Political Film Review #592

A BOY GENIUS FISHES FOR HIS LIFE IN CAPERNAUM

About 12 years old, Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea) is a Syrian refugee living in Beirut, Lebanon, along with his refugee family. At the beginning of Capernaum (Capharnaüm), he is in court suing his parents because they gave birth to him. His mother Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad) is pregnant, and the remedy that he seeks in court (toward the end of the firm) is for his mother to have an abortion so that the new baby will not have to confront a life of child abuse, starvation, and uncertainty. But he is also in court because his sister Sahar (Cedra Izam) was “sold” to someone for chickens and later died, prompting Zain to stab him and end up in jail. Flashbacks from the court scene, twice repeated, tell the real story.

Capernaum seeks to represent the life now being endured by Syrian refugees who left something much worse. Director Nadine Labaki found Syrian-born Zain on the streets of Beirut with a life story similar to the fictional tale that she was making into the film; others were discovered the same way. Zain’s mostly calm demeanor in the film seems a hidden clue to where he now lives.

Intelligence can be defined as the ability of someone to learn from experience in order to solve challenges correctly and swiftly. By that standard Zain appears as having the world’s biggest IQ. He also has a strong sense of right and wrong as well as compassion. Capernaum shows how he handles his life by making money for food as a street-smart boy in a city best described by Thomas Hobbes as a place in which there is a war of all again all. None of the Syrian refugees featured have documented approval to live in Lebanon, and Zain does not know his age or birthday because he has no birth certificate, and such facts are not in the minds of his abusive parents.

After Sahar’s “sale,” Zain decides to take a bus ride from the place where his parents have found temporary slum lodging, much as children leave their parents when overabused. As he rides to the Cola section of Beirut, a strange-costumed man sits on the seat next to him and gets off at Luna Park. Within a minute, Zain exits to seek the man, who seems very kind. But Zain instead encounters Rahil (Yordanos Shifera), an Ethiopian woman, also undocumented, and begs her for food. Out of compassion for him, she takes him into her shack and assigns him the role of caregiver to her 1-year-old boy, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). That episode demonstrates that Zain’s foul mouth, which he learned from his parents, is a coping mechanism that hides his decency, need for friendship, and desire to care for others. During his life in the new place, he befriends another refugee who has decided to escape to Sweden. She informs him how to proceed. But that episode ends with the mother in jail and the difficult decision to park the boy with someone to gain funds in order to emigrate out of the chaos.

Tears will flow from filmviewers as they absorb the predicaments, scenes, and words throughout the film, and the review thus far might seem to discourage purchase of a ticket (or a fee on the Internet) to see the film. It may be a breach of filmreviewing ethics to suggest that the ending is worth waiting for.  In any case, the Political Film Society has nominated Capernaum as the best film of 2019 in two categories—best film exposé and best film on human rights of 2019.  MH