Zain Al Rafeea in Capernaum

Fares Sokhan/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Zain Al Rafeea (center) as Zain in Capernaum

There is a lexicon that comes with a particular upbringing and class privilege in the Middle East, and that casts a shadow over your life when you reach a threshold of intellectual maturity or awareness. It’s not easy to admit: that what are actually street-children we grew up calling beggars, or that the visa-sponsored Filipino maids were a modern-day form of slaves. But no matter how aware you become, it’s a reality that persists. Class privilege is passed from one generation to the next, in countries living under protracted dictatorships and with varied histories of casting off colonial rule and staking claim to rights and land.

It is in some sense a revolt against these systems and inequalities that drives Nadine Labaki’s Cannes Jury Prize–winning film, Capernaum. Centered around the story of a twelve-year-old Lebanese boy, Zain, living in the slums of Beirut, the film borrows its title from the village of Kfar Nahum, on the Sea of Galilee, historically known for its disorder and chaos, but also for its miracles (it was here that Jesus reportedly cured the paralytic).

Capernaum gives a human face to conditions that exist outside the geographical purview of the wealthy. The Beirut slum in which the film takes place, with its miles of decrepit and makeshift housing, muddy alleyways, webs of loose overhanging wires, and littered, layered rooftops, looks like parts of Cairo or Mumbai. These are the margins where the undocumented live: refugees, domestic workers who have fled abusive sponsors, poverty-stricken locals. Those who are unable to register their children’s births for lack of the necessary fees fall into a no-man’s-land and are no longer recognized by the state. The squalor and circumstances are Dickensian, a quality seldom associated with Beirut, even by those who live there.

We see Zain and his friends on the streets playing war games with pretend Kalashnikovs made of scrap wood and metal. Along with the bullet holes and bombed-out buildings, these are the telltale signs of where they are. Lebanon, squeezed between Syria and Israel, has never quite been given the chance to fully recover from its fifteen-year civil war, which technically ended in 1990, although violence has continued ever since. The center of Beirut is culturally thriving, but the country has long been thought of as “on the brink.” The influx of 1.5 million refugees since the 2011 uprising in Syria devolved into civil war has increased Lebanon’s population by almost a third, straining its infrastructure and resources. This is evident in Capernaum, too: chaotic, overcrowded streets, human trafficking, the illegal trade of documents and refugee babies.

The film begins with Zain being brought from the Roumieh Prison for Juveniles, where he is serving a five-year sentence for stabbing “a son of a bitch,” to stand before a judge after asking to file a lawsuit against his parents for negligence—as he says, “for having given birth to me.” From there, the film flashes back to the months leading up to the stabbing. Zain and his family live in a cramped apartment—for which they pay in favors rather than money—with frequently backed-up pipes; one pregnancy is followed by another, and the only shared family activity seems to be the crushing and soaking of Tramadol pills into garments, which are then dried and taken to the nearby prison, where the eldest son, who is incarcerated there, sells them to addicts (“for more than the price of meat”).

Zain is undernourished and forced to work multiple jobs on the streets to help support his parents and many siblings. Street-smart, foul-mouthed, he is also surprisingly wise and tender (in one scene, he comes home to family commotion and immediately unlocks the chain clasped around his neglected and wailing baby sister’s foot and lifts her up to soothe her). One morning he wakes up to a spot of blood on the bed he shares with his sisters. Later, as they work the streets selling juices, he notices the blood stain on the seat of his eldest sister’s shorts. Sahar, who is eleven, has started to menstruate. Zain immediately takes her into a nearby bathroom, washes her shorts, steals pads from the kiosk where he works, and advises her on where to hide “the evidence.” He knows that his parents will marry her off to the kiosk owner (who also happens to be their landlord and the man Zain eventually stabs) if they find out she has come of age, and he makes a plan with her to escape.

Unlike other films set in slums that take fantastical turns (Slumdog Millionaire comes to mind), Capernaum remains true to life. It ends up being too late for Zain to save his sister from marriage, and he runs away, following Cockroach Man (an old man dressed in a pink Spiderman-like costume, whom he encounters on a bus) to an amusement park. There he meets Rahil, an undocumented Ethiopian migrant who is working as a cleaner, and her baby, Yonas, whom she has hidden in a toilet stall that she has jammed shut to make it appear out of order. She takes pity on Zain, bringing him home to her wood-and-corrugated-metal shack down an alley. Rahil and Yonas are later separated when she’s arrested for not having valid work papers.


