Capharnaüm – a Life Without Choices

In 2018, at the Cannes film festival, a director from Lebanon, Nadine Labaki, presented her screen story about one boy from Syria – `Capharnaüm`. Twelve-year-old Zain is condemned to spend half a decade in prison. While there, he applies to the courts to learn the reason that his parents had given birth to him. He calls his life a dirty rag, for wiping feet.


The story comes from the slums of the Syrian refugees in Beirut. Beirut is the largest city in Lebanon. The density of the population is enormous. Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a 12-year-old boy from a large family, lives here in the poorest social strata. Every day he goes into a cruel world where he has to fight for his life.



If you want to eat – work, even if you’re a little kid. Children work in the same way as adults – they load goods, boxes, heavy bottles. Unfortunately, they endure violence more frequently than the adults. Zain works for a salesman as a stevedore while his parents make drugs for sale for their eldest son, who is in prison.

To understand how difficult the situation is, more than dozens of the heroes sleep on the floor in a small slum apartment. One toddler is chained by his leg to be isolated from adults. In such conditions, the children suffer the most – the absence of the concept of childhood gives color to all of life. Children want to play with toys, and have fun, but reality for the children in this film is military conflict, wooden weapons, and cigarettes.

As for the girls, the girls are sold for money, given away in marriage, the sooner the better. Such opportunities help to support the family and sometimes pay the rent. This happens to Zain’s sister, 11-year-old Sahar (Cedra Izzam), and it is Zain’s boss who intends to buy her. But Zain`s role is to prevent it from happening and together with his sister to plan to escape. The attempt fails, and Sahar is sold, leaving Zain alone in the slums.


A small `adult` boy

As Zain rides the bus, he meets an old man dressed as a cockroach, but pretending to be Spider-man. He works in a local amusement park. Zain follows him off the bus, into the park. This shows the boy’s incredible connection to the idea of childhood – parks, swings, sweet popcorn. But even here, he doesn’t find the childish joy that might eclipse sadness. Then Zain appears as a mature man, with many of his troubles behind him, who has turned in the body of a young boy. The life he was born to destroys his childhood happiness and makes him grow up very young.

But his life goes in another direction when he meets another refugee, from Ethiopia – Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw). She lives in Beirut with a false identity and hides her small child inside a wheel on a cart. Their stories intersect at a difficult moment for Zain and for Rahil, because both have been deprived of many rights, above all the right to feel fully human.

This film is a warning shot that relies on dangerous situations when there are no other tools in the bag. Nadine Labaki pursues this movie as a wake-up call for people whose unconscious cruelty has been at the core of children’s struggling. It happens that all the conditions of our lives are created by people.

But also, people often resort to blaming these conditions for their mistakes. A vicious circle, isn`t it? Yes, of course, sometimes ordinary people are only victims of situations they cannot control, such as war, for instance. However, it’s in our power to modify relations with the environment and the people around us, refusing to give in to conditions that are triggering. In the system that man has been adjusting to for centuries, there are many who have, by chance, fallen into its grinder.


Talking about your suffering is the greatest risk, breaking down the inner child, struggling to be alive – the biggest sacrifice.

Nadine Labaki, in her film “Capharnaüm”, judges no one, but on the contrary, gives an opportunity for the characters to express their weaknesses.

There is a court process with flashbacks to the past. Zain, together with an attorney, who is played by Nadine Labaki, files a public claim for his parents. Zain protects not only his rights, but the rights of many other children who have been suffering from violence and abandonment. His application attracts the attention of the authorities, social welfare services. Except that, Zain doesn’t get a biometric identification, and people have said that many children die in a formal sense, as the fact of their birth is never examined and never given legal status.

When Zain blames his parents, he is punished with a 5-year imprisonment. And probably, he experiences despair when there is nothing to lose. Prison might be the last of his inner patience and perhaps the safest place in his life. Living with no choices and no other life, it’s intuitive to believe that it won’t always have to be this way. This is the story of Zain and other children like him.

Living as they are told, surviving by the laws of society is a format that has destroyed more than one prospect for better change. This is the scheme that breaks more than children. From which arises the adult who creates conditions that drive future generations to destroy and curse life again.


The way behind this story gets real

When Nadine Labaki decided to film this story, she spent four years searching for information about the refugees. She went to the shelters, talked to the children in the prisons. The film showed real emotions, whereas the children were simply themselves. All the actors were unprofessional, discovered on Beirut’s streets.

In the process of casting many children, they were interviewed, and the sad thing was that most of the children answered the same: they didn’t know what they had been living for, and every day for them was the same as yesterday, they worked, some went to school, but only a few. Of course, talking about joy when you don’t have a bed is like asking about finer things with a man who works around the clock for a piece of bread. And also, the tastiest dessert can be ice with sugar.

This film draws the attention of audiences to those who have really suffered – to children. It has become not only the screen story of one boy, but a whole message to the world. After its premiere, many families received support in the form of decent housing or an opportunity to settle elsewhere. The real Zain has moved with his family to Norway.  The windows of his house face the sea, and the children have their first beds.

The film teaches us to notice those who have to struggle beyond their strength. Because we are used to seeing trouble in rather large-scale situations. And even living in a wealthy country doesn’t guarantee complete physical and mental health. Often, parents have to work hard, filling material gaps, forgetting about simple hugs or cheering up their child. It is unjust to deprive a full-fledged person of all his privileges, especially his personality. It is important to realize that in the world there is a place for everyone if we build it instead of destroying, and take care of everything around us.

And sometimes asking ourselves, do we all do the right thing to call ourselves decent people?

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Photo: Shutterstock

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