Making ‘Capernaum’ was a duty: Oscar contender Labaki

The 45-year-old has arguably become Lebanese culture’s most prominent export and she is bent on making good use of her growing celebrity. (AFP)
Updated 21 February 2019
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Making ‘Capernaum’ was a duty: Oscar contender Labaki

  • Labaki hopes an Academy Award will not only complete the film’s impressive harvest of distinctions but also boost its impact at home
  • The activist in her wanted to jolt her audience into action and mobilize decision-makers in Lebanon

BEIRUT: For Lebanon’s Nadine Labaki, whose social-realist epic “Capernaum” is an Oscar contender for best foreign film, the toughest battle is only just beginning.
Her heart-wrenching story of poverty and survival in Beirut’s wretched underclass won a 15-minute standing ovation and the Jury Prize in Cannes last year.
A former election candidate in Beirut, Labaki now hopes an Academy Award will not only complete the film’s impressive harvest of distinctions but also boost its impact at home.

“So the conversation is starting now and that was my aim, to create this shock, and to create this debate,” Labaki told AFP in her Beirut office.
The 45-year-old has arguably become Lebanese culture’s most prominent export and she is bent on making good use of her growing celebrity.
“I feel it like a duty, it’s not a choice even, and this is what we’re going to start doing, very, very soon: show the film to the government and organize these round tables with judges and lawyers,” she said.
“Maybe it’s going to have a big influence and maybe it won’t, but we have to try,” Labaki said.
The film has already changed the lives of its cast members, many of whom were experiencing the same struggles as their characters during the gruelling six-month shoot.
“Capernaum” follows the travails of Zain, a malnourished boy who runs away from his family when his 11-year-old sister Sahar is sold into marriage.
He is sheltered by an undocumented African worker named Rahil and ends up looking after her baby boy Yonas when she is arrested and jailed.
The parallels between the film’s script and what happened to the actors in real life are uncanny.
Baby Yonas’s on-screen and real-life mothers were arrested together during filming and both were in jail when the scenes of the two children being left to their own devices in the streets of Beirut were being shot.
In the film, Zain keeps dreaming that he will one day escape his misery and move to Sweden.
The Syrian refugee child who plays Zain’s character was recently resettled by the United Nations in Norway, where he now lives with family in a house overlooking the sea.
“I don’t know why those things kept happening, maybe because the script was inspired by so much reality that it was actually bound to happen,” Labaki said.
Zain is now going to school as are his parents as well as several other of the film’s children.
Capernaum has already achieved new milestones for Lebanese cinema and received glowing endorsements from media mogul Oprah Winfrey and others.
Some critics however argued the film was unsubtle in rubbing the viewer’s nose in social squalor, telling the audience when to smile and when to cry.
But restraint, Labaki retorts, is just not in her culture.
“It’s as if people, especially critics, want all cinemas coming from all parts of the world to look the same way,” she said. “Let each country bring its own identity.”
“It’s really very hurtful to hear words like ‘poverty porn’ or ‘emotional manipulation’,” Labaki said. “Especially when there’s no big make believe in the film, everything that is in the film is a reality.”
The activist in her wanted to jolt her audience into action and mobilize decision-makers in Lebanon, a country where Syrian refugees account for a quarter of the population but where faith in the government is rock-bottom.
“People come to me in tears, people say ‘You changed me forever’, ‘I’m not looking at the child I see under the bridge every day in the same way’, ‘I want to do something about it’, ‘How can we help?’,” Labaki said.
She said an Oscar on February 24 would further increase her chances of making a difference.
“Why do we use the word influencers? A celebrity is an influencer whether they like it or not, so they need to use this influence in the best way possible.”


