Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum”: Film Thoughts & Historical Background

Movie going

In an attempt to elevate my self-care routine, I’ve started to take myself out on dates a little more often. I actually *love* to spend time alone. I’m probably not the only Humanites PhD who feels blissfully energized by an evening of solitude and reflection in the company of art, film, and food.

This goal has resulted in an uptick of visits to my local independent theater. Given my penchant for female artists and francophone media, when I saw the trailer for Capernaum, a film directed by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, I immediately knew that it would figure into my solo-night-out calendar. I’ve been fascinated with Lebanon ever since I read Etel Adnan’s novel Sitt Marie Rose in a French feminisms grad seminar (so much so that it became the focus of a dissertation chapter!).

Capernaum, or “chaos” focuses on the tribulations of Lebanon’s immigrant population. Today, Lebanon hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian, Palestinian and Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers. Though, (for political reasons) the exact numbers are hard to estimate. And, as we see in the film, the cost of birth records prevents some living under the poverty level from being registered as Lebanese citizens, leaving a large portion of the population without access to necessary resources.

Capernaum film posterThe difficulty of securing citizenship and governmental support are concerns taken up in Capernaum. The director describes her filmic methodology as cinéma vérité, or a sort of observational recording of real events. Capernaum, then, aims to share realities about contemporary Lebanon while fictionalizing these “real” narratives. The film follows a young boy named Zain living in the outskirts of Beirut. To film Capernaum, Labaki followed Zain (a Syrian refugee who has been resettled in Norway since filming) and other unprofessional actors through the streets of these destitute neighborhoods outside of Beirut where many migrant families take up residence. In the film, Zain’s parents are present, but make barely enough money to keep their several children sheltered and fed.

The story is told through flashbacks; at the beginning of the film, we discover that Zain is imprisoned for committing a crime. While in jail, he works with a lawyer (played by Labaki) to sue his parents for having too many children. In an interview on making the film, Labaki shares that the legal case echoes sentiments of young detainees that she met while researching the area over a period of three years.

I went to see this film in theaters in February 2019. Right after I stepped out of the theater, I texted my partner with my first reaction: “Wow that was TERRIBLY depressing.” I’d regretted the glass of wine I got at the concession stand.

As many reviewers suggest, despondency and misery permeate the film. And yet, after sitting with it awhile, I realized that there were also moments of beauty and humanity. Like the ways in which Zain takes on a maternal role in relation to his sister and to Yonas, the toddler of an Ethiopian migrant. When Zain’s sister, Sahar, gets her period somewhere around the ages of 11 to 13 (Zain is approximately 12 years old), he cleans the blood stains from her underwear and steals maxi pads for her to hide her bodily changes from her parents who are ready to give her away into marriage. They don’t have the money to support her and want her to have a real bed to sleep in; the motivations of getting Sahar out of the house are complicated and point to a larger system of sexism that the film addresses (in line with Labaki’s other work). And Zain responds to the threat of her disappearance with urgent love and action.

Capernaum crew at Cannes
Cannes Film Festival 2018; Left to Right: Khaled Mouzanar, Nadine Labaki, Zain Al Rafeea (Zain), Yordanos Shiferaw (Rahil)

One of my favorite scenes of the film is when Zain and Sahar are sitting on a roof together, shoulder-to-shoulder, looking out over their surroundings as they sing in tandem. Together, they are on top of the world. Though (spoiler alert), this harmony is short-lived. Sahar is given away, and a deeply distressed Zain runs away from home and eventually finds refuge with an Ethiopian migrant, Rahil (who goes by the name of Tigest). Rahil takes in Zain, who helps to look after her toddler, Yonas. One day Rahil disappears. Soon enough, we find out that she was arrested because she did not have a residency permit. Zain takes on the responsibility for feeding and caring for this motherless infant. Yet, when the toddler takes his hand and threads it through Zain’s shirt to be nourished by a breast, he finds nothing. Zain can only go so far in his attempts to mother this child. Eventually, he is forced to place Yonas into the hands of another. It isn’t until Zain shares details of his story with a lawyer, Nadine–Labaki’s character in the film–, that Yonas is rescued and reunited with his mother. Zain, too, ends the film with a smile and a slightly happier disposition. He is finally getting his ID card.

The film has been fairly well received. Capernaum was Lebanon’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards in 2019. A. O. Scott of the New York Times named it one of the top ten films of 2018, and the film was applauded with a 15-minute standing ovation at the Cannes film festival in 2018.

