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.
I know how difficult your paths have been my beautiful little heroes . No matter where your life will take you next i hope your destiny will allow you to be the best version of who you are . Thank you for being part of our life. Your smile is our biggest achievement. Thank you @faressokhon @blurryjenny @harakatsara for capturing those precious moments Thank you @brunotabbal for your beautiful edit Thank you my beautiful Capharnaum team for making it all possible ! @capharnaumthefilm @khaledmouzanar @sonyclassics
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“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.”