Sheikha Alyazia’s ‘mishmash’ of ancient and modern

Her “Mishmash Trails” featured cave-like shapes cut in marble, with the treasure taking the form of imagined ancient eastern coins. (Supplied)
Updated 23 July 2019
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Sheikha Alyazia’s ‘mishmash’ of ancient and modern

  • Inside the Emirati artist’s inaugural solo exhibition in London, ‘I Met a Traveler From an Antique Land’

LONDON: You are searching for treasure. Several potential locations are marked with an ‘x’ on your map. You move methodically from site to site, always to be met with disappointment — never striking gold. Are you, in following trails set by others, missing the treasure ‘hidden’ in plain view?

This is one of the conundrums posed in the artworks of Sheikha Alyazia Bint Nahyan Al-Nahyan, whose inaugural solo exhibition in London presented a thought-provoking range of work fusing the ancient past with modern life.

Her “Mishmash Trails” featured cave-like shapes cut in marble, with the treasure taking the form of imagined ancient eastern coins, reflecting Arab, Roman and Phoenician influences. She described the coins, embedded in the marble, as symbolic of the great treasures buried in secret locations that were sought out and fought over by many. 

Al-Nahyan named her exhibition — held at Pi Artworks from June 25 to July 7 — with the opening line of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandias”: “I met a traveler from an antique land.” (Ozymandias is the Greek name for the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II.)

Mishmash Dirham. (Supplied) 

The poem, published in 1818, imagines a meeting between the narrator and a traveller who describes a ruined statue lying in the desert. The description of the statue is a meditation on the fragility of human power and on the effects of time: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!/Nothing beside remains: round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“Maybe a positive thing from looking to the past is that it proves it is only human to repeat the mistake and the lesson,” Al-Nahyan told Arab News. “Studying the past is a realization of human nature, individually or in groups, right or wrong. This natural feeling of connectivity is something I usually aim for.”

There is humor in some of her work — particularly the depictions of old commercial airline advertisements from the 1950s and 60s with ancient figures superimposed in the frames. They certainly give the viewer pause for thought about how much our world has changed in the short time since air travel became widely available.

The exhibition’s curator, Janet Rady, said of Al-Nahyan: “She has been practicing art from a very young age and is self-taught. She is incredibly talented, and you see this in the wide range of her work, which uses all sorts of different media. I can’t necessarily call her a pop artist or a collage artist or an installation artist; she is in fact all of these things, but it is the concept behind her work — connecting the past with the present — which is important.”

The UAE’s UK ambassador, Mansoor Abulhoul, was present at the opening and he particularly admired Al-Nahyan’s works based on the classic wooden board game Carrom paired with a modern video game.

Carrom Station in Motion. (Supplied) 

“I first played Carrom with my cousins as a boy, and she has combined it with modern computer games, which is very creative,” he said. He pointed out that her innovative work ties in well with the dynamic of the UAE.

“Next year we have EXPO 2020, with its theme ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.’ It’s very much about our roots and how we take them forward, how we develop the mind and global cooperation,” he said. 

The exhibition included a short clip from Al-Nahyan’s upcoming film “Athel,” written by Al-Nahyan’s sister, Sheikha Shamsa. It centers on a strange encounter in the desert between a pre-Islamic poet and a modern-day TV presenter. “Athel” is set for release later this year and stars Hala Shiha and Mansour Al-Fili.

“The idea behind it all is taken from the tradition of Arabic poetry — its wisdom and, sometimes, risks,” Al-Nahyan explained. “And ending with a realization of one tribal law putting redemption and family before all.” She added that there are some “light-hearted” moments in the film too.

Arabic poetry is an ongoing inspiration for Al-Nahyan’s work, adding another layer of meaning to many of her pieces.

“The Arabic language is poetic, and Arabs and other cultures around the world have documented their lives through poetry,” she said. “So, for example, when tackling the topic of what is considered treasure, we found different meanings in various verses. Like when (pre-Islamic poet) Zuhair Bin Abi Salma refers to glory as the only true treasure.”

There is a much to absorb and reflect on in this exhibition which opens windows into many facets of Arab history and culture and poses universal questions about humanity and what constitutes real treasure.