For much of the film, Zain and Yonas are together, alone. Zain marches down the highway struggling to carry Yonas, and later devises a cart out of a pot and a skateboard attached to a rope, in which he drags the baby around. He hustles to keep them both fed, trading an old water heater, pots and pans, and Tramadol shots for money to buy food. Zain is astonishingly gentle with Yonas, and saddled with a sense of responsibility for him; he turns down repeated offers to sell him, and after almost walking away one day, turns back. The relationship between the children—one of whom can’t be more than a year old—seems extraordinarily real, born of an evident bond formed between them, and perhaps guided by Labaki’s instincts as a mother as well as a director.

Capernaum, which was nominated for an Oscar in the foreign film category, marks a departure for its Lebanese director. Labaki’s previous two features, Caramel (2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (2011)—which she wrote, directed, and starred in—explored the circumstances of women in Lebanese society with depth and care, yet also light-heartedness, exaggeration, and humor. Capernaum, the product of three years of in-depth research in the slums, refugee camps, and courtrooms of Lebanon, displays a maturation not just in the gravity of its content but in form; a twelve-hour initial cut was pared down to just 126 minutes, and every choice and frame are thoroughly considered, including the unobtrusive soundtrack (scored by Labaki’s husband, Khaled Mouzanar, also the film’s producer, under her direction). With a cast of mostly children, much is told through eyes, gestures, body language, and surrounding details—there is little continuous narrative dialogue, except for the framing of the scenes in court.

Boluwatife Treasure Bankole and Zain Al Rafeea in Capernaum

Fares Sokhan/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Boluwatife Treasure Bankole (left) as Yonas and Zain Al Rafeea as Zain in Capernaum

In interviews and post-screening discussions, Labaki has said that she shot chronologically, in real slums, homes, and prisons, and used a nonprofessional cast who enact experiences true to their economically disadvantaged lives. They were selected from the slums, chosen on the basis of real stories, descriptions, and circumstances; the boy in the film became Zain only when the real-life Zain was found; until then, Labaki only had notes describing a “malnourished boy” “with foul language,” “but caring” and with “sad, knowing eyes.” A Lebanese mother who gave birth to sixteen undocumented children was the inspiration for the character of Zain’s mother. In agreeing to take part in the film and lend their stories, they become the voices for all they have witnessed and all those they know.

But Labaki also used a detailed script, which never quite calls for direct action but rather reaction, and allows her cast to draw on their own experiences and to have genuine emotional responses to the guided fiction of the film. Scripted events turn into fact: Yordanos Shiferaw, who plays Rahil, was arrested two days after the shooting of a scene of her in detention, and the parents of the baby (Treasure) who plays Yonas were arrested during the making of the film, and later deported along with her. Real life seeps in in other ways too, as unscripted moments are caught on camera, such as Yonas reaching into Zain’s T-shirt, feeling for a breast. With these techniques, Labaki perfects a form that has been used (to much lesser effect, and on various ends of the fact–fiction spectrum) in recent Arab cinema, including Son of Babylon, Asham, and in some sense even the Egyptian feature Judgment Day (Yommedine), about a man cured of leprosy.

In one scene, Zain uses a prison pay phone to call in to a TV show and, live on air, lets loose about all he has had to bear. The scene was scripted, but the words that came out of his mouth, I was told when I asked at a post-screening Q&A, were entirely his own—crude but, in their fraught Arabic and in his voice, harrowingly poignant:

I’m sick of those who can’t take care of their children. What will I take from all this? All the insults, all the beatings, all the kicking? The chain, the hose, or the belt?

The nicest word I hear is fuck-off you, sonofabitch. Piss off you, fucker!

Life is dog shit. Filthier than the shoes on my feet. I’m living in hell. Getting roasted like the chicken I’m dying to eat.

Life is a bitch. I was expecting to be a good man, respected and loved, but God doesn’t want that. He wants us to be floor mats, to be stepped on.

To similar and startling effect are the performances by Kawthar Al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Youssef as Souad and Selim, his parents. They stand before the judge (played by the well-known retired Lebanese judge Elias Khoury) to defend themselves after Zain sues them for negligence. Souad declares:


I live and work here like a dog for you to stand here and judge me?… Not in your worst nightmare will you ever live my life. If you did, you would hang yourself. Imagine feeding your children water and sugar because you have nothing else to give them. I am ready to commit a hundred crimes to keep my children alive.

This is not a calculated defense, and not something that could have been drafted quite in this way, with its idiosyncratic, vernacular Arabic syntax. This scene is fictional, symbolic (it would be impossible for a minor to sue his parents in the region, given guardianship systems and laws), yet it is a heartfelt plea, drawn from the character’s life experiences.

