At the Academy’s Governor’s Ball this past weekend, Nadine Labaki, the director of Lebanon’s Oscar foreign language submission “Capernaum,” said she witnessed her child star Zain Al Rafeea sign his name for what would’ve been one of the first times in his life.
Zain is a Syrian refugee who was living in Lebanon for eight years when Labaki found him. He was 12 at the time of shooting “Capernaum” but then did not know how to read or write. Today, Labaki informs that Zain is safe and resettled with loving parents in Norway. And he finally put his newfound skills to good use when he got to visit Los Angeles and even see the Beverly Hills Hilton.
“He’s seen so much in his life, nothing really impresses him anymore. He’s very tough, a very wise child,” Labaki told Sharon Waxman Monday as part of TheWrap’s Awards and Foreign Screening Series at the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles. “Life has been really great to him, and he’s regaining his childhood. When you see him, he looks like any other normal child.”
Labaki explained that Zain’s upbringing was very much like that of his character, a Lebanese boy attempting to sue his neglectful parents after he’s imprisoned for stabbing someone. He runs away from home and finds himself caring for the baby of an illegal refugee from Ethiopia after she’s separated from her child. His scrappy, street-smart resourcefulness, defeatist outlook on life and vulgar language have rapidly made him into an adult. Yet Zain’s character has no papers, no ID and no birth certificate to pinpoint his age. And like his character, Zain grew up so malnourished, he’s far smaller than other boys his age.
“They’re not children anymore. Most of them have lost their childhood. They’re as adult as you and me, if not more.” Labaki said. “The sight of children on the streets is a sight you see a lot. And unfortunately it’s growing more and more. It’s becoming part of our daily lives. We live with it and don’t even notice it. So it’s about trying to understand, how did we get to this point? How did we allow ourselves to get to a point where we don’t really look at those children anymore and just live with it?”
Intriguingly, watching “Capernaum” is specifically designed to make you wonder how we got to this point. The film cuts back and forth between Zain’s appearance in court and his childhood excursions. So we know what his fate will be, but not the circumstances that got him there.
It’s a bleak, but moving story that producer and composer Khaled Mouzanar says started with a cut of the film that was 12 hours long, whittled down from 600 hours of rushes over six months of filming and two years of editing. Labaki said she couldn’t bear lose any of the unexpected, improvised moments that were unearthed in the course of filming and even teased that she still has a copy of the longer version of the film.
“I don’t know if I’m ever going to let go of those 12 hours,” Labaki said. “It’s difficult to say I’m not going to share this. It’s so beautiful, it’s so amazing. ‘Capernaum’ means chaos and miracles, and we were in that all the time. Beautiful miracles happened all the time.”
Labaki however says that the story of “Capernaum” is far bigger than just her as a filmmaker. In addition to helping to support Zain and bring him out of poverty, the filmmakers have started a scholarship fund and are working to aid all the other children featured in the movie, many of whom she says still live in dire conditions. Nearly one million Syrian refugees were reported in Lebanon in 2016. And Labaki says her film is dedicated to the millions of children not just in her country but around the world who have gone through what Zain has.
“It’s all about those children paying the highest price for our faults, and our conflicts and our stupid decisions and our stupid governments, and our wars.” Labaki said. “I don’t know how much we’re acknowledging the problem. I don’t know if we’re aware how big the problem is.”
“Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and opens in theaters from Sony Pictures Classics on Dec. 14. Watch a video clip of TheWrap’s panel discussion with Labaki and Mouzanar above.