“I want to sue my parents”.
“Why do you want to sue your parents?”
“Because I was born.”
This is not the first scene, but this is the first time Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) speaks, and these words hit me like a bullet. How often in a film do you see a child questioning his existence so fundamentally? Zain’s anger is the pinnacle of conflict in the film, which is revealed in the first 10 minutes of the film and then Labaki spends the rest of it taking us back to the story that led to this anger. Why does he want to sue his parents for bringing him into the world?
Zain’s a young 12 year old kid living in the slums of Beirut, Lebanon with his parents, who make a living selling drugs inside the prison, and siblings we’re unable to count. He is especially close to and protective of his sister Sahar. Zain has had to grow up before his age because of his neglectful parents and their carelessness about having multiple kids, all which he takes care of. But this care, responsibility, and a need to protect is illustrated when he finds out that Sahar has gotten her first period and he coaches her throughout the process, from washing her bloodied clothes to showing her how to put a pad on. He knows that if his parents find out, they’d sell her to Assad, their landlord, for two chickens. As he makes plans to escape with Sahar and start a new life, his parents find out and sell her off. Furious, Zain escapes and spends the day roaming around, clueless and despondent. At the end of the day, he meets Rahil, an Ethiopian immigrant, who takes pity on him and takes him home, agreeing to let him live there in exchange for babysitting her infant son, Yonas.
The film builds a stark contrast between the kind of parenting Zain has had versus the kind of parenting he should have had, or for that matter, any child is entitled to. But the anger that I talked about earlier, that resulted from the former, is not prevalent throughout. He doesn’t have time to be angry, because he’s too busy surviving. He doesn’t have time to indulge in emotional catharsis because he is desperate; he has to take care of someone else almost constantly and go through a moral dilemma throughout it all. We all root for Zain; this fighter of a boy who wants a better life and better circumstances to choose from.
As well-written as the screenplay is (co-written by Labaki), it’s her directorial choices that render it effective. The director uses smash cuts generously, the first one being right after Zain says that he wants to sue his parents for being born, taking us directly to him walking to the chemist with forged prescriptions of tramadol, and carrying heavy water bottles, and working as a delivery man. The edit choice forms the basis of the aesthetic and emotional tones of the film, in which we see multiple smash cuts being used effectively to link the emotional choices of a character to advancing the story. Labaki’s use of negative space and shallow focus is another choice that highlights the isolation of the characters of Zain and Rahil. Both of them are outcasts and don’t fit into their surroundings and have to fend for themselves in terrible circumstances. These two choices also highlight the ‘otherness’ of the two; one, a helpless child and the other, an immigrant woman fighting for a better life for herself and her son.
Apart from these choices, another reason why the film was (and still is) branded into my brain is because even if the story was fictional, it seemed like it was not. Labaki encouraged the actors to improvise and they picked up from their personal experiences, which added to the rawness and the jagged edges of the film. The actors who play Zain and Rahil are both refugees and the actor who plays Sahar sold balloons in the street before she was picked to act in the film. The only person who hasn’t experienced the situations shown in the film is the director, who plays Zain’s lawyer in the film. Put this along with handheld camera shots used sparingly in scenes, you get a story that is as real as it gets without it actually being real.
‘Capernaum’ is not just the story of Zain and his siblings or Rahil and her son. It is a story that is universal in its compelling tale of poverty, bureaucracy, and loss of innocence. But Labaki doesn’t want you to pity the characters; she wants you to look at what’s happening, and look hard. And then maybe instead of just crying for them, you’ll not just root for Zain, you’ll root for them all.