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Capernaum: An Arabic Drama tackling Poverty and the Refugee Crisis Head-On

“Why do you want to sue your parents?”, the elderly judge asks the young boy.

“For bringing me into this world.” he replies.

Capernaum is the highest-grossing Arabic film, and the highest-grossing Middle-Eastern film of all time, a title it deserves unequivocally. Barely five minutes in, Nadine Labaki’s 2018 Academy Award nominated film Capernaum lodges a knife in your heart, as 12-year old Zain El Hajj (Al Rafeea) is escorted from a prison cell to a court where he tearfully declares his intent to prosecute his parents for giving birth to him.

Poster for Caphernaum featuring Zain Al Rafea and Boluwati Treasure Bankole

The film thereafter follows the story of Zain, a little boy from the slums of Beirut, who lives with his parents in a small run-down apartment with his seven younger siblings. From selling juice to forging tramadol prescriptions to procure and sell tramadol in Beirut’s prisons, the family does everything it can to survive and pay its rent to Assad, the landlord. When his sister Sahar - who has always attracted the landlord’s attention - gets her first period, Zain prepares to run away with her, afraid that she may soon be married off to Assad. However, when the time comes, his parents manage to give Sahar away in marriage (against her will) in exchange for a couple of chickens. This drives Zain to run away from home, and the film narrates his experiences along the way, particularly with Tigest (Shiferaw), an undocumented Ethopian woman and baby Yonas (Boluwati Treasure Bankole), who take him in. When Tigest is picked up to be deported back to Ethiopia, Zain is back where he started- in dirt poverty, with too heavy a burden for a child.

The film is a heartbreaking watch, and does not shy away from showing the devastation of poverty in Lebanon. From themes of child labour and abuse to those of human trafficking and the Syrian refugee crisis, Nadine Labaki weaves a beautiful tale that places their suffering at the forefront, with no lens, glamour or filter, and invokes empathy in its audience.This is a film with no heroes or villains, merely the reality of poverty and on-the-brink survival, and the lives that it has destroyed.

With a tight script, it is also worth noting that almost none of the actors in this film were formally trained, and are actually people who have lived experiences similar to those of their characters. Zain Al Rafeea is a Syrian-refugee boy who lived with his family in the slums of Beirut. After this film was released, he gained global acclaim for his performance, and was able to obtain a Norweigian passport through UNHCR. He is set to reappear in the The Eternals, which is a part of the beloved Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise.

If you love a good socially-responsible film, stories that often go untold in the clamour of glamour, or simply feel like weeping for two weeks in a row, Capernaum is perfect for you. You can find Caphernaum directed by Nadine Labaki on Netflix now.

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