Film & Television

‘Capernaum’: Sheer Heartbreak
in the Streets of Beirut

The veracity of Capernaum is one of its most powerful elements. Labaki spent six months filming on the streets of Beirut with as small a crew as she could get away with. At times, in a crowded market for example, real life interfered with her shoot and ended up in the movie as customers bought items from one of the actors in between his scripted dialogue. But what gives Capernaum its heart is Labaki’s extraordinary casting. Virtually all of her main characters are played by people she found on the street.

A beautiful young boy named Zain Al Rafeea plays the movie’s protagonist Zain. Al Rafeea was a Syrian refugee facing many of the challenges of his onscreen persona. It is remarkable how he carries the movie with such truth and anger and grace. Yordanos Shiferaw, the young Eritrean woman who plays Rahil, was actually working in Beirut without papers, and in a freakish example of real life resembling art, was arrested during the filming. Labaki had to bail her out of jail. The parents of Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, the baby girl who played baby boy Yonas, were also detained at one point and the toddler had to live with the crew until Labaki could get the couple released.

Perhaps most poignant of all, Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam, the lovely young girl who plays doomed child-bride Sahar, was found selling Chicklets to passing cars on the street. As Labaki remembers, the casting directors “found her and she came to the office  . . . and as soon as I saw her, I knew the sadness in her eyes was something that was unbearable to watch. She has such wisdom towards what’s happening to her in real life, so it’s as if you can’t escape it, and I knew that she should be Sahar.”

Clearly a labor of love as well as a magnificent piece of art, Capernaum was a difficult project. Filming real-life as well as scripted material, Labaki ended up with 500 hours of footage. Her husband, the film’s composer and producer Khaled Mouzanar, mortgaged their home without letting Labaki know in order to keep the production going. But the rewards have been extraordinary.

Capernaum won the Jury Prize at Cannes and received a 15-minute standing ovation. It is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in the upcoming Academy Awards (notably, Labaki is the only woman director who is nominated for a feature film).

Perhaps more importantly, or at least closer to Labaki’s heart, Capernaum was able to make a difference for some of the people who made her movie so very powerful. She sponsored Shiferaw so the woman can stay in Lebanon. She was able to work with the U.N.’s Refugee Agency to help Al Rafeea, Izzam, and their families. And, after she filmed in a garage that had been turned into a makeshift and overcrowded prison, the city elected to close it.

Capernaum is at times difficult to watch, but it bears witness to the near-hopeless lives of so many of the world’s children: homeless, hungry, and undocumented. Feeling helpless in the face of such despair, we turn away too often. In her unforgettable film, Labaki challenges all of us to stop and really see them.

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