If a tree falls and no one is around to hear it, did it really fall? If a human is born but doesn’t have the documents to prove it, are they really human?
Only one of these riddles occupies the mind of 12-year-old Lebanese street boy Zain — and it’s not the one you would hope for.
In Nadine Labaki’s Oscar-nominated ‘Capernaum’, a haunting portrayal of a broken society riddled with corruption and poverty, our preteen protagonist has to reckon with homelessness, rampant hunger and daily neglect — both on a micro and macro level — as he sues his parents for giving birth to him.
Meanwhile, he’s on trial for a violent crime himself.
The film flashes back and forth between Zain ahead of a judge and the events that led him there. Working as a grocery store delivery boy, he spends his days trying to shield his pubescent sister, Sahar, from the leery gaze of his boss. But when things turn sour, an enraged Zain packs a plastic bag and hits the road.
At a rundown amusement park, he meets Ethiopian worker Rahil, a struggling mother with fabricated papers. She takes Zain home for a meal and a place to sleep, leaving him to watch over her son Yonas (played by baby girl Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) while she’s at work.
Here, as the camera lens sits unobtrusively observing a foul-mouthed Zain care delicately for a weeping, restless infant, you will find the crux of ‘Capernaum’: a quiet, festering, unpredictably comedic and hyper-realistic portrait of a tenacious boy whose small body holds more empathy than entire nations do — and one who just wants to restart his life.
Single mom Rahil is the unsung hero of the film, played by real-life Eriterean refugee Yordanos Shiferaw. Shiferaw was arrested and placed behind bars during filming, much like her character. As with the rest of the cast, she’s a non-professional actress. But she possesses a bottomless capacity for communicating elusive emotions, and pulls off one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the film when Rahil has to hide the fact that she’s lactating from prison officials, lest they come after her son.
When Rahil fails to come home one day, Zain wanders back into the streets with Yonas strapped to a makeshift stroller made out of kitchen pots. He meets a sinister shopkeeper — portrayed brilliantly by Alaa Chouchnieh — who promises him a way out.
Aspro — one brown eye, the other verging on grey — is the kind of insidious, opportunistic and every day crook who’s a dime a dozen, and whose lack of compassion is so blase, it’s chilling. In a dog eat dog world, Aspro has no issue unhinging his jaw and swallowing his inferiors up — even those of them who have to crane their necks to speak to him.
Back in court, Labaki plays the role of Zain’s dogged attorney. In a way, her character mirrors her real life position — a conscientious filmmaker fighting to magnify the voice of Al Rafeea, his family and other vulnerable members of society like them.
But Labaki is not so singularly-focussed that she doesn’t show us that the system, in a broad sense, is failing everyone, including Zain’s onscreen parents. Labaki spent three years researching the film and trying to see the problem from every angle, and it shows here. Yes, she knows right from wrong — but she also has an idea of how the two came to co-exist.
‘Capernaum’, a word that has come to signify chaos, will shake and at times revolt you. And though it’s interspersed with moments of humour, it’s also disturbing beyond expectation. Nevertheless, Labaki leaves us with a glimmer of possibility at the end — a snapshot of hope to invigorate our push for a more tolerable future. Because if a system is broken and everyone is around to see it, who will step up to fix it?
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‘Capernaum’ releases in the UAE on March 14.