Monday, March 04, 2019

Capernaum – a portrait of a child born into poverty but with the willpower to escape (QFT)

Children often bear the brunt of conflict. Capernaum tells the fictional, yet believable, tale of young Zain, who lives with his siblings and parents in a Beirut slum. Zain has an old head on young shoulders, a keen observer on what is going on – and not going on – around him in his family, his neighbourhood and wider Lebanese society.

Senses that his pubescent sister is going to be married off to their landlord, he makes plans for them to escape. Ultimately, he runs away and falls under the care of Rahil, a cleaner originally from Ethiopia whose baby needs to be minded while she works. But when she disappears, the young pair must fend for themselves.
“I want to sue my parents … because I was born.”

Wrapped around what could have been a very watchable Beirut version of The Florida Project is a less believable storyline that jumps forward to Zain being imprisoned for a violent attack, getting access to the media, and film begins with him in court suing his parents for conceiving him and bringing him into the world of neglect to live as a poor and paperless illegal. At one point Zain explains: “I want to stop them having children.”

For me it spoilt the heart-breaking tale of child poverty and loving strangers, though for the screenwriter and director (and Zain’s on-screen lawyer) Nadine Labaki, the court case gave children a voice: “if those children could talk, or could express themselves, what would they say”.

There’s a sense that the children already have very powerful voices in the film. The film’s narrative is based on testimony given to Labaki by real refugees. Young Zain is played by a Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea, who had been living in Lebanon for eight years. Zain’s shoulders carry a heavy burden; he has seen much in his short life. Yordanos Shiferaw gives Rahil a sense of compassion, taking on an extra mouth to feed while barely able to feed her own baby.

Labaki’s direction generates remarkable performances from the mostly novice cast. The scenes between Zain and baby Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) feel so natural, at one point making a pram out of a cooking pot and a stolen skateboard to drag the toddler around as he tries to make money and find food.

What drives the film forward is the urge to escape to something better. Real-life Zain got papers and his family have been resettled in Norway. Shiferaw was arrested a matter of days after filming Rahil’s arrest: neither had papers. The baby playing Yonas was deported to Kenya with her mother; her father was deported to Nigeria.

The roller-skating Cockroach Man mercifully makes a number of appearances, surreal yet not out of the ordinary in a film that exposes the multiple layers of poverty as well as the disparities between local people and refugees, and even among refugees from different countries.

Capernaum is well worth a trip to the cinema. Despite my reservations about the novel plot device, the little boy wearing a blue tracksuit top exists and needs to be heard. And he’s fighting to exist amidst the chaos, while others profit from his poverty, and while we do little to help.

Capernaum is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre.

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