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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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: So just as we rely on journalists to bear witness, we often rely on film makers to bring important stories to life. The Lebanese director, Nadine Labaki’s 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, Zain Al Rafeea is himself a Syrian refugee and was illiterate when filming started. He is 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 our Hari Sreenivasan sat down with Nadine Labaki earlier this week to discuss it.


HARI SREENIVASAN: First, what’s the film about?

NADINE LABAKI, LEBANESE FILM MAKER: 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.

LABAKI: 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.

SREENIVASAN: 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 is happening, what happens to these kids? There’s no school. There’s no prospect of a job.

LABAKI: They don’t have the right to anything unfortunately. Yes, since 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. So it takes place in Lebanon because this is what I know, this where I live. This is where I 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 are talking about, Capernaum means chaos, it also means also chaos and miracles at the same time, and so this is the story of any big city of the world right now, unfortunately.

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


SREENIVASAN: How did you get the buy-in from the neighborhood, from the street because a lot of times, people in dire straits, they say, “You know what, I don’t want you to show this side of my city or country.”

LABAKI: It wasn’t even a choice for me, it was 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. The sight of children on the streets, children begging, children working, selling gum and 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 failing systems. And so I thought it was my duty in a way to talk about it. I was collaborating in this crime if I was going be 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 that 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 every day struggle? What is he feeling towards this injustice that he is living? And it started like that, wanting to know more, going to those places, meeting children, talking to children and talking to their 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 courts. Trying to understand where is the failure? Where is the failure of the system?

SREENIVASAN: Let’s take a look at a clip. One of the several clips you have from the courtroom scene.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: [Speaking foreign language]. How old are you, Zain?

ZAIN, CHARACTER IN THE MOVIE “CAPERNAUM”: [Speaking foreign language]. I don’t know. Ask them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: [Speaking foreign language]. Your Honor, Zain has no birth certificate and has never been registered with the state and his parents apparently don’t know his exact date of birth. Here is the medical examiner’s report that states that Zain was approximately 12 years old at the time of the incident.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: [Speaking foreign language]. So he’s 12 years old?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: [Speaking foreign language]. Correct.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: [Speaking foreign language]. Where do you live, Zain?

ZAIN: [Speaking foreign language]. Roumieh Prison for Juveniles.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: [Speaking foreign language]. Arrested on June 15, you’re serving your sentence. Do you know why?

ZAIN: [Speaking foreign language]. Because I stabbed a sonofabitch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: [Speaking foreign language]. You stabbed someone?

ZAIN: [Speaking foreign language]. Yes, sonofabitch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: [Speaking foreign language]. Really? You’re insisting? No laughing in court. What’s all this fuss you’ve caused? On

TV and the media, your phone cal from prison. Know why you’re here?

ZAIN: [Speaking foreign language]. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: [Speaking foreign language]. Why?

ZAIN: [Speaking foreign language]. I want to sue my parents.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: [Speaking foreign language]. Why do you want to sue your parents?

ZAIN: [Speaking foreign language]. Because I was born.


SREENIVASAN: Tell me a little bit about Zain, the actor who plays him. We don’t see as much in this particular scene. But it is a remarkable performance by this young man.

LABAKI: He’s a miracle boy. He is truly a miracle. Zain is a Syrian refugee. He’s been living in Lebanon in very, very difficult circumstances for the past eight years. He fled the war in Syria with his family, so he was living in one of those very difficult neighborhoods.

LABAKI: His situation was even more difficult than what you see in the film. The only difference is from the film is that Zain has loving parents.

SREENIVASAN: In real life now?

LABAKI: In real life, yes. In a way they knew how to love him. And Zain never went to school. So at the moment, when we were shooting the film, he was 12. He didn’t even know how to write his own name which is only —

SREENIVASAN: But he’s quite smart.

