Anyone who watches Capernaum, will find it hard not to be changed or moved by what they see. Zain Al Rafeea is a 12-year-old tearaway delinquent who wants to sue his parents for bringing him into a world of struggle and tragedy. His existence is that of utmost poverty. Zain and his sister, even younger than he, work the streets for food and money. The film opens with him in court. When asked to say why he’s there, he replies, “Because I was born.” Director Nadine Labaki has earned a much deserved Oscar nomination in Foreign Language for this film that shines a light on the devastating look at impoverished children.
The remarkable film casts real-life homeless children in the role, Labaki says because how could any other real-life child actor understand what it’s like to go hungry. Al Rafeea’s performance is devastatingly good and revelation to watch as his instincts kick in and he does what he needs to do to survive.
Labaki and I catch up in Beverly Hills to discuss how Capernaum and its journey from inspiration to Oscar nomination have changed her, and the conversation she hopes this film will bring.
How has this film changed you from when you walked past the homeless of Lebanon to now, where the film is Oscar-nominated, Zain is now with his family in Norway?
It changed me profoundly. I used to feel helpless and that there was nothing I could do. I used to feel that it was a problem that I wasn’t entitled to think about. It’s like an abstract problem where it’s so big and you can’t do anything about it.
When I started feeling this urge. When you see children in trouble you can’t help but be shocked. I don’t know if I told you, I was coming home at 1 a.m. and I saw this boy sitting next to his mom by the traffic lights. It was between two highways and he was just sitting there on this tiny concrete block. He couldn’t sleep. He had to sleep sitting upright.
Human Rights and The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states that when a child is born he needs to have an identity, an education, love, and affection. This child had half a meter and that was his playground and the place he would sleep. He was deprived of that. It hit me and I started crying like a baby.
I went home and talked to the universe while I was showering. I asked it, “What do you want me to do? How can I change this? Give me the power to do something about it.”
It sounds naive but it was just like that. Ever since that day, I feel as if I’m being propelled by a train and nothing is stopping me.
After the shower, I went into bed and started drawing the face of a child who’s shouting at adults. I didn’t know where that drawing was going to lead me. I wrote “An angry child saying I don’t belong in this world.'” I forgot about it and I went off doing research and seeing those kids, I saw how angry they were.
This kid was in jail and he was waiting for his mother to call him. I asked him what would make him the happiest person in the world? He said, “Just to hear my mother’s voice.” I spoke to the social worker and she told me that every weekend he waits for his mother to call and she doesn’t call him. It’s as if she doesn’t exist and doesn’t want anything to do with him.
I asked him what his dreams were and he said, “Just to have a phone call with my mother.” Then he said, “I don’t even know why I was born. Why was I born if no one loves me or cares for me?” He was beaten up, raped, and abused. He ended up in jail. He didn’t even know when he was born. He was just given a vague reference. That stuff stays with you.
One day I saw a child dragging a gas can and it hit me that it was going to be the story of a child who’s going to sue his parents for bringing him into the world.
The pieces of the puzzle were coming together. The drawing had become that moment where Zain sues his parents and he’s screaming. It’s his face looking at the adults. He’s saying, “You don’t deserve me.”
During the film, Zain dreams of going to Sweden and now he’s in Norway in real-life. At the end of the film, Yonas gets deported. Her family got deported in real-life. It’s crazy.
I told you during the film, Yonas’ mother gets arrested. Her mother got arrested in real-life. When I’m shooting that scene where she’s alone, she was also alone off-screen. It was surreal. You don’t know.
I fictionalized it, but because it was based on so much reality that nothing was really fictional. I know what happens in the life of domestic and migrant workers in Lebanon who have children and raise their children in a hidden society. Those children are non-existent. The parents get deported. I wrote the film based on reality and what’s actually happening.
That’s why I believe so much that this film won’t stop here and something else will happen.
It’s a conversation. We’re talking about it. Talking about reality, you didn’t cast actors. You found children like Zain to star in the film. What was that driving decision?
It was honest to me. I was seeking this reality and while doing my research I was writing those scenes and every detail ended up in the film.
I knew I wasn’t entitled to bring someone from a different life and tell him to act and to become that other person. My job is to give that platform and vehicle for them to express their struggle and reality. I don’t have the right to do something that is make believe when I can use reality.
I couldn’t tell an actor to understand what rape, hunger, abuse, and being on the street is. I wanted to grab reality. It was a very conscious decision.
I was asking a miracle and believed in it.
I was writing that scene with Yonas and Zain and he’s trying to give Yonas the bottle. Yonas reaches for the mother’s breast. I could never make that scene work. I prayed for a miracle and it happened.
There was a higher being helping me to make this happen. You have to have the know how and you have to be very smart and very patient. You have to be loving because children know and they don’t take any bullshit.
They are. Zain doesn’t take bullshit from anyone. They feel a strong connection and they give you everything they have. You have to get to know them and earn trust.
At the time, I was breastfeeding my daughter. I was seeing myself in Rahil. I was lactating when she was breastfeeding. It was almost like a mirror reflection.
I knew when the baby was going to be hungry and sleepy and I knew when she was going to be putting her hand reaching for the breast.
You shot over 500 hours. That’s a lot of film to shoot. What was the choice in shooting so much and what was the process of editing all that down?
I love my editor because he gave this film so much. Physically we changed as a result of this film, not just emotionally. My cinematographer Christopher Aoun was so in it and was stressed that his beard started falling out and he had those patches. My editor developed a sight problem. Everyone gave it everything they had.
It took two years to edit because we had so much footage. I knew we needed so much to get to this. We did numerous takes and I had an amazing crew behind me to make it happen and they believe in the director and what they’re doing.
You need that because if you have doubt, it’ll fall apart, but there was no doubt from anyone. If I decided that I was going to forget about what we were shooting now because something great was happening there, everyone was behind me. There was no one doubting and saying, “We’re meant to be shooting this.”
It takes a crazy artist like my husband to do that. No producer would allow you to not know what you’re going to shoot tomorrow and allow you to just go with the flow. We understood that that was the way to go.
You cut a lot of the trial footage out where you play the lawyer.
We had over ten hours of footage. It was an amazing part of the story.
So, it was a much bigger part of the story?
It was painful to cut that. I’m still not sure of my decisions to this day. I’m sure every filmmaker will tell you the same thing that we need time away from our work to be able to really judge it. You need to wash your hands, do something else and then go back to it.
It was a hassle for my editors because we had to make those decisions because we had so many beautiful moments. It was a puzzle where we just weaved it together.
I’m still in it. I actually asked a friend to hypnotize me to clear my mind for two hours. I wanted to be able to watch it fresh as if I were watching it for the first time, but of course she laughed and said, I was crazy.
It’s a blessing to watch a film for the first time. I know the rhythm of the film. I don’t know if I made the right decisions.
The music used in the film is interesting there’s a balance of music and then your sound design with the streets of Beirut.
The film rejects music because it’s so real and so raw. Khaled Mouzanar had done all of the score. He’s usually used to writing the score with a script. It was beautiful but it felt like it a manipulative device.
We kept those real moments with no music and just the street sounds. We then found those poetic moments where we did use music and that was where we were able to find that balance.
We made the film at home. We edited on the first floor and I live on the third floor. So it was all done there.
I’m really happy with the end results of the score and the use of music because we found an ethnic and contemporary score that was really noble in a way.