But before leaving you, I would also like to situate Capernaum within Labaki’s oeuvre and its backdrop of Lebanese history.

More so than in Capernaum, the French language shows its presence in Lebanon in Labaki’s other films. Readers might be surprised to hear that Lebanon is a “francophone” country (a label that is debated today). Perhaps a little historical background is necessary here. (If you prefer to skip the historical digression, skip down to “Labaki’s earlier films”…)

Sykes Picot Agreement Map signed May 8, 1916

France’s presence in Lebanon dates from the early 19th century, when French Jesuit missionaries traveled there to forge religious and political alliances with Lebanese Christians. In 1916, the country’s borders were re-drawn by France and the UK during the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, with the assent of imperial Russia, disintegrated the Ottoman Empire.

From 1920 until 1943, Lebanon (along with Syria, northern Iraq, and southeastern Turkey) fell under French mandate as a result of Sykes-Picot.

Et voilà … this colonial relationship explains France’s fraught linguistic legacy in Lebanon, where it is still spoken (though, in widely varying degrees, depending on one’s milieu). This is also why we hear traces of French in Nadine Labaki’s earlier films, Caramel (2007) and Et maintenant on va où (Where Do We Go Now?, 2011).

But Western imperialism also has a role to play in the country’s religious diversity and sectarian politics, both of which Labaki touches on in her work.

Once known as the smaller region of Mount Lebanon, the Sykes-Picot agreement expanded Lebanon to comprise of the neighboring areas that were populated mainly by Muslims (Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon, Tyre, and the Beqaa Valley). Prior to this agreement, Beirut—the capital of Lebanon—had served as a meeting point between Europe and the Arab world as the Ottoman Empire underwent a process of modernization in efforts to survive, making it the most “Western” and “modern” region of the Middle East. (This is why France saw Lebanon as a place where it was “easier” to fulfill its civilizing mission.)

This border shifting laid the groundwork for sectarian tensions among the now cohabitating populations of Muslims, Maronite Christians, and Druze of the new nation. Alongside many other factors (including the large amounts of immigration spurred by events including Israeli independence in 1948, the Arabi-Israeli Wars between the late 1940s and early 70s, and Black September in 1970-1), this forced fusion ultimately led to Lebanon’s sectarian politics and a violent civil war that lasted from 1975 until 1990 (historian Asher Kaufman talks more about the French mandate and lead-up to the civil war here).

Labaki’s earlier films treat this unique religious diversity and sectarianism and its effects on the lives of women and families. While critics say that Labaki’s other films are more “lighthearted” in comparison to Capernaum, this seems to downplay somewhat the socio-political messages in Caramel and Et maintenant on va où.

Caramel narrates the deep female bonds between four characters working in a Beiruti salon (“Si Belle”). Of differing religions, they help one another to survive the suffering caused by homophobia, misogyny, religiously conservative in-laws, failed love affairs, and objectification. Et maintenant on va où thinks about how women are affected by and respond to wartime violence. Located in an unnamed Middle Eastern city, the female characters of a sectarian community (half Christian, half Muslim) assemble to keep the town from falling into violence by working to build bridges between the religions (and hiding their husbands’ weapons). The beginning of the film depicts a mass of mourning women in black whose choreographed movement acts as a united, beating heart, thus foreshadowing the vibrant unity of their circle. The ambiguous setting makes the film feel universal in its focus on the intimacy of female relationships and a/political organizing, though the film’s sectarianism suggests strong affiliations with Lebanese history.

So while Caramel and Et maintenant on va où show how necessary networks of support are found in sisterhood and female friendship (Amina El-Annan explores this aspect of Caramel in her dissertation, Multiple Orients), Capernaum narrates female narratives of puberty and the difficulty of securing safe, reliable jobs and places of residence through the characters of Rahil, Sahar, and Zain’s mother. Through Nadine’s role as lawyer, the film also gestures toward how some women are intervening in the injustice faced by those living in the margins. And it does more than that, too. The film depicts the violence of familial intimacy and the necessity of finding and regenerating one’s own familial network to maintain any sense of hope in the most dire of circumstances.

The struggles presented in Labaki’s oeuvre—facing sexism and religious conflict, and providing adequate resources to immigrants with financial need and treating them with humanity—are not unique to Lebanon. In each of Labaki’s films, intimacy—amongst female friendships, adopted family members, and through the trope of maternity—helps generate the resilience needed to even attempt to face such discrimination and socioeconomic disparities. And the emphasis on the necessity of communities of support and a listening (and politically responsive) ear are what makes Labaki’s films resonate across borders.

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