Struggling and neglected souls. We walk past them. More often than not, in our helplessness, we turn a blind eye to them. In Lebanon, it’s worse. The country opened its doors to refugees, but its citizen had an economic crisis of their own. Nadine Lakabi spent four years doing research for her latest film, Capernaum, working with social workers as she spent time talking to the forgotten children and parents in Lebanon. The poorest of the poor, the dirtiest of slums, and the worst of conditions that no human should ever be subjected to. But Lakabi went there so she could learn more and so she could shed light on this plight. Her film tells the story of Zain, a young 12-year-old misfit who wants to sue his parents… for giving him life, but a life of torment.
Through Zain, we learn the anger, the hurt, these forgotten children go through. Why are they so poor? Why are they homeless? Why do they not have the love? They’re virtually invisible to social aid because they don’t have legal documents. Worse, many of them are invisible to their own parents.
Read our chat below as Labaki takes us into the world of Capernaum.
Where did the idea for Capernaum begin for you?
It’s been going on for a while, especially with the refugee crisis that’s been going on in our world, especially in Lebanon. We’ve been welcoming to millions of refugees. Lebanon is already in the midst of an economic crisis and you can see the toll it’s having on the country. You see the poverty growing, you see the kids on the streets whether they are Lebanese or Syrian. They’re not just on the streets, they are everywhere. It started to become an obsession of mine. I saw a kid on the street at 1am and I was coming back from a party and all this kid wanted to do was sleep but the place where he was sitting was so uncomfortable that he couldn’t sleep. That’s when it hit me and that’s when I decided I needed to do something. We were depriving him of the most basic right which is just to close his eyes and sleep. I felt responsible in a way for it. I couldn’t just turn away and say it was someone else’s problem or someone else’s kid and let them take care of him. I decided to do something about it.
I started researching and I wanted to become his voice. If I wanted to be in his shoes, how would he express himself? What would he tell me? What would he say? What would he say to this society who mostly ignores him? It’s what we choose to do most of the time. We feel hopeless so we ignore it and we go about our ways. I was wondering how does he feel about this reaction and how does he feel about him being invisible. He’s not only non-existent because he doesn’t have papers, but he’s also symbolically non-existent because we ignore them.
We went everywhere where we possibly could. I spent four years doing the research speaking to kids and families. We went into the houses. We went into the buildings. We went into the slums. I was hanging on to anyone who was going to lead me somewhere. I made my own network of people who would introduce us to this world. I went with social workers and assistants that go to these places. I’d wear glasses and other things to help blend into that environment. I’d ask questions when I was there.
I think the whole idea of the court scene and this kid wanting to sue his parents came from wanting to translate the anger of the children. They’d tell me that they wished they hadn’t been born. They’d tell me how they tried committing suicide. They’d tell me how they wished they were dead. They’d wonder why their mothers wouldn’t call while they were in prison. They’d wonder why they wouldn’t get goodnight kisses. They’d wonder why they were getting sexually assaulted. They would say, “Nobody loves me. Why do they give me life?” One kid said that exact thing to me.
Most of them, 99% of them don’t know when they were born or their birthdays. Their parents ignored the day they were born. Imagine that those kids have never celebrated their birthday.
It’s stuff that we absolutely take for granted.
Yes. To think of a kid never blowing a candle or how important they are to us. They don’t have a sense of their value. For them, they compare themselves to a parasite. They feel no worth. They truly feel that they are nothing. How can you grow up and feel that you are nothing? What is your contribution to this world? You’re going to be angry, you’re going to want revenge. I truly believe the source of evil in the world is having an unloved childhood, having an abused childhood, having a mistreated childhood. You rarely fall out of that circle. Some kids do. 75% of kids don’t make it. Only 25% are able to break the vicious circle, the rest repeat the pattern. They do what their parents did. The abused becomes the abuser. They fall into addiction or criminal activity or they end up in bad situations.
Was it deliberate then to choose non-professional actors so you can get the authenticity of that anger?
Of course. It’s difficult to tell a child who’s had an easy life that they have to feel the suffering or understand abuse. It’s even disturbing to do that. It’s difficult to get to that place. It’s certainly shocking to a child who lives a normal life. So what you see are these kids talking about their own situations. I think it makes it more impactful when you see and when you feel like those people are actually living this life. It’s not just a film.
You find ways to inject a little humor in there among the dark truth.
Yes. Zain is like that and life is like that. Life is never black and white. Sometimes when you laugh about your problems, it makes things a bit easier. That’s what those people do. They just have a great sense of humor. sometimes the situation is so absurd that you have to laugh. It can’t get any worse than that.
What was the toughest scene to shoot?
The staircase scene. We spent several days shooting it and we actually went back to shoot it because I wasn’t very happy with it. It was tough emotionally on the actors, me, and the crew. It was tough because it was happening all around us and you know it’s true. Those kids are being sold in a transaction.
It’s a global problem.
It’s everywhere. There are belts of poverty that surround our cities. It’s in LA. It’s in New York. It’s in London. It’s everywhere. Whether it’s a Syrian child or an American child. There are children here who are completely marginalized and end up in jail.
In real life, Zain has a happy ending.
He’s in Norway. Thanks to the United Nations and the UNHCR who helped us a lot with Zain and his family. During the shoot, they interviewed him and his family. When we came back from Cannes, they followed his situation. I got a letter from the UNHCr saying he was going to be resettled with his family. He went to school a month ago.
He’s gaining his childhood back.
You are responsible for that.
I fell Zain was destined to end up like this. He’s so clever and he has so much potential. From the moment I saw him, I knew his place was not on the street. He is meant to have a brighter future than this. He’s such a miracle of life and people need to see him and understand that this child exists. Someone as talented, and as clever as he is, exists. It’s out there. He’s not destined to stay on the street. I think if he stayed on the street. I think he would have ended up in jail, or dead, or in a bad situation. I know that for sure. I saw the violence he was in and how these kids treat each other. I saw what they’re exposed to on a daily basis. It’s so much harsher than what you see on film.