Nothing I can say or write, nothing anybody can say or write, can hold a candle to what the Lebanese film director Nadine Labaki has managed to record in Capernaum, which received a long standing ovation and the Jury Prize when it was shown at Cannes this year.

I am certain that no kid, not even a Lebanese street urchin, is as wise as the film’s tiny protagonist Zain (played by the Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea), who eventually, through sheer grief and with nothing whatsoever to lose, beats the system. If there were such a kid, there would also be supremely wise adults, which evidently is not the case. Nobody is beating the system. I suppose Nadine Labaki is about as close to doing so as anyone ever was, because those of us who see that film will never be the same.

As far as I can make out, Ms Labaki has two good reasons for allowing the film’s protagonist to beat the system and for suggesting from the very start of the film that he may be able to do so. One of them is that the public would never otherwise be willing to endure witnessing so much injustice and so much pain, knowing – oh yes, and without a shadow of doubt – that what the restless camera reveals to us is the Lord’s truth.

The film is spiked with humorous incidents, and we laugh, relieved at each break from the sordid documentary reality we don’t really want to know about. Laughing and pleased by our hero’s resourcefulness, we are dragged to the next scene of humiliation and hopelessness, during which we gasp and shiver until somebody’s kind smile, or a charming remark, again alleviates our discomfort.

The three heroes are fabulously alive, though only on the screen; without ID documents, they would none of them be missed if they vanished: a tiny Lebanese street urchin, an “illegal” Ethiopian immigrant, and her lovely toddler.

Thanks to Nadine Labaki, they won’t ever vanish. To really make her point, she has apparently chosen her actors for the film from among the sort of people she is portraying.

The second of the two reasons for allowing the film’s protagonist to beat the system is to try to prod us into doing likewise. “If a street urchin can do it, so can you, ” she seems to be saying.

Nadine Labaki, I take my hat off, I bow to you.

In November 2018, director Nadine Labaki reported Al Rafeea’s situation had changed:
Finally, he has a Norwegian passport. He’s resettled in Norway. He’s been there for the past three, four months. He’s going to school for the first time in his life. He’s learning how to read and write. He’s regained his childhood. He’s playing in a garden; he’s not playing anymore with knives and in garbage. (as per 05.01.2019)


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