earned plaudits at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival for its spare storytelling of the hard luck life of Zain, a fiery Syrian refugee whose enormous eyes have seen too much sadness. After being jailed for committing a violent crime, Zain sues his parents for giving him life and condemning him to his sorry fate. Zain’s large family live hand to mouth in a squalid apartment in Lebanon. The kids work instead of going to school. When Zain’s 11 year old sister is sold into marriage, he flees the family home in search of a better life. He is taken in and lovingly cared for by an illegal Ethiopian worker, Rahil, who lives in a shanty house with her baby. But when Rahil disappears, Zain is suddenly left to fend for himself and her baby, resorting to increasingly desperate measures to survive.

Director Nadine Labaki (Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?) talks about the process of casting non-professional actors from displaced backgrounds similar to their characters, and the impact this film has had upon her own life. 

Hello Nadine? Wonderful to talk to you. Thank you for your time.

Yes, Hi! How are you?

Very well. Congratulations on the film, it's really something special.

Thank you.

I can't imagine what it's like to make a film like this and have it out in the world. What kind of impact has it had on you personally, to make such a personal film?

It was a life changing experience to tell you the truth. I'm actually changed after this film. Honestly.

We are working with people who are facing these struggles in their life, so it was, in a way it wasn't a film. In a way it was more immersing in a dangerous reality, so the people in the story, in the struggle, can have the vehicle or the platform for them to express themselves. And when you live so closely with this hardship and this struggle, and this marginalisation and this deprivation, it changes you. It's now you're not the same person anymore. You can't deal with life the same way anymore.

Obviously with the film, we had a very solid script that was written in parallel with all the research we had done, but in the meantime, we worked a lot and we adopted the script to the personalities [of the real-life cast] themselves. To their characters, who they are, to their own struggle.

I can only imagine what that must be like. Especially when you're talking about- and dealing with- the experiences of children.

Exactly. When you know those children are having that same struggle in their real life. And you know with Zain, outside of the film we were always very, very scared that something would happen to him. Because, Zain was a Syrian refugee living in a lot of those slums that you see in the film, and he was six.

The only difference is that he had good parents. He has loving parents but they couldn't give him much, so Zain grew up on the streets, he didn't go to school and all that. So you can imagine also the circumstances he grew up in and the hardship that he's seen. Working him everyday knowing that he's gonna go back to his life or, every day after the shoot he's going to somewhere very difficult. And same applies to (baby) Yoras. Yoras is actually a girl in real life where her name is Treasure.

Oh, really?

Yes, Treasure is the daughter of two migrant workers who used to live in Lebanon illegally with no papers, and they didn't have the right. Like just like in the film, they didn't have the right to have a child, so she was an illegal child. So, also non-existent, also doesn't have the right to anything and she was living in a precarious situation all the time.

When you know all of that, obviously it's very fragile. Everything you are doing is very fragile, you don't know if they're gonna come to the shoot the next day in a way, and lots of things happened, like Rahil got arrested also in real life after we shot those scenes where she gets arrested. She got arrested two days later, and the parents of Treasure also they get arrested and we had to take care of Treasure. And the casting director raised her in her own house for a few weeks. It was always like that, so it does change you.

Well, when you put it like that! Of course it would. And with Zain, yes, he is playing a character but also, how did you know what kind of conversations to have with him as the director, given he probably knows the subject better than you!

Ah, Zain. Because he's lived like this, he knows about everything we're talking about and in a way he felt that he was becoming a voice. He was becoming the voice of those voiceless kids. So he felt this mission in a way, he felt responsibility, he wanted to tell that story. He knew that he needed to do it. So we were collaborating on the script, and this felt very natural to both of us. It felt like you know, "I'm going through this, I know what we're talking about, and I need to tell that story for those kids that I see every day.”

You know, he knows a neighbour that's been married at 11 years old, he knows kids that are beaten up everyday by their parents, or kids that are homeless, or kids that work all day to feed their families, or kids that have been raped, kids that have been abused. He knows that he has been abused every single day of his life on the streets, mistreated. You know, treated like trash, he's been struggling to survive in the streets every single day of his life, so he knows. He knows what we are talking about. You don't need to tell him all that.

Yeah, for sure.

Your film is about the experience of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but the way we treat our most vulnerable is a global issue. I'm an Australian, and of course we have the same debates about the ethics versus the politics of helping refugees. What's your hope about how people can respond to the film?

For me the most important thing now is for this film to trigger a discussion. To trigger debate, and that's what the film is really doing. People come out of it, they are completely shaken, they are trembling, they are crying, they can't talk. So the aim is really for this film to start a discussion, and to change a certain perspective. And it can, because the main hero of it is not playing the part of a Syrian refugee, but he is a Syrian refugee. And then you look at this child and see the potential he has, how clever, and how wise, and how amazing, and resilient, and resourceful. You can't have that same look anymore, it's not a problem that you hear about in the news through figures and numbers, and that it's scaring you anymore. It's taking the face of a child and you see it, and you see the struggle, and you understand it, and you understand him, and you identify with him.

