Capernaum – A hopeful film set in the depths of a society’s systematic inhumanity

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (Chaos”) tells the story of a Lebanese boy who sues his parents for the “crime” of giving him life.

Capernaum follows Zain (Zain al Raffea), as he journeys from gutsy, streetwise child to hardened 12-year-old “adult”: fleeing his abusive, negligent parents, surviving through his wits on the streets, taking care of Ethiopian refugee Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), being jailed for a violent crime, and finally, seeking justice in a courtroom.

While steeped in the quiet routines of ordinary people, Capernaum is a film with an expansive palette: without warning it can ignite with emotional intensity, surprise with unexpected tenderness, and inspire with flashes of poetic imagery.

Although it is set in the depths of a society’s systematic inhumanity, it is ultimately a hopeful film that stirs the heart as deeply as it cries out for action.


Driving home one night, Nadine Labaki stopped for a red light and saw a woman and a one-yearold baby boy sitting on a traffic island. “The little boy couldn’t sleep,” she remembers. “Every time he would doze off, he would wake up again. And it hit me. The only place where this kid is going to experience life is this half a meter of concrete between two highways. It’s all he knows. And if he ever tries to leave it, he’ll probably be hit by a car.”

When Labaki came home, she drew the face of a child with his mouth agape, shouting at group of adults standing in front of him. She captioned it: ‘I’m sorry! I quit! I don’t want to be here! I don’t belong in your world! I don’t want to breathe, eat, play, learn, laugh or dream! I don’t want to grow up to become like you! You have failed me!’” Although Labaki had not begun writing the script for Capernaum , her drawing looks eerily like Zain Al Rafeea, the boy she would eventually cast as her lead.

“Lebanon was filled with refugees at that time, and you could see kids on the streets everywhere,” says Capernaum producer and composer Khaled Mouzanar, who is also Labaki’s co-writer and husband.

“As a mother, pregnant with our second child, I felt her maternal instinct was very strong, and I knew she wanted to say something about kids being mistreated and in need of love and care.”

Mouzanar, who collaborates with Labaki on her scripts, started brainstorming with her about the things that bothered her most, and encouraged her to write them all down on a whiteboard.

“Where did the system fail these kids?” says Labaki “Why do we as a society allow this sort of injustice to happen? The migrant workers’ situation in Lebanon; the absurdity of the notion of frontiers; the absurdity that you need a paper to prove that you exist—all these subjects together were things I was exploring and thinking about.”

When Labaki looked at the board, she immediately thought of a French word, capharnaüm (in English, capernaum)

“Originally it was the name of a village in Palestine,” she says. “But later on, in French literature, they started using it to signify chaos. It means everything is upside down and in complete disorder. The title was the first thing that came to my mind. I had the title before I wrote one word of the script.” Interestingly, the original Biblical meaning of the word was about a place that was cursed, but also a place where miracles could happen. “That’s what’s going on in the world right now,” says Labaki. “It’s a mixture of chaos and miracles every day.”

Labaki understood that if she was going to voice the concerns of these lost children, she had a lot of learning to do. Along with Mouzanar and her co-screenwriters Jihad Hojeilly and Michelle Keserwany, Labaki started visiting some of the darkest places in Lebanon: children’s detention centers, prisons for minors, and courtrooms.

“I was trying to understand what they felt, who they are.” Mouzanar doesn’t like to refer to what the group was doing as “research.” “I don’t like to call it that because it’s very technical,” he says. “We were very emotionally involved with these kids.”

Says Labaki: “I saw kids who are so neglected, so abused that there’s nothing anymore in their eyes,” says Labaki. “These children don’t laugh, don’t cry, and don’t play. If you put a toy in front of them, they don’t touch it. They are just numb. There’s no more childhood in their eyes. After seeing these kids many times, when they started to have a trusting relationship with me, I used to ask them, ‘Are you happy to be alive?’ Ninety-nine percent of the kids answered ‘no.’ They told me: ‘I’m not happy to be here.’ ‘Why am I here when there’s no one to take care of me?’ ‘Why am I here if I’m going to be hungry all the time?’ They have the feeling that they’re here because they are being punished for something.”

When she felt she had enough investigation behind her, Labaki began writing with Mouzanar and co-writers Hojeilly and Keserwany.

Hojeilly is a photographer who Nadine became close friends with when they were film students at Beirut’s Saint-Joseph University and has collaborated on the screenplays of all her subsequent films.

Keserwany is a socially committed artist and singer/songwriter, who makes music videos performing with her sister Noel.

“I was at Nadine’s place and she told me a scene about a migrant worker getting off a bus and reaching her home where we see her baby was left alone,” says Keserwany. “I was intrigued and so I asked her, ‘What happens next?’ And she replied, ‘We’ll need to see.’ That’s how I got involved in writing the film. It took me some time to realize that we were actually writing a feature film and it was going to take two and a half incredible years to finish it.”

It was from these conversations that Labaki developed the film’s central premise of a boy suing his parents for giving him life. Legally speaking, this is not something that can actually happen in Lebanon, as a child can’t sue his guardians. Still, Labaki felt that this storyline was essential.

“For me, symbolically, the idea of a kid suing his parents is the only way to make his voice resonate,” says Labaki. “I wanted to translate his anger and to make him able to confront the system. The only way was through the court and through him saying, ‘Enough!’”

Having spent so much time with the real people that she would be portraying in Capernaum , Labaki decided that she couldn’t make the film she envisioned with professional actors.

“I wanted to find people where there is very little difference between them and the character. And then I wanted to ask them to go on their raw instinct and just be.”

