Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum premiered in Cannes on the final Thursday of the festival, the last of just three female filmmakers in a competition of 21 films. Though her previous two films, Caramel and Where Do We Go Now?, are both social dramas that deal directly with some of the issues facing her homeland, the Lebanese director’s latest reaches a whole new level. Set on the streets in the country’s poorest areas, it tells the story of Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a little boy facing five years in jail after a stabbing incident. In flashbacks, Labaki reveals the terrible deprivation that sends Zain on his tragic destiny, as he struggles to make sense of a world that has rejected him from the day that he was born.
When she sat down to speak with Deadline, Labaki was proud of her film, and rightly so, but refused to be drawn into the war of words that has seen Cannes accused of either neglecting female filmmakers, or—even worse—subtly introducing a quota system. “I would be very irritated to know that I am here because I’m a woman,” she said, “or that my film is here because I’m woman. I’m very proud to be a woman filmmaker, of course, but I would like the film to be here because it deserves to be here, whether it’s made by a man or a woman. I’m proud to be a woman filmmaker and to be able to maybe inspire other female filmmakers to make their film, but to me, it’s all about what the film is worth.”
Capernaum is not exactly an everyday word. What does it mean?
In French, this word is used to signify chaos or disorder. Originally, it was the name of a village in Palestine, but in French literature it started to be used to signify hell. So when I started writing the film, I was with my co-writers, and I was thinking, “OK, what are the obsessions of the moment? What do I want to talk about? What will be the theme of the next film?” Because it always starts with a theme, for me. My husband started writing on a noticeboard. He said, “OK, Nadine—what do you want to talk about next?” So we started writing down all the issues I wanted to explore, and at the end I looked at the board and I was like, “C’est un caphernaüm.” This is hell. This is disorder. This is chaos. The title of the film came up even before I started writing it. It was very symbolic for me.
How did you start the writing process?
The first thing I decided to do was start researching. Because I understood very quickly that the themes I wanted to talk about, especially these kids that I wanted to shed light on, is not a subject that I personally ‘own’, in the sense that I’ve never been a neglected child. So the research process was very important, because I wanted to be as true to them as I possibly could. I spent the last four years of my life just researching, going to a lot of difficult places, going to children’s courts, going to prisons for minors, talking to children, wanting to know more. As a result of that, the script started to develop, inspired by everything I’d seen and everything I’d heard. I wanted to be as close to their reality as possible. And to be able to achieve that, I understood that it was going to be a very long shoot, a very organic shoot, with a very small crew that would be able to serve the story and serve the kids.
What was the biggest challenge?
It was important to take my time—that was the biggest thing I needed on the film. I didn’t need much. We didn’t interfere with the decor and we didn’t interfere in the costumes a lot, or the production design. The money went to [making] time. I needed to take my time with the kids. I needed to just observe them. So it was very important to create this team of people who were willing to go far with me in that adventure. We improvised so much. We changed the locations whenever we felt that we needed to. We were very free, and this freedom was only possible because we decided to produce the film ourselves. We decided to be the only decision-makers who would make these big decisions: “How many days are we going to shoot?” “Are we going to shoot the next scene for the next week or the next hour?” It was very important for me to be free of any pressure. So I really spent time with all the characters when I was shooting. Sometimes the take would take an hour; two cameras, boom operator, the whole crew just waiting for the right moment. Sometimes it would take much longer.
How did you cast the film?
The casting process was a very wild casting process, and I had a crew of at least five people who toured Lebanon and who met with so many kids, and interviewed so many kids—not just the kids, but their parents as well. It was very free and open and it took a long time. They went practically everywhere, saw many, many kids. Zain was found on the street. The casting director found him in her search on the street. He was with his friends, playing, and she interviewed him for, like, five minutes. I think at the end of the first minute I understood that I had found him. I had found Zain.
Were you relieved?
Yes. It was a very difficult task, because when I was writing the thing, I was wondering, “Am I ever going to be able to find this kid who has all these qualities in him? It’s practically a mission impossible. What am I asking the universe for? Am I asking for a miracle?” Exactly the same goes for Jonas—I wanted a child who was starting to walk while start the shoot, who was charismatic, and patient, and smart. I was asking really a lot when I was writing. I thought we were crazy, but then I created this organic way of filming that allowed us to be invisible. We needed to become invisible in order to just let things happen. And it was like a choreography between fiction and reality. Most of the things in the film are not scripted; they’re just something that happened, and I was just always waiting for these moments to happen because they were important to me. Sometimes fiction and reality just bump into each other.
Are there many other non-professionals in the film?
Nobody in the film is professional. Nobody. Every single one of those actors is almost playing their own [self]. Nobody is professional. It was important for me for them to express themselves. To express what they’re living. The real Zain is living in exactly the same situation [as the fictional Zain]. He’s been living for the past year in Lebanon with no papers—he’s illegal in the country. Yesterday, it was very touching in the press conference when he said, “This is not a film, this is my life I’m doing in the film.” So it was very important for me to sort of become this tool. I just wanted myself to be invisible. As invisible as possible. Just become a tool