So it does change the perspective in a way. Even if you don't want to admit it sometimes, it changes. It's changing people, this child is changing people's perspectives. And that's what ... this is the aim. This is a human problem, it's a humanitarian problem. It's not ... I mean, those people are fleeing a war. They are trying to survive, they are not invading another country. They are just looking for safety.

In Lebanon, we've hosted over a million and a half refugees, and it's not only the problem of you know that unfortunately, that neighbouring countries who are most of the times involved sixty percent of refugees are now hosted by only ten countries. This is a shared responsibility. You know the declaration of refugees, the New York Declaration for Refugees, in that declaration there's a 193 state members that have agreed, this is going to be and this should be a shared responsibility. But where is it, we don't hear it. I mean, something needs to be changed, it's not ... it's only human I think.

You don't skimp on showing the poverty and despair, but you also take pains to show that people can't win in this kind of rigged system. It's not that Zain's parents are inherently bad people. We don’t see how they might act if they had the means to even make a choice to provide for their kids.

 Yeah, they are victims also.

Yeah, absolutely. How did you approach the decision whether to depict individuals in a judgemental way?

I was in that situation so many times, during this research, sometimes I was judgemental, unfortunately. Because sometimes I used to go in places where I used to find there's an extreme neglect. Kids who are left alone all the day, or who are cold without anybody taking care of them, or hungry. We are talking about children who were very very young you know. Three years old, four years old, five years old, taking care of each other as brothers and sisters without anybody taking care of them.

So of course I was judgemental, and first thing that comes to my mind is, "Where is the mother? Why is she so neglecting? How can she leave her kids this way in those situations?" And you can't help but compare yourself as a mother, I was thinking I'm a better mum or I don't know. And I used to wait for the mother because I want to give her a piece of my mind, and tell her that's not the way it goes and blah blah blah. But when she used to come and we sit down and we start talking, 15 minutes into the conversation, everything I know and all the values and every judgemental thought I had would be ... everything would be put into consideration.

I mean, I was changed and came back to my core because I just woke up every time that I am not in that situation, I cannot judge. I've never been hungry. I've never been deprived. I've never been displaced. I've never had to sell my daughter who is eleven years old to a man because I think she's going to be better off there, because I can't feed her in my home, because I need to feed my other children. So I know that I cannot judge. So that's why it was important for me. It's not in black and white, sometimes I was hating the parents, but sometimes I was loving them. You can't be in one position, it's impossible.

Of course, you know that they have some responsibility, but it's not only their responsibility, they are victims of a system that is not even allowing them to breathe. They are victims of deprivation and poverty, and marginalization, and no education, and so you can't really judge them. And it was important for me to calculate in the film.

That's why you have those scenes in the court where the parents express themselves. They are not scripted moments, they are moments where I told the parents, "Now you forget everything, this is your first time and maybe your last time. Your one time chance to be standing in a courtroom, in front of a real judge." Because the judge is a real judge. And you have to express everything you are feeling towards that society that is putting you in this situation. And they spoke. Each one of them spoke for two hours, and I kept those moments that you see on film.

Those scenes are incredible. They give it their all. Also, you could have taken away the subtitles and you'd know the essence of what they are saying

Yeah, you get the point.

Well I mean, I guess I have to ask, where do you go from here, now that this film profoundly changed you? What kind of stories are you looking to make now that you've had this experience?

You know it's very difficult to let go ... it's very difficult to let go of this film, because there's many things that we still need to do with the kids that were in the film. Now everybody's at school, I'm really happy with that. Zain is in Norway because he's a refugee in Norway with all his family now. And  he's going to school also, so it's ... There's a lot to do after the film. That's why it's difficult to let go in a way.

I haven't really thought about the next project, and now we are doing a documentary about Zain and about the kids, and what happened to them, and how ... If this film could actually trigger a certain change underground which after the whole tour ... promotion tour is over, we can start work with the government and certain NGOs that work with children's rights. So, we are ... I think in the next year we are going to be very busy doing that, and then we'll see what can happen.

Well it’s a credit to you that you’re seeing this through. It would be great to connect back with you to talk about your progress.

Thank you. Thank you so much, yes.



Watch 'Capernaüm'

Sunday 14 March, 8:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Monday 15 March, 2:05am & 11:35pm on SBS World Movies

Lebanon, 2018
Genre: Drama
Language: Arabic
Director: Nadine Labaki
Starring: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Nadine Labaki

I thought I was strong, but ‘Capharnaüm’ tore me apart
And I can’t stop thinking about it.

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