Despite its long history, Arab cinema—which started in Egypt in the early 1920s—has struggled over the past forty-odd years. A narrative tradition of melodramas and literary adaptations was eventually co-opted and compromised by nationalism, state control, and, ultimately, mediocrity; nothing was supposed to provoke too much thought. (And in Lebanon, of course, the war intervened.) It’s also impossible to consider serious filmmaking in the region without taking into account the severe constraints on it: difficulty getting permits to shoot, insufficient funding, repressive regimes, extreme censorship and skepticism, and—in view of the hardships endured by the majority of the populations—the expectation that film is simply meant to entertain.

Yet emerging out of the shadows of an older generation who lived through the defeat of the Six-Day War of 1967, the aftermath of the US war in Iraq, the ongoing Palestinian predicament, failed uprisings that have spiraled into civil war, a refugee crisis, and more severe dictatorships, a new generation of politically engaged filmmakers has slowly been experiencing an artistic coming-of-age. They have been influenced heavily by Iranian New Wave cinema, which has had to overcome its own constraints to come up with new narrative forms and means of dissemination.

In 2004 the Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi shot the first film in Iraq made after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Set in a Kurdish refugee camp on the Iraqi–Turkish border, it was a combination of instant history and reportage with allegory or fiction. Ghobadi used mostly nonprofessional child actors, most of whom were refugees, some with mutilating injuries from mines. In 2011 the Iranian director Jafar Panahi broke a regime ban on his filmmaking and shot This Is Not a Film in his living room, in part using Scotch tape to map out on his carpet the scenes of the film he had been shooting when he was arrested in 2010 and charged with making antigovernment propaganda. This Is Not a Film was smuggled out of Iran on a thumb drive and was a surprise entry at Cannes. I watched both of these films in Cairo, among filmmaker and writer friends, some three years after our own uprising, and the conversations they generated were all about invention: How could we overcome the censors and find a language to explore issues ranging from poverty, government abuses, and corruption to personal issues of identity and sexual freedom?

Although Middle Eastern directors have lately attempted similar fusions of fiction and documentary styles, Labaki’s film is the most successful, moving away from the melodramatic tendencies of filmmakers in the region, as well as from formal or imported ideas of narrative development. In the original script, Zain’s lawyer (played by Labaki), who appears for just a few minutes, had a full storyline, which was shot in its entirety before being cut. When asked about it, Labaki said the character seemed inauthentic and “too much.”

This is a new Arabic cinema, as much humanistic as it is aesthetic, committed to innovation and engagement, and not to entertainment. Labaki’s international success forces Lebanon to take notice, yet bypassing the local audience may be the only way for such films to escape the censors. It would be hard to imagine the equivalent of Capernaum filmed in the slum-like areas of Egypt’s informal settlements; it would surely be banned. The Egyptian filmmaker Tamer El Said’s In the Last Days of the City (2016), a film about Cairo that captures its socioeconomic fabric and political stasis through a narrative of the everyday, and which also floats between autobiography, real life, and fiction, was not allowed to be shown in local theaters. (In Lebanon, reaction to Labaki’s film has been mixed, with many saying that the poor should be prevented from having more children.)

In the end, it is impossible to ignore what is depicted in Capernaum: the absurdity of the need for papers to prove one’s existence (Zain’s sister dies from a hemorrhage at the door of the hospital, refused entry for lack of an ID card); and the horror of the trade in children for marriage (the hemorrhage was the result of a pregnancy her tiny body was unable to withstand). Systemic chaos and injustice—not just in Lebanon, but for every nationality represented on the screen—permeates this film, and the Syrian refugee crisis is again at the fore: 193 members of the United Nations have agreed to share the humanitarian responsibility for it, but Lebanon bears the brunt of the burden, under which its own population is sinking.

The newly formed Lebanese government recently announced that public debt is at an all-time high—$84 billion. There are daily power cuts, even in central Beirut. The underworld of refugees and the poverty-stricken has only further crippled the country’s long-struggling economy. With no access to public health care or birth control, women in these circumstances give birth to child after child—Zain’s mother is pregnant again by the end of the film.

Labaki has said that a turning point for her in the making of the film was the image of Alan Kurdi, the drowned three-year-old Syrian refugee whose body washed up on the shores of Turkey in the fall of 2015: “If he could talk, what would he say?” She channeled this question with precision and tempered anger through Capernaum, and has gotten at least some response among the humanitarian community. Most of the children featured in the film have been relocated; the actor who plays Zain has been resettled with his family in Norway, where he’s attending school for the first time and living in a two-story house with a garden at the edge of the sea. Even so, last year less than 1 percent of the 950,000 Syrian refugees living in Lebanon were resettled to another country. It’s hard to believe all that Labaki accomplished with what might be considered so little, and equally hard to accept that even though it’s fiction, her film is thoroughly grounded in a reality that is largely being ignored.