At the center of Capernaum, the latest film from Lebanese writer/director (and actor) Nadine Labaki (Where Do We Go Now?, Caramel), is one of the year’s best performances, and it’s delivered by someone who isn’t even a teenager yet. Zain Al Rafeea is himself a Syrian refugee who was living in Lebanon with his family when, barely over the age of 12, he was cast in Labaki’s powerful story of a young boy suing his parents for ever giving him life in the first place.
Filmed over several years on the streets and in the poorest corners of Beruit, Capernaum—and Al Rafeea’s gut-wrenching performance—will likely ruin you for at least the duration of the film, if not long after. A ruin that, as Labaki so skillfully transports us into the daily life of a child scraping by in a country that doesn’t want him, will both change the way you think about the global refugee crisis and hopefully motivate you to do some small thing about it.
Built around the framework of Zain’s suit against his parents in court, we learn early on in the film that the child is in custody for a violent act, that he’s been detained following something we only learn about later, an act of outrage that’s nonetheless ever so slightly admirable in its motivations. The rest of the runtime is devoted to understanding just how Zain got to this point, how a child at such a young age could be so traumatized as to not even blink as he renounces his parents for ever giving birth to him and his siblings. Why create new life if there was never an intention to care for it, protect it, love it at all?
After a tumultuous fight with his parents over the fate of his younger sister, Zain leaves home entirely, determined to make it on his own rather than be a part of their backwards, unloving ways. He’s a hustler who looks more like an eight-year-old than a preteen, making his self-reliance all the more incredible as he finds odd jobs here and there, earning enough to eat something each day. Eventually he meets Rahil, a young African refugee (Yordanos Shiferaw) and Yonas, her toddler son (played by a young girl, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). Rahil agrees to take him in, in exchange for childcare while she works off-the-books to earn enough cash for counterfeit papers.
American audiences have no barometer against which to measure the depth of poverty in which Zain, Rahil and Yonas live. Home is a shack in a slum that sometimes has electricity, and clean water only when it rains. When Rahil doesn’t return from work one day (she’s been arrested for being in the country illegally), Zain doesn’t skip a beat: he’s now the man of the house, and must provide for and protect Yonas in ways he can only know instinctively. His parents certainly never set such an example. At every turn, he channels a resourcefulness that is both impressive and devastating, leaving us to both cheer these two children on as they make their way through the world and ache to reach through the screen and hug them fiercely, reassuring them that everything will be OK.
It’s their youth that becomes the most poignant aspect of a remarkably moving film; Labaki could have easily chosen older children, a teenager and a pre-teen, for example. While that might have made the film easier to watch for our sensitive first-world eyes, it would have ruined its overall impact. The truth is, it’s children Zain’s age who are orphaned by wars and genocides, left to fend for themselves in refugee camps and cities, without papers or relatives to tell anyone who they are. And Yonas’s complete dependency on others—in this case a boy only a handful of years older than him—puts the imperative of their survival in stark relief.
Capernaum will no doubt be difficult for some to watch at all, as Labaki and cinematographer Christopher Aoun take a no-holds-barred approach to immersing us in Zain’s rough and tumble world of poverty, predators, hustlers and meaningless, frustrating bureaucracy (where are the agencies equipped to serve these people?!). However, with a much-deserved nomination for a Golden Globe (Best Foreign Film) and a spot on the shortlist for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, it is easily one of the best films of the year, essential to anyone seeking a better understanding of the world around us and the ways the most vulnerable among us are forced to navigate it.
[Of note, following the production and release of Capernaum, Al Rafeea and his family were resettled in Norway by the UNHRC, where he’s going to school and building a new life. And though Treasure and her mother, both illegal refugees in Lebanon from Kenya, were sent back to that country, Labaki and the UNHRC have ensured they are receiving both an education and health care back at home.]
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