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Art imitates life for Lebanese director Nadine Labaki

© Anne-Christine Poujoulat, AFP | Lebanese director Nadine Labaki on May 18 during a photocall for the film "Capernaum" at the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival.

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2018-05-19

Lebanese director Nadine Labaki was one of the favourites to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year for her film "Capernaum", a heartbreaking film of youth and poverty in Beirut.

A win would have made her only the second woman to take the film festival’s top prize – and the first in 25 years – after Jane Campion won for "The Piano" in 1993.

In the end her Beirut-set drama had to settle for the third-place Jury Prize.

Labaki's "Capernaum" tells the story of a destitute Beirut boy who eventually takes his parents to court for bringing him into a miserable existence.

It "explores the poorest slums of Beirut through the eyes of a child, and we see 12-year-old Zain fighting to survive”, said FRANCE 24 culture editor Eve Jackson, adding: “The performances in this film are just outstanding."

"Capernaum" won a 15-minute standing ovation at its Cannes premiere.

Her third feature film, Labaki's latest offering catapults her into the big leagues and follows "Caramel", her intimate debut about a Beirut beauty parlour, and "Where Do We Go Now?", about a group of women on a mission to end sectarian violence in their village.

This time her main protagonist is a foul-mouthed street kid.

"There are other things bothering me now," she said, citing some of the thorny issues she tackled in "Capernaum".

"I'm thinking of the notion of borders, of having to have papers to exist – of being completely excluded from the system if you don't have them – of the maltreatment of children, modern slavery, immigrant workers, Syrian immigrants – all these issues where people find themselves completely excluded from the system because it is not capable of finding solutions."

>> 'Capernaum' review: Beirut tale of child abuse and poverty divides Cannes

Labaki acknowledged she was at risk of being accused by her Lebanese homeland of washing their dirty laundry in public.

"Obviously it's a huge risk but we must stop making excuses; it's a reality that exists and we cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand," she said.

She turned to films for escapism during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. But she said: "Cinema is not only about making people dream."

"It's about changing things and making people think."

Labaki found the idea for the film staring her in the face one night when she was driving home from a party and saw a child half-asleep in the arms of his mother begging on the pavement.

"It became an obsession for me ... I did more than three years of research. I was trying to understand how the system fails these kids."

Labaki told reporters in Cannes about the fact-finding she did for the film.

“We went to many places that are very problematic in Lebanon, with prisons, jeuvenile detention centres and associations that help these kids,” she said. “And it was only after listening to all of their stories that the idea for the movie came come naturally: A child suing his parents for bringing him into the world. These are kids who – when you ask them, ‘Are you happy to be here?’ – most of the time they’ll say, ‘No’.”

Art imitates life

The star of "Capernaum" is Zain Al Rafeea, a 13-year-old refugee boy who had been working as a delivery boy in Beirut until recently. Zain plays a boy of the same name who runs away from home after his desperate mother and father sell his 11-year-old sister into marriage for a few chickens.

Zain then takes his parents to court for having brought him into such a cruel world.

Many of the actors featured in the film were living lives as precarious as those of their characters, with one thrown in jail during the shoot and another deported afterwards.

Labaki said she filmed 520 hours of footage over six months as her novice actors, many of them young children, improvised to achieve the intense realism of her film.

Zain, whose family fled the Syrian war, said his new job acting and following Labaki’s orders took little effort.

“It’s easy,” he told a news conference. “She asks me sometimes to be sad, sometimes to be happy - that’s it.”

>> Cannes 2018: Lebanese film 'Capharnaum' wows critics

Things were far harder for his co-star, Yordanos Shiferaw, a refugee from Eritrea who plays Rahil, an illegal immigrant who takes Zain under her wing but then disappears, leaving him with her baby. We later learn she has been arrested and locked in an overcrowded jail cell.

“After the arrest scene, I was arrested for real,” she told reporters, tears streaming down her face. “I lived exactly the same thing.” After two weeks the movie producers managed to get her released and she returned to complete filming.

The baby boy, whom Zain pulls around town on a pram he has improvised from a large cooking pot atop a stolen skateboard, is also a real-life refugee.

Born in Beirut to parents from Africa, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, the infant actor, actually a girl, was deported in March to Kenya with her mother. Her father was sent back to his home in Nigeria.

“Capharnaum”, a word that Webster’s Dictionary defines as “a confused jumble”, is a film about people living real-life struggles such as these. One of the themes Labaki said she wanted to tackle was the "absurd importance of this paper", referrring to identity documents, which "we need to prove we exist”.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

Date created : 2018-05-19

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