Nadine Labaki on Her New Film “Capernaum”

Hari Sreenivasan sits down with Lebanese film director and Golden Globe nominee Nadine Labaki, to discuss her latest work casting refugees who deliver astonishing performances in “Capernaum.”

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Just as we rely on journalists to bear witness, we often rely on filmmakers to bring important stories to life.

The Lebanese director Nadine Labaki is new film Capernaum does just that.

It tells the story of Zain, a 12 year old street kid in Beirut who is trying to sue his parents for having him.

The actor playing Zain Al Rafeea is himself a Syrian refugee and was illiterate when filming started.

He's one of several non-actors featured in the cast and all deliver astonishing performances.

This month, Capernaum secured a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and Hari Sreenivasan sat down with Nadine Labaki earlier this week to discuss it.

First what's the film about.

In brief the film is about a boy who sues his parents for giving him life and for bringing him into this world that is not giving him any chance to survive or any tools to survive.

Symbolically he doesn't have papers, he's not been registered so symbolically he's a nonexistent child, a child that is almost invisible, that we don't see.

He's almost representing not just a forgotten individual but a lost generation of kids.

We have seen in this migration out of Syria and also the global migration that's happening, what happens to these kids.

There's no school, there's no prospect of a job.

They don't have the right to anything, unfortunately.

Yes this is the moment they are born in a way since the moment zero, they don't have the right to anything because most of the time unfortunately these kids are not registered because it costs money to register a child so it starts from there.

The story takes place in Lebanon because this is what I know, this is where I live, this is where I can tell my story because this is something that I know very well but this is not only happening in Lebanon, this is happening almost in every big city of the world.

This Capernaum that we're talking about, Capernaum means chaos, means also chaos and miracles at the same time and and so this is the story of any big city of the world right now unfortunately.

You were able to get into parts of the city that if I was a tourist I'm never going to see.


How did you get the buy in from the neighborhood, from the street because a lot of times people are in dire straits they say you know I don't I don't want you to show this side of my city or my country.

It was it wasn't even a choice for me.

It was a sort of a duty at some point.

It was my duty to show it because this is a problem that is coming becoming almost part of our daily lives.

You know the sight of children on the streets, children begging, children working, selling gum, carrying heavy loads, children who are deprived from their most basic rights.

These children are paying the highest price for our faults and our conflicts and our wars and our stupid decisions and stupid governments and and failing systems and so I thought it was my duty in a way to talk about it.

I was I was collaborating in this crime if I was going to be silent and I started researching and going to those places, you know, you imagine this kid's life and his family but you don't know the behind the scenes really.

Where does this kid go to when he disappears around the corner and you don't see him anymore?

What is his life?

Who is his family?

What is his everyday struggle?

What is he feeling toward this injustice that he's living and it started like that, wanting to know more, going to those, places meeting children, talking to children and talking to the parents because I needed to understand also the point of view of the parents and then talking to lawyers to judges trying to understand the point of view of justice, going to court trying to understand where is the failure, where where is the failure of the system.

Let's take a look at a clip one of the several clips you have from the courtroom scene.

ell me a little bit about Zane the actor who plays him.

I mean we don't see as much in this particular scene but it's a remarkable performance by this young man.

He's a miracle boy, truly a miracle.

Zain is a Syrian refugee.

He's been living in Lebanon in very very difficult circumstances for the past eight years, through the war in Syria with his family so he was living in one of those very difficult neighborhoods.

The situation was even more difficult than what you see seen the film.

The only difference is from the films that Zain has loving parents.

In real life now.

In real life in a way they knew how to love him and Zain never went to school so and at the moment where we were shooting the film he was 12, he didn't even know how to write his own name.

But he's quite smart.

Very smart, very smart because Zain, obviously, he learned in the school of life and the streets and this is where he learned everything.

This is where you had to be an adult to survive because he had to struggle everyday to exist and when you see those kids fighting when you see those kids struggling with life, they're not kids anymore.

You understand that when you hear him talk, when you hear his foul language, his body language, Zain is much smaller than his age because of malnutrition.

He was 12.

You think he was 8 or 9 maximum when you look at him.

You have, you see you know he has these sad eyes that show you that explain to you everything he's been through with.

It shows that these eyes will have been witness to a lot of things, a lot of abuse of mistreatment.

He's seen other kids being mistreated and abused.

He's seen his neighbors getting married at 11 or 12 years old, sold, I'm going to say getting married.

They're actually sold under the excuse of marriage so she knows everything he's talking about in the film.

He is at those kids and he knew, he understood that he was in a sort of a mission that he was becoming the voice of those voiceless kids he was representing.

This gave him also a lot of strength, it gave him it we were all collaborating in a way we felt like a team and he was he was part of that mission.

