Nadine Labaki says ‘Capernaum’ changed her as a human being

Nadine Labaki’s ‘Capernaum’ has been nominated for an Oscar. (File photo: AFP)
Updated 22 February 2019

Nadine Labaki says ‘Capernaum’ changed her as a human being

  • Ever since “Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the whole world has wanted a piece of Labaki
  • She became the first female Arab artist to be nominated for an Oscar last month

DUBAI: Nadine Labaki has a rare moment of respite. At home in Beirut for her daughter’s birthday, her punishing tour of the world’s film festivals and awards shows has come to a temporary halt. The interviews, however, haven’t.

Ever since “Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the whole world has wanted a piece of Labaki. A demand that has only intensified since she became the first female Arab artist to be nominated for an Oscar last month.

At the heart of it all lies an unflinching depiction of the lives of street children in Beirut’s slums. In particular, the story of a 12-year-old boy who sues his parents for the life of misery and degradation they have given him.

“This was one of the most difficult and destructive and nurturing and life-changing experiences of my life,” says Labaki, who was the first Lebanese woman to com-pete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes since Heiny Srour in 1974. “I’m not the same person anymore. It completely changed me as a human being, and not only psy-chologically, even physically, and it changed everybody that worked on the film.

“In the beginning we researched for three years and it was very extensive re-search where we used to go and spend hours and hours in those very difficult neighborhoods, talking to people, going from one NGO to the other, talking to judges and lawyers, spending time in court, going to prisons, going to every single corner of those belts of misery that surround our cities and our lives,” she contin-ues.

“After that we shot for six months, spending so much time in those areas and un-derstanding how difficult the struggle is for each one of those individuals who we were working with. Because we chose to work with people who are living that same struggle in their real lives. So you are, in a way, immersed in their reality, and it’s psychologically very difficult and even physically very difficult.”

Those individuals included the film’s lead, the young Syrian refugee Zain Al Ra-feea, who plays a 12-year-old fictionalized version of himself, and Yordanos Shiferaw, an Eritrean refugee whose life imitated art when she was arrested by the authorities during filming. It took the crew two weeks to free her.

“For me, it was a duty to talk about this subject, to try to see the world from their point of view,” says Labaki, whose husband Khaled Mouzanar both co-produced the film and wrote its score. “To try to understand how they see it, how they see this injustice, how they address adults when it comes to their vision of the world that they live in and the chaos they are going through. So it was really this need to understand what goes on in their heads that led me to do this film.”

Labaki, of course, needs no real introduction. Her debut feature “Caramel” was both a critical and commercial success, while “Where Do We Go Now?” won the People’s Choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival and broke box office records in Lebanon. Both dealt with deep social issues and helped further the cause of the Lebanese film industry, which has suffered from widespread apa-thy and a chronic lack of funding for years.

“Capernaum,” however, is on a whole other level. Aside from the research and the six-month shoot, Labaki and her team edited for two years, cutting the film down from an original 12 hours to two. It was a difficult and painful process, involving frequent test screenings and constant restructuring.

“Even now it’s still very difficult to just let go,” says Labaki, who began her career making commercials and pop videos for the likes of Nancy Ajram and Carole Sa-maha. “I’m always thinking about the edit. Did we do the right thing? Did we take out the right scenes? Maybe we should have done it differently… You know, you can’t get closure. You can’t let go.

“I need a lot of time to be able to have the distance I need to know that I’ve taken the right decisions. And I don’t yet know if I’ve taken the right decisions, so it’s a very painful process. And I don’t know if I will ever let go. We were not just mak-ing another film, we were really, in a way, capturing reality and navigating it to-wards the fiction that was written. So it was a re-writing process the whole time.”

Despite the accolades, “Capernaum” is not without its critics. It has been branded as ‘poverty porn’ and accused of advocating reproductive control, neither of which can be taken lightly. Yet Labaki feels such criticism is undeserved.

“Of course I take positive criticism in a very serious manner and I know that it’s not a perfect film,” she says. “Nothing is perfect. You can’t please everyone. But it’s cynical criticism that really, in a way… not bothers me, but I don’t know if I should take it into consideration. It’s very easy to write a cynical review in a café in London or in Paris, sitting in your own bubble, not understanding what’s going on in the world. Unfortunately the reality is much harsher than what they see in the film. So if they think this is poverty porn, I don’t know what they will do when they see the reality of it.

“And also for me I made the film to really ignite some kind of change. To really ignite a call for action, and to shock, because it’s the only way,” she continues. “And it’s doing exactly that. We were able to raise money for the actors, we were able to put kids in schools, Zain is now in Norway with all his family. He’s going to school and the rest of the street kids who are in the film are also now in school. So there is some kind of positive change in the lives of the actors that were in the film.”

Labaki, however, wants to take that change a step further. To help alleviate wide-spread poverty, to further children’s rights, and to encourage the government and NGOs to act to eradicate the conditions that are depicted in “Capernaum.”

“Of course there are a lot of people trying to do something but there are not enough,” says Labaki. “Not everybody’s on the street demonstrating for children’s rights. That’s why we’re going to start working on it with the organizations that work on children’s rights, with the government, and with judges and lawyers.

“This is the aim – to really start working on the matter on the ground. And then we’ll see where it goes. But for the time being now the film is being screened and being released, so of course I have to travel with the film and defend the film and talk about it. But then later there has to be at least some will to change.”


