Nadine Labaki discusses Capernaum, an unflinching look at the poverty and injustice in the slums of Beirut told through the eyes of a child suing his parents for giving him life.
Lebanese director, writer, and actress Nadine Labaki returns with her third and most ambitious film to date. Capernaum follows Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a 12-year-old boy living in Beirut, Lebanon, in conditions so difficult that he decides to sue his parents for giving him life. Told largely through flashbacks while Zain is in prison for a violent crime he has committed, the film follows his efforts to stay alive after he runs away from his violent home. As he meets people just as desperate as he is, some of whom try to take advantage of him, the film does not romanticise a life on the edge of society the way that so many “poverty porn” films do. Based on Labaki’s research into the real living conditions in Beirut’s slums, the unflinching film uses the lens of one child’s specific experience to remind us of the humanity of the people living in such conditions.
I interviewed Labaki in Toronto about the genesis of the project, the difficult moral position the film puts us in, the lengthy shooting and editing processes, and her work with non-actors.
Seventh Row (7R): Why did you choose to focus on a child’s experience?
Nadine Labaki (NL): For me, it was the sight of all the kids on the streets lately because of the refugee crisis around the world. I think it’s a sight that everybody is moved by; I’m not the only one to be moved by it, to be angry with the situation. I just don’t comprehend how we got to the point where we allow this injustice to happen to these kids that didn’t ask to be here. They just pay the price of our mistakes, our wars, our stupid decisions, our malfunctions. It was just wanting to turn this anger into something, or maybe try to understand more.
I started with wanting to know what happens when this kid disappears around the corner, and I don’t see him. Where does he go? How does he think? What goes on in his head? Because we tend to dehumanise those kids. For us, they’re just part of a system, and some people say, “You shouldn’t give them money because you’re encouraging the system, or you’re encouraging some kind of traffic,” or whatever. But we’re not thinking about this particular kid who is standing in front of our window, waiting for money. We don’t understand that the earlier you give him money or food, the earlier he’s going to go to sleep. I wanted to turn this anger toward this injustice into something, so I decided to use what I know, which is cinema. I started researching, wanting to know more about how it happens, and wanting to become their voice as much as I could.
I did a lot of research. I went to many places in Lebanon — difficult neighbourhoods, detention centers for minors, prisons for minors — talking to a lot of kids, understanding how it works and what their point of view on the situation is. Most of the time, at the end of the conversation, I would ask them, “are you happy to be alive?” Most of these kids would reply, “No. I don’t belong in your world. Why am I here? Why am I being punished? I didn’t do anything, I didn’t ask to be here. Why did my parents bring me to life if I’m going to suffer so much?” And then, the film became the story of this kid who’s going to sue his parents, and through suing his parents, he is suing the whole society.
7R: In the film, we follow this kid everywhere. When we see him in court, we understand why he is suing his parents. Yet, at the same time, it’s very hard for us to completely agree with him because we know that it’s not exactly the parents’ fault. How did you handle this nuance?
NL: I’m happy that you’re saying that, because it was very important for me to put you in that situation as a viewer. There’s no right or wrong: everybody is a victim of this system, whether it’s the parents or the kids. For me, it was very important that you feel a bit confused as to what kind of judgment you are putting on these parents. I was exactly in that same situation a lot of times, and I still am now. There’s no answer. Somebody told me, “Oh, you think it’s the parents’ fault!” Of course it’s not the parents’ fault!
Most of the time, when I was visiting houses or apartments, a three-year-old kid would open the door, then I’d go in, and there would be a four-year-old and a five-year-old left alone in the house, with nobody to take care of them. My first reaction was always anger, like, “where are the parents? Where is the mother? How can she leave them? How can she do that? Why does she have so many children?” You know, that’s our first reaction as a society. The judge and the court in the film are very symbolic — the court is us, and the judge is us judging them and reaching conclusions very quickly, thinking that we know what the solution is and who’s right or wrong.
But I would wait for the mother to return, and when she came back, it always took me just five or ten minutes to be completely blown away and ask myself, “How do I give myself the right to judge her?” It was like a blow, every time. I mean, who am I? I’ve never been in her shoes; I’ve never been in her situation — who am I to judge her? The court is very symbolic of that, too: at some point in the film, the mother looks at the character I play (Zain’s lawyer) and tells me, “You’ve never been in my shoes.” This moment is a way for me to portray what was happening to me in real life: at first, I was angry and judgmental, then five minutes later, I would be completely confused in my judgment. And I still am confused. There is no answer.
7R: How did you manage to capture such authentic performances from the children, but also from the actors playing the parents?
NL: They’re not actors, obviously. Each one is coming with their own experience, and all of them are almost living in the same situation. I had a problem with the word “acting.” I didn’t want them to act; I just wanted them to be. To be who they are, to bring their own experience, their own words, their own understanding of the story.
It was a very long process — we shot for six months, over 500 hours of rushes. The first draft of the film is 12 hours long. It started with a 12-hour-film! If someone came up to me and asked me what my recipe for this movie was, I would say my recipe was time. Just spending time with them. It was very important that we became invisible and that we just tried to observe them in the situation. Of course, I interfere in the scene; I talk a lot, and I tell them what to do… but I am also there at their service. It’s not the other way. It was impossible to tell Zain, “You should go from here to there, do that, say that word…” We had to adapt to their own rhythm.
I had such an amazing crew who knew how to be invisible and how to capture the moments; if you look at the making-of, it’s always like a choreography. It’s a dance. The cameras are always dancing around the actors so they capture each moment, with nothing to interfere with the actors’ movements. They were free to do whatever they wanted, and we would follow. There were takes of over one hour, ongoing and ongoing to capture the right moment.
You start with a scene and you see how it goes, and then you fix something, and then you shoot it again, and then you fix other things. There’s not one take that looks like the others; it’s impossible. It was very organic.
7R: Did you ever work like this before?
NL: It’s sort of my method, but in my previous two films, I didn’t go that far. This time, I went all the way!
7R: If you shot that many hours, I’m wondering if it was all scripted, or if you would, every day, try something else?
NL: Of course, there was a solid script, but I gave myself the freedom to sometimes drift from it. I was open to whatever life was going to give me. It was very important for me that we had a script, because we had to know where we were going — you can’t drag this whole crew with you to the unknown! We had to know where we were going.
But inside the scenes, there was a lot of freedom. I was just open. It’s a luxury, when you’ve written your own script, not to feel paralysed or scared of changing and doing something else. I wanted to give this freedom to my actors, so I didn’t really limit them in anything. They’re limited in the sense that, at the end, the scene has to deliver something specific. But what happens inside the scene was very free. There was never a script that they memorised or anything. I very rarely had the script with me.
7R: There’s a clear emotional arc in the film; everything follows what came before very precisely. Because you had so much footage, how did you manage to maintain a perspective on everything when you reached the editing stage? I imagine there were scenes you liked that had to end up on the cutting room floor.
NL: That’s the problem of my life! [laughs] That’s why my heart aches so much all the time. There’s so much that is still there, treasures that are there. The first draft was 12 hours, then I did a five-hour version, then a four-hour version, and I could feel that people were getting tired in the middle of it, so we needed to get to those two hours. But it took two years to get there. And it was a difficult two years.
It’s difficult to let go of certain scenes — you’re so attached to it because it’s so real! You don’t feel like, “OK, they’ve repeated this over and over again, and it’s fake.” You feel like you’re letting go of chunks of reality. But at some point, you have to do it. Maybe I will work on a different edit one day, do something different with it, because there’s still so much.