Is this why you chose the type of cast that you did.

I mean you were casting as you were shooting the film.

These were not professionals, there was not a casting agency, not an audition that went out.

The casting department was just amazing.

They would go everywhere and Lebannon, go to the most dangerous and unfortunate places, interview kids, interview the parents.

Zain was found in the streets he was playing in his neighborhood and the casting director saw him and interviewed him and as soon as I saw the interview, it was obvious, two minutes into the interview that I had found him.

So you're telling me the basically their real life experiences started informing your script.


So what they have already lived through added a layer of authenticity to what you're trying to document.

Yes absolutely all the time.

Of course we had a very solid script to start with because it's impossible to improvise if you don't know your material very well so that's the our are our script was our solid base.

It was our starting point and our landing point every time, in every scene, but in the meantime we are open to whatever life is going to give us also and to whatever the actors have to say or have to give or have to add.

I felt like I don't have the right to impose anything on them or any reality or anything I had imagined when I was researching.

I knew that I have to draw in whatever I was seeing that reality and in a way transpose it in the script.

I don't have the right to imagine that story.

I have to be the vehicle for them to express themselve, for them to tell me their real story.

So it was a collaborative process that the whole time.

Another character in the film that was really quite a good performance of Rahil.

Tell me a little bit about.

Rahil is also, she's from Eritrea and she ended up in Lebanon in very difficult circumstances.

She lost her parents at a very young age, so she was an orphan.

When she was very very young she had she had to take care of her siblings, she had a very very difficult life and then she ended up in Lebanon at some point and in Lebanon also under the sponsorship system, the situation is very difficult.

It's almost like modern slavery in a way.

She had no papers so she was living illegally because she wasn't obviously happy in the house with the employers she was working with.

She was working as a maid?

Yes, yes.

Most of them work as domestic workers in houses and she was working at a house and she was not happy so she left and she was a runaway and in a way so she was living illegally in Lebanon.

When we met her, when the casting director saw her also and interviewed her in the beginning it was difficult because she was scared.

Also who are these people you know interviewing me why I am in a illegal situation so it took time to build this trust relationship and you know she's magic when you see her in the film.

She's magic because she's been through very difficult circumstances and she knows everything she's talking about in the film.

She knows that suffering she's been there.

You don't need to explain it.

You don't need to act that way.

She is that person.

There's a certain universality here in the importance of papers, of identity.

You can talk about it to a character that's a refugee from Syria or from Eritrea or the undocumented that are living in the United States every day.

That was a very important theme in the film.

If you if you if you analyze it, almost each one of the characters has the same problem for different reasons and I wanted really to talk about the absurdity of having to have a paper to prove that you exist where where you are here, your own flesh and blood you exist you really do exist but you have to have this piece of paper and if you don't you don't have the right to anything.

[There's no sugarcoating this film.

I mean it is a hard film to watch.

That's the point.

Is there anything that we can hope for because you get out of this film and thinking it's pretty bleak.

I mean not that you should make people feel good if it's not the truth.

I think it's you know that that smile at the end of the film, the fact that Zain looks at you, this only time, for the first time looks at you as a viewer in the eyes.

It's a way of engaging with you and saying you know I'm here, I exist, look at me, stop being oblivious.

We're not talking about hundreds of kids or thousands of kids we're talking about millions of kids across the world.

They say there's over two hundred and eighty million children across the world in those situations, children working to feed their families, children deprived from schools, children hungry and this is what this look at the end of the film for me means.

We have to look at the problem, we have to look at those children and we have to acknowledge the problem, otherwise we are on the verge of a big catastrophe.

It's going to explode in our faces.

These kids are very angry and one day they're going to grow up.

As a fallout from Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the neighboring countries are picking up the brunt of this weight and their economies in some ways can't handle it.

It's it's it's unimaginable unimaginable to think that only 10 countries in the world have, you know, almost 60 percent of the burden of of of of this crisis of the Syrian refugee crisis.

In Lebanon one in six people is a Syrian refugee.

In Jordan, one in 14.

In Turkey there is three and a half million refugees.

It's really the neighboring countries and unfortunately they are in their own economical crisis.

Each one of those country is countries is struggling with their own economical situation.

You know in Lebanon when ever since we were kids in school the teacher used to tell us you know you see that invisible dot on the map, this is Lebanon.

This is your country.

So this invisible dot on the map is actually hosting in proportion with the population in Lebanon, it's hosting the highest number of refugees in the world.

It's almost half the population.

This cannot be the burden of one or two or three countries.

This is a shared responsibility.

Nadine Labaki, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Michael Beschloss about President Trump; and Alan Rusbridger about the state of journalism. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Nadine Labaki about her latest work, “Capernaum.”