Inside Marvel’s biggest movie yet

Updated 22 April 2019

Inside Marvel’s biggest movie yet

  • As ‘Endgame’ approaches for the Avengers, Arab News talks to three of its biggest stars

DUBAI: For the stars of what could well become the biggest movie ever made — “Avengers: Endgame,” the culmination of 11 years of Marvel storytelling, which opens in GCC cinemas April 24 — there is one rule: You do not talk about “Avengers: Endgame.”

The walls of secrecy surrounding the project are impenetrable. After the last installment of the series, “Avengers: Infinity War,” ended with a shocking twist, leaving half of the Avengers — and the universe at large — dead, fans were anxious to find out what happens next. On their latest world tour to support the film, Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) and Paul Rudd (Ant-Man) have turned volleying “Endgame” questions back into a sport.

“I’ve gotten real jaded about it. Now I’m really mean about it. I’m just like, ‘Next!’” Johansson tells Arab News.

“In the beginning of this press tour, we would try to skirt around it in these cute ways.” she continues.

“We’d be apologetic about it,” says Rudd.

“We’ve gotten really rough around the edges,” says Johansson.

“We all know the story. We can’t say anything! It’s hard for us but it’s harder for you. It’s tricky. I feel like early on I decided, what should we talk about?” says Rudd.

“We can talk about other stuff, like manscaping,” says Johansson.

“I’ll never not talk about that!” adds Rudd.

Since the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) kicked off in 2008 with the release of the first “Iron Man “with Robert Downey Jr., it has evolved, turning characters from footnotes to phenomena. Johansson joined Downey in 2010’s “Iron Man 2” to play Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow, a deadly assassin turned S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. “Avengers: Endgame” will mark her eighth film as the character.

“It’s unprecedented (in cinema) to get the opportunity you really only get working on a very successful TV show — to be able to play a character for a decade of time. We’ve had this luxury of going away and doing other work, and then coming back to these movies, so we’ve all kind of grown,” Johansson tells Arab News.

“I can only speak for my experience, but I feel I’ve grown very much as an actor. I don’t believe I could have played this character in its current state, and certainly as you see her in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’ This is just the right time in my life to be able to play a character that’s fully realized like this, and it very much echoes my own journey as an actor or as a person. Who could have ever imagined that this would be so explosive? It’s crazy. It’s mind-blowing.”

Chris Hemsworth, who first played Thor, a character rooted in Norse mythology, in 2011 and is also about to reach his eighth film, began, as much of the cast did, as a fan.

“The first time that the Marvel universe came into my universe back in Australia, I was sitting there, straight out of high school, watching ‘Iron Man,’ thinking, ‘Oh my god, imagine. I wish I could be a part of that world.’ And then a few years on, getting cast in it as Thor, having the opportunity to embark on it. At the time I was wondering if this film even going to make it past DVD into the cinemas? Was I going to be recast?”

Like Johansson, Hemsworth also feels his portrayal of his character has improved with each film. With 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” Hemsworth believes he found his voice as the Norse god of thunder, finally able to put his own stamp on it, working with director Taika Waititi in a looser, more improvisational style. The film — a hit with both critics and audiences worldwide — revitalized the character. With “Endgame,” that tone is likely to continue, Hemsworth tells Arab News.

“There was more improvisation in this than the previous one (“Avengers: Infinity War”). The stakes were as high as they could be, but we found a great way to have another version, or more growth in the character, and found something unexpected again. That was so much fun. I’m very thankful that it happened this way, to finish strong, as opposed to the other way around,” says Hemsworth.

Paul Rudd joined the MCU with 2015’s “Ant-Man,” playing Scott Lang, a petty criminal who finds a suit that allows him to grow and shrink at will. Rudd has been the same reliable comic presence he has been since “Clueless” (1995) and “Anchorman” (2004), and if trailers can be trusted, his inclusion in “Avengers: Endgame” will add levity to the serious emotional weight the film promises.

Rudd has enjoyed digging deeper into Lang in each subsequent MCU appearance, also citing Hemsworth’s evolution as Thor as one that he admires.

“Sometimes you finish a movie and when you’re done filming it, you think ‘Oh, now I’d like to start it, because I finally have a sense of the character.’ In this one, there’s several chances,” he says. “Characters morph and grow, as we do as people. I’m different from who I was three years ago or four years ago. You get to know the character more, you get to know the world more, the other actors better, and as a result you get to go even deeper with the character.

“I look at Thor in the first movie and then in ‘Thor: Ragnarok,’ and what a crazy amazing journey that character has been on,” he continues. “These films provide the opportunity to explore many different facets of the character.”

As much as the respective performances have evolved during 11 years of the MCU, the cultural landscape and conversation around gender has also moved forward, with audiences much less likely to tolerate female characters who are token or one dimensional. Johansson’s Black Widow has evolved with the times.

“The character started as sort of a sexy secretary with a skillset on the side. We didn’t know, or certainly I didn’t know, how the audience would react to the character, my interpretation of the character, who was obviously a beloved character for a long time. I feel the next time we saw her in ‘Avengers’ (2012) she was sort of one of the boys, for better or for worse, and that made sense then,” Johansson says.

“As the fans and the audiences have pushed Marvel and all the studios and filmmakers to really throw up on the screen what represents what’s going on in the zeitgeist, and wanting to see diverse films and casts that represent their own aspirations and how they feel, the character has sort of grown in reaction to that,” she continues. “And the movies have grown in reaction to that fan encouragement.”