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…
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