To distract from the glorification of gunshots, bombs and explosions that brought crowds to my South Park neighborhood (yes, I could view Sonoma County Fairgrounds 4th of July fireworks from my front porch), I watched the film Capernaum, which was on my list as a Golden Globe and Oscar nominee.
The Lebanese director Nadine Labaki made history for being the first female Arab director to win the Jury Prize at Cannes. The premiere screening of Capernaum during the film festival received a 15-minute standing ovation and when it was over I wanted to applaud as well. “Now that was art!” I said aloud.
The film featured first-time actor Zain al-Rafeea, a 14-year-old Syrian refugee (he looks much younger but his resourcefulness proves beyond his years) whose family was displaced from Syria in 2012. Labaki’s husband, Khaled Mouzanar, produced and composed the film. The haunting musical score, remarkably uncontrived feel, and brilliant performances by the entire cast had me mesmerized.
(Read this interview with the director to learn more about the making of this narrative and the current life situation of its wonderful young star.)
The director noted that her child actors could not memorize lines. She just asked them to be who they are. She explained, “Usually the actor is at the service of the text. In this case, we were at their service. We had to be observant. There were takes that lasted hours and hours.”
What touched me most was how the film managed to incorporate the situation of migrants and refugees common the world over, but made it very real and specific. The universal story applies to children on the Mexican border, in the favelas in Brazil, in the entire middle east. “We’re talking about kids not receiving their most fundamental rights,” Labaki said.
When an interviewer noted, “Some critics may see the film as ‘poverty porn’,” the director replied, “Get real. Get out of your cafe where you’re writing your critique and go out into the world and see what’s happening around you. What you see in the film is nothing compared to reality. Children are suffering unbearably. I didn’t put rape scenes in the film, I didn’t put real abuse in the film — because I couldn’t.”
For that much, I am grateful.
A corollary film review: the 2016 documentary Fire at Sea features a physician on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa who treats rescued African refugees after their overloaded boats land at this way station enroute to Europe. With beautiful cinematography and searing images, this film introduced me to the use of mylar blankets. The DVD extras interview with the compassionate doctor answers many of the objections of those who would refuse these refugees entrance.