Interview: How Nadine Labaki Made Capernaum

Nominated for both a BAFTA and an Oscar for Best Film Not in the English Language, Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum is being touted as a twenty-first century Bicycle Thieves. It is a gritty and energetic film in search of an underreported truth.

Capernaum follows the life of Zain, a young boy living on the streets of Beirut, having fled the care of his negligent parents. He’s a scrappy kid, tough talking and wise cracking, small in stature but big in spirit. Ever resourceful, he’s a survivor.

Wiser than his years, Zain knows more of the world’s wicked ways than any 12 year old should. He’s long past plucky. He’s angry, but determined and principled. When he learns of his sister’s death, Zain seeks vengeance against the man responsible, which he gets, and is swiftly arrested. In a twist of fate, prison brings Zain an opportunity to better his life by taking his parents to court, suing them both for bringing him in into this hopeless world.

The film’s title, Capernaum, translates as ‘Chaos’ in the English language. That chaos is there in the markets, slums and jails of Beirut, filmed street-level in handheld verite style, and it’s there in the lives of families torn apart by war. Zain is played by Zain Al Rafeea, himself a Syrian refugee. By working with non-professional actors and shaping episodes from their own lives, Labaki wrings a unique authenticity from this harrowing story of endurance that still manages to find hope in the darkest of situations.

We spoke to director Nadine Labaki about the making of this twenty-first century Bicycle Thieves.

Capernaum is a study in how conflict affects families, and in particular it is about the symptoms of displacement such as poverty, child marriage and human trafficking. Did you always have such a broad scope in mind?

We spent four years researching the film and talking to people, understanding where they come from, understanding what happened in their life, what’s their point of view on things, what’s the point of view of their children, what’s the point of view of the law, how does this system work, how does the government work on a higher level? So you start to understand  it from many different angles, and you start making your own assumptions and your own analysis of it that is not necessarily what you hear about in the news or what certain politicians might explain. It’s a different thing.

I knew I was going to be working with non-professional actors who are living in the same circumstances, who have been through the same things, and also that we were going to be shooting in those real locations with the real people, because I understood that I don’t have the right to imagine the story, I don’t have the right to add my own fictionalised idea of it. I needed to, in a way, become the platform for it to express itself, and for them to express themselves and their struggle. 


You shot Capernaum on the streets of Beirut, with handheld cameras and non-professional actors. What was that like as a filmmaking experience?

We don’t arrive to the film set like a normal film crew with our trailers and stuff. We don’t block places, block roads and tell everybody to shut up and stop them walking by, it’s not this approach at all. We just try to blend in as much as we can, to make ourselves invisible as much as we can, and we put our actors in the situation, in the middle of all this chaos. Sometimes we would blend so well that some people would go up to, say, Aspro, when he’s talking to Rahil, and they would start negotiating the price of something, and we were looking at each other “What they didn’t see us? The camera is there!” They were spending five minutes, ten minutes. So, it was like this all the time, and that was the magic of how it happened.

It was a chaotic situation all the time, whether on the streets, in the slums, in the prisons. It was chaos. But it was, in a way, organising the chaos in our own small little bubble, and not interfering with life. You had to keep everything the way it was. Everything. Everyone. We were shooting sometimes in the markets, let’s say, and the word was never to stop shooting, don’t interfere with anything and don’t stop people from walking by. You plant the actors there, and you shoot. You do not stop, this was the code. 


Were the people she spoke to forthcoming with their stories? Were they at all wary of your intentions?

I think your intention shows. When you’re there listening, and wanting to tell that story, they just collaborate, they want to tell their story and they don’t feel threatened in any way. It’s how you approach it, it’s how you talk to people, it’s your intention. And they’re not stupid, they know if you have good intentions or bad intentions, and they know when to close themselves and when to open up. I felt during this whole process, there was something like a wave pushing me to make this film, with everybody in it, and they wanted to tell their story. So, on the contrary, people opened up and spoke and shared their experience. 


Sometimes we tend to be judgemental. Sometimes I was. I used to go into a house, let’s say, and see kids left on their own. Small kids, three years old, four years old, blue from the cold, in wet pyjamas feeding themselves powdered milk because there’s no water. On their own, for hours. You start thinking “Where is the mother? How can she leave them, how can she do this, how can she…?”

I used to wait for the mother, because I want to tell her a piece of my mind, because I think I’m a better mum. Or because, I don’t know, I want to tell her “You can’t do this,” and unfortunately ten minutes into the conversation everything shifts in me, every perception I have because… she tells you. And you can’t look in her face anymore when you know that you haven’t been in this struggle, you haven’t lived this displacement and this hunger and depravation, and having to leave your kids alone to go work, and having to sell your daughter who is 11 or 12 years old because you think she’s better off there than in your house. You can’t judge. So, I’ve learned very quickly that it’s impossible to judge and it’s impossible to have a position. It’s not black or white. You are always in this rollercoaster of emotions, where you don’t know where you stand, and you know everybody’s a victim, everybody’s a victim of a systemic chaos that is not finding solutions for anyone, and so this is how you learn not to be judgemental and they feel it, they know it. This opens everyone up.


Capernaum is framed by a courtroom trial that sees Zain sue his parents for bringing him into the world, a world that offers him no hope. You chose to place yourself in the film, as the lawyer who represents Zain in the case against his parents. How did you come to that decision?

It was a difficult decision. Symbolically, I felt close to this character because I was playing this part in real life. I was being this, sort of, lawyer when I was investigating and talking to judges and lawyers and pleading all the time and I felt close to her, I felt if I was going to defend this boy in court, nobody is going to defend him better than I will. You feel it, you feel this mission, I am the one who will defend him. 

Originally, the part was much bigger than that, but when we were editing I felt I was the only lie in this story, because I’m not a real lawyer. Each one of them is playing their own role. I was the only actress. I was the only lie. I didn’t feel comfortable with that, so we decided to take everything out and we kept only the moments that are very important for you to understand how Zain got to be in front of judge because, in real life, a boy like him is never heard. In real life nobody would ever listen to him. But she hears him and decides to defend him and that’s how he got to be heard.


Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum plays on our screens from Friday 22 February