Director Nadine Labaki’s previous movies, Caramel and Where Do We Go Now?, were warm portrayals of female solidarity. Capernaum (Chaos) is another story entirely, one that tackles more difficult themes and would seem exaggerated were it not based on disturbing reality. Those themes are urban poverty, illegal immigration and, in particular, the plight of children caught in this poverty, in this case, in Beirut.
The film has won audience awards at film festivals in Canada, United States, Belgium, Norway, Brazil and Bosnia.
Zain (played by Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea) is a roughly 12-year-old boy (he doesn’t have a birth certificate because his parents couldn’t afford the fee), who considers himself the protector of his 11-year-old sister, Sahar (played by another Syrian refugee, Cedra Izzam). When their parents sell Sahar to the local convenience store owner despite Zain’s desperate pleas, Zain runs away. Eventually he is taken in by Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), a kindly undocumented Eritrean worker, who lives in a shantytown with her one-year-old son, Yonas. Yonas, by the way, is played by an adorable girl, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole. Zain babysits for Yonas while Rahil is at work. But one day, Rahil does not return because she has been arrested by immigration authorities.
Zain now finds himself responsible for Yonas. Having lost his eleven-year-old sister to a sick lecher, he now uses all of his street smarts to take care of a one-year-old child, even though he, himself, is only twelve.
Labaki, upset by the plight of impoverished children in her country, spent three years researching the subject, including interviewing children at detention centers and on the street and visiting juvenile courts. Then, over a six-month period, she took 520 hours of footage. During the filming, the real parents of Boluwatife Treasure Bankole were temporarily deported. Imagine a country that separates children from their parents. Oh wait. Lebanon is not alone in pursuing this policy.
It is not surprising that much of Capernaum feels like a documentary. Al Rafeea had been working as a delivery boy since the age of ten when Labaki found him, and Izzam was selling chewing gum on the street. At a press conference during the Cannes Film Festival, Shiferaw told of being arrested during the filming and spending two weeks in jail before Labaki and her team were able to get her released and begin filming her scenes again. Said Shiferaw, “Capernaum is not a film, it’s a truth, mine, and I’m grateful to have unveiled it. The hardest part for me was when we filmed the scenes in prison because my girlfriends were actually detained.”
Unfortunately, this sense of realism is broken by a framing device that Labaki uses to open and close the film. Zain, who has been imprisoned for a violent crime, is suing his parents for giving birth to him. This gives the characters the opportunity to make a series of polemical statements, the most interesting of which is one by his mother justifying her actions. However, the main purpose of these awkward scenes appears to be to create a clip or two to use in the film’s trailer and promotional material.