Last week I went to the movies and wrapped my humanity in the story of a young 12-year old boy name Zain as he pulled a wagon of hope across an impossible highway.
The traffic whizzed dangerously close as we watched Zain’s incredible tenacity and felt the hopelessness of a baby boy in a makeshift cart of pots and pans.
Photo credit: Rotten Tomatoes
The image still breaks my heart. You know the baby and his undocumented Ethiopian mother will never see each other again.
The only words are the movie credits rolling over the screen, and my legs struggle to lift me from my seat. An eerie silence hangs overhead as a few people wipe their eyes while others wrap their necks in warm woolen scarves preparing to meet the cold winter night.
I had seen these circumstances on the news and the accounts of millions displaced in Syria. But I hadn’t really seen them. The conflicts and strife throughout the Arab world were suddenly very real and very personal.
Young Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is a Syrian refugee in real life . He was chosen to play the lead role in Nadine Labaki’s film Capernaum after months spent looking for a wide-eyed child whose face could communicate the sadness of a lost generation of children. The movie was a deserving 2019 Oscar-nomination for Best Foreign Film.
In my eyes, Labaki did what so many film directors fail to do. She pulled her audience inside the world of Zain and captured his perspective. It was transformative but also terribly frustrating. I think popular movie reviewers grossly under-appreciated Labaki’s movie and I struggled on a personal level to know how to make my way back to a joyful place because the impact was so gut-wrenching.
A few interviews by Labaki bridge what I believe the critics missed. Some extra help from a dead poet and a beautiful writer who works as a human rights lawyer and artist in Chicago helped me to see why the painful subjects can also be redeeming. To this end, I’ve juxtaposed these two perspectives – using the critics’ life and the artists’ work – to come to terms with our humanity and our true source of joy.
Photo credit: The National (Labaki with Zain)
In general, the movie reviews are supportive but focus on two things: the heart-wrenching story and the cast of characters.
The New York Times says Capernaum is heartbreaking and driven by Labaki’s curiosity and the strength of the cast. The reviewer, A.O. Scott retells the events and points out Labaki’s skill as a director. But it’s not enough.
Capernaum is more than heartbreaking and driven by a director’s desire to explore. The story is set in the slums of Beirut and opens with the audience not knowing what atrocity Zain has committed. There is a plot and an inciting force – what will happen to Zain and what did he do to end up in jail. Furthermore, why does he want to divorce his parents for having brought him into the world?
When interviewed, Labaki says she wanted to give children a chance to speak but the film does much more – it explores their rights and issues around homelessness, displaced immigrants and other compelling and growing problems in the world like sex trafficking. Why aren’t we talking about these issues? This is what Labaki raises. God knows she’s well versed having spent the first 17 years of her life in war-torn Lebanon.
In another review by Vulture magazine, Emily Yoshida said Capernaum was full of empathy but has a long way to go in terms of its storytelling. Yoshida felt the plot was overly long and manipulated. While praising the real-life characters, she admits the length and singular point of view detract from the overall structure.
I couldn’t disagree more. We are exacerbated by the lack of resolution – which only serves to underscore how desperate and truly frustrating the real circumstances are in Zain’s world. I think Labaki keeps it real in a world where there is no order and chaos is the plot.
Rolling Stone jumped on the Vulture bandwagon, adding a little more praise for the emotional impact. For them, the movie would have been unbearable had it not been for the flashes of humor and the incredible cast.
Again, I disagree. The flashes of humor help to heighten the gravity of situations, in the way that Shakespeare did.
But Labaki’s voice is strong and focused on a region of the world that many want to forget.
It’s jarring to know Capernaum is an ancient city by the sea of Galilee, in northern Israel. It’s a place of chaos and strife but Labaki handles the scenes with sweeping music that pulls us into the action. We may be lulled but not in any way that is less than the artful depiction of the troubled world presented by Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. No one seemed to take issue with Cuarón’s weaving in and out of his childhood memories. In fact, Zain’s perspective follows a much more progressive plot structure even though both endings were unresolved.
When the movie ends, that lack of resolution is defeating to the soul. I wondered how Labaki and the audience could make peace with the pain. On a very basic level, I’m buoyed by the fact that the movie did garner attention.
I also know that when it screened at the Cannes Film Festival, it took home the Jury Award and the entire audience gave the director a rousing 30-minute standing ovation. I hope this marks the beginning of a conversation.
In moving speech given by Shermin Kruse, the author of Butterfly Stitching, I was inspired by Sherman’s refugee work and one of her favorite poets, 19th-century Khalil Gibran. Shermin was moved by Khalil who said:
(Photo credit: The Telegraph)
“When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.”
(Khalil Gibran, A Lebanese American Writer & Artist)
This truth rattled around in my head then and months later after watching Capernaum. The world will always be at war. That is the nature of our existence. While we will struggle to build peace and joy, we will know sorrow, strife, and animosity from the lack of tolerance we have towards one other. History is my witness.
But that doesn’t mean we should not soldier on, remembering to look deep into our hearts as Khalil reminds us to do in the opening quote. Pain defines our character and provides us with resilience and joy – we can turn pain into strength.
You learn more about Sherman and her book, visit Yara Zgheib’s interview, A Conversation with Shermin Kruse, Global Changemaker and Storyteller. Movies like Capernaum are surreal and rare. And, if we let them, they help us to consider the politics of the world around us. We can appreciate how movies can help us to discover truths about each other and to be kinder, more caring human beings.