LABAKI: 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 he had to be an adult to survive because he had to struggle every day to exist and when you see those kids fighting, when you see those kids struggling with life, they’re not kids anymore. You understand it when you hear him talk and his foul language and his body language, Zain is smaller than his age because of malnutrition. He was 12, you would think he’s eight or nine maximum when you look at him. He has these sad eyes that show – that explain to you everything he’s been through. It shows that his eyes have been witness to a lot of things, a lot of abuse, a lot of mistreatment. He’s seen other kids being mistreated and abused. He has seen his neighbors getting married at 11 or 12 years old – sold, I am not going to say getting married, they are actually sold under the excuse of marriage. So he knows everything he is talking about and in he is 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. So this gave him also a lot of strength. It gave him – we were all collaborating in a way. We felt like a team and he was part of that mission.

SREENIVASAN: Is this why you chose the type of cast that you did? I mean, you were casting as you were shooting the film.


SREENIVASAN: And these are not professionals. There was not a casting agency, not an audition that went out.

LABAKI: Yes, the casting department was just amazing. They would go everywhere in Lebanon, go to the most dangerous and unfortunate places, interview kids, interview the parents. Zain was found in the streets. He was playing next to his – in his neighborhood and the casting director saw him and interviewed him. As soon as I saw the interview, it was obvious two minutes into the interview that I had found him.

SREENIVASAN: So you’re telling me that basically, their real life experiences started in forming your script.


SREENIVASAN: So what they have already lived through added a layer of authenticity to what you were trying to document.

LABAKI: All the time. Yes, absolutely. All the time. Of course, we had a very solid script to start with. Because it is impossible to improvise if you don’t know your material very well. So that’s – our script was our solid base. It was our starting point and our landing point every time in everything. 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 then in a way, transpose it in the script. I don’t have a right to imagine that story. I have to be the vehicle for them to express themselves, for them to tell me their real story. So it was a collaborating process the whole time.

SREENIVASAN: Another character in the film that was really quite a good performance was Rahil. Tell me a little bit about him.

LABAKI: Rahil is also – she is from Eretria and she ended up in Lebanon, in very difficult circumstances. She lost her parents at the very young age. She was an orphan when she was very, very young, 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 is 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 employer she was working with, so she decided —

SREENIVASAN: She was working as a maid?

LABAKI: 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 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 …

LABAKI: … interviewing me. Why? I am in an illegal situation. So it took time to build this trust relationship and you know, she’s magic. I mean, you see her in the film. She is 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 it in a way. She is that person.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: [Speaking foreign language]. How many brothers and sister do you have?

ZAIN: [Speaking foreign language]. A lot.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: [Speaking foreign language]. Do you miss them?

ZAIN: [Speaking foreign language]. I do.


SREENIVASAN: There’s a certain universality here in the importance of papers, of identity. You can talk about it to a character that is a refugee from Syria or Eretria or the undocumented that are living in the United States every day.

LABAKI: That was a very important theme in the film. If you – if you analyze it, almost each one of the characters has the same problem for different reason. And I wanted really to talk about the absurdity of having to have to a paper to prove that you exist, 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.

SREENIVASAN: 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 —

LABAKI: Thinking it is —

SREENIVASAN: Pretty bleak.


SREENIVASAN: I mean, not like you should make people feel good if it is not the truth, but what?

LABAKI: I think it’s – you know, that’s 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 is 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 280 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 is going to explode in our faces. These kids are very angry and one day they’re going to grow up.

SREENIVASAN: 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.

LABKI: Yes, it is unimaginable to think that only ten countries in the world have you know, almost 60% of the burden 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’s 3.5 million refugees. It is really the neighboring countries and unfortunately, they are in their own economic crisis. Each one of those countries is struggling with their own economic situation. In Lebanon, when — ever since we were kids in school, the teacher used to tell us, you see that visible 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 is hosting the highest number of refugees in the world. It is almost half the population. This cannot be the burden of one or two or three countries. This is a shared responsibility.

SREENIVASAN: Nadine Labaki, thanks so much for joining us.

LABAKI: 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.”