Labaki’s starting concept was to give her cast the basic outlines of a scene and let them take it from there: use their own words and gestures, say whatever they feel like saying, and not limit themselves to where the scene was supposed to go.

“This is a real story of real people who you see every day on the streets, but you don’t really look at them. I’m aiming for how the audience feels as a viewer, and if they just look at them as ‘characters,’ I would feel like I had failed. I want them to be wondering ‘Is this a real actor, or is this somebody who’s been picked up and asked to be the character, using their own life experience?’ I wanted the audience to have this sort of perplexed situation where they really don’t know.”

Mouzanar realized that Labaki’s vision could not be accommodated by a conventional film production’s approach, with a set shooting schedule, planned locations, and budget. She would need to take as much time as necessary to get the performances she wanted out of her cast, as well as the freedom to shoot when and wherever she wanted to shoot.

“I needed the freedom to not have everything scheduled and structured in a way that would paralyze me,” says Labaki. As this setup was something that no producer was likely to accept, Mouzanar decided to produce
Capernaum himself, even though he had never produced a film before.

Things got off to a sudden start when they discovered a jail they wanted to shoot in was going to close in two weeks. At that point, they hadn’t even set up a production company. “I told Nadine, ‘Let’s bring some cameras in and shoot,’” says Mouzanar. “And that’s what we did. From that point on, we couldn’t stop. I found myself thrown into this world without knowing anything about it. Very quickly, I ran out of money, but I didn’t let Nadine know because I wanted to protect her. I mortgaged our home and I didn’t pay my son’s school fees for two semesters, because I was paying for the film.”

Gradually, Mouzanar secured funding with a bank and persuaded numerous producers to invest.

In addition to producing and collaborating on the screenplay, Mouzanar was also the composer of Capernaum , as he has been for all of Labaki’s films. His initial thoughts were to write emotional, melodic themes related to each main character. “When we started shooting, with these kids not acting, but living their reality, I felt those kinds of melodies didn’t work,” he says. “The melodies seemed to be lying about them. I didn’t want to add a layer of lies above these people.”

At one point, Mouzanar even removed all the music he’d written, but eventually they found a balance. “What Nadine and I decided was to use music in certain poetic places where Nadine’s cinematic language changes and she allows herself to do some slow motion or some flashbacks or some ellipse that didn’t fit the language of the more realistic approach she used the rest of the time.”

As there was over 500 hours of footage shot during the six months, the editing took a year and a half to do.

The first cut was twelve hours long. A lot of the most interesting parts of the story had to be removed as Labaki and editors Konstantin Bock and Laure Gardette painstakingly carved the movie down to feature length for its showing at Cannes.

Following the festival screenings, Labaki trimmed the film further, taking care not to compromise its meditative, unhurried pace. “It is important to me that you feel a sense of time passing by,” she says. “Even with the seasons. It starts in summer, and at some point it starts raining, and then later on it’s cold and you see them wearing coats.”

A production process like Capernaum ’s could never have been conceived before the age of video, where the cost of rolling cameras for six months is relatively insignificant compared to all the other costs of production.

“After all my research, I could have done a documentary,” Labaki says, “but it was important for me to write a fiction that gathered all the stories I heard together into one story, treating them in a way that it looks real, so you don’t feel the fiction and you don’t feel the intervention of the writers and the director. My goal was to use the film as a vehicle for reality and to divert it into the fiction we wrote.”

It’s possible that when filmmakers are able to see the documentary about the making of Capernaum , her unique method might become an inspiration for future films, pushing forward a tradition that dates back to the Italian neo-realist films of the 40s. “Cinema has to go in this direction,” says Labaki. “It’s a natural path. Fiction is mostly about ‘make believe,’ but I don’t think that cinema should only ‘make believe.’ Cinema should be more than that.”

Capernaum may be set in Lebanon, but its concerns are global. “When I started plunging into this universe, I changed my perception of what the film was,” says Mouzanar.

“Suddenly it appeared to me like a futuristic movie. It was like I was plunging into a MAD MAX style film. This city, this underground city, appeared to me like it could be the underground of Mexico or the underground of New Delhi or any big city in the world. In fifty years, with global warming, with migration from the south to the north, all the big cities in Europe will have this in their suburbs. This is not just something local. It’s really something that’s happening on Planet Earth, and that will be the future of every city in the world in the next half century.”

Labaki and Mouzanar are active in numerous political organizations in Beirut, including Beirut Madinati (“Beirut My City”), the volunteer-led grass roots campaign which won 40% of the votes in the last election. Labaki even began a run for Parliament with Beirut Madinati, getting far enough ahead in the polls that she could have won. “I think as a moviemaker she can be much more helpful than as a lawmaker,” says Mouzanar. “When she ran her aim was not to win but to inspire people to take their destiny into their own hands, and not to give in to those corrupt politicians.”

Labaki is hopeful that Capernaum can increase awareness and open up a debate about the conditions of these children. “The problem is that we don’t want to acknowledge it because the issue is so huge that we don’t know where to start,” she says.

“There are a million things we can do, but there needs to be open debate before we can figure out how to implement real change, like changing the laws and implementing new ones. I don’t want to sound naïve in saying a film can change the world, but if it can change the way you look at these kids or you look at your life, it can at least make a change in you, as a person. And when you start looking at these issues in a different way, real change can start.”

Says Mouzanar: “Nadine and I are realistic dreamers. These are two words that fight eternally against each other. But even if you know deep inside that you can’t change anything, you can continue to dream that you can. Humanity and progress is driven by dreamers, not cynics.”

NOTE: The film debuted at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or. The film received a 15-minute standing ovation following its premiere at Cannes on 17 May 2018,  and won the Jury Prize. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards, among several other accolades.