In the milieu of an openly anti-refugee government, the conditions that the Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in are nothing short of abysmal. Be it on the streets, or in the refugee camps, their livelihood and grief are driven by poverty, the lack of access to education, healthcare facilities, and unemployment.
The history of it all runs deep into the system. It all started during the beginning of the 2011 Syrian Civil War, when Lebanon had become host to approximately 1.5 million refugees. It further goes back to the time when Syrian troops entered Lebanon and started exerting their influence on the politics of the state. They remained under supervision of the Syrian government and withdrew only fifteen years after the Lebanese Civil War. Since then, the strained relationship between Lebanon and it’s Syrian refugees have been outrightly expressed through their politics. This feeling of resentment has influenced the Lebanon political leaders to hold back from providing the refugee population with a lawful status, so as to avoid encouragement for them to stay in Lebanon further.
This issue has led to a bigger problem, which is the denial of the Lebanon government to provide official registration of refugee births which would ultimately lead to the risk of them being stateless and vulnerable to more abuse and exploitation.
Capernaum, written and directed by Nadine Labaki deals with this big humanitarian issue on the whole but has a more visceral, touching and heart-breaking quality to it as it tells the story through an 12 year-old Zain El-Haji, who in reality is a Syrian refugee child actor. His narrative is beautifully enmeshed with a parallel storyline of an Ethiopian immigrant Rahil and her infant Yonas, whom she ultimately loses to the system after being arrested by the Lebanese authorities.
It all starts when Zain and his poverty stricken family have to do odd jobs in order to sustain a livelihood. If there is one thing Zain cared about, it was his 11 year old sister, Sahar having to get married off to an older man in order for their family to receive supplies and sustenance. To his bitter despair, the exact thing happens. A heartbreaking scene in the film is when Zain is protesting, howling in front of his mother to not send her sister away. In a larger context, another innocent individual being lost to a system that is unfair is unbearable for him and the audience. To protest, he runs away from his home and his parents.
On his expedition to a new life, he meets Rahil who is willing to give him a shelter in exchange for babysitting her son. During this, his encounters with a young girl who is promised to be sent somewhere safe being promised an identity and a man who promises this to her, all happen. An 11 year old conflicted with his own idea of reality and what he must do to get away from it makes decisions that are unpleasant in nature. We see him end up in jail for something that he had done all to run away from that reality of his.
Capernaum deals with the politics of relationships and families as much as it deals with the politics at large. Zain’s refusal to live and make compromises like his parents have is a harder path to take but needed for him in the journey of attaining freedom and respect, in a place where both are restrained and unimaginable.
The camera in this film is longing, distant and yet so close to see each one of the characters grappling onto their reality and them coming to terms with it and sometimes fighting the same. In a world where self-identity is not something a 12 year old necessarily thinks about, there is another world that swings between the innocence and maturity that compels them to do so. In the beginning of the film, there are shots of children playing around with toy rifles, that subtly comments on the hostility of the environment they are being brought up in.
Zain’s rebellion against his parents talks about a much larger rebellion against the system of injustice. In a scene, where he goes back to his house to get his birth certificate for the identification process, not only does he find out that he never had one but also comes face to face with the death of Sahar. Angry, upset, disappointed, he does something that lands him in jail where he decides to sue his parents. In a court proceeding, when the judge asks him why he wants to take such an extreme step, he replies, “Because I was born…” or more accurately perhaps what he means is “Because I was born and my parents had me in a place where they could never raise me.”
The film very subtly also points to the parents’ helplessness and need to have children which is left for the audience to catch upon and think about. They, like anyone, are in dire need of help. In a world where everything around you is so conflicted, realities, decisions, compromises become greyer and perhaps that is the intention of the director to also hint at the life the parents endured. It doesn’t make us hate them, rather it poses a larger question about the internal politics of relationships and what one does to maintain them while simultaneously fighting larger battles of the world.
As we are left with a lingering last frame of Zain’s heart-warming smile for his identification photograph, everything around us seems smaller. At that moment only his triumph and his attempt to succeed in this system matters.
Capharnaum, meaning “a place marked by a disorderly accumulation of objects”. Capharnaum. A place with multiple grey realities. Capharnaum. A place of extreme political and personal unrest. Capharnaum. A strive to succeed the last hope of an innocent and mature rebellion. Capharnaum. A triumph onto the many firsts of a hopeful smile on a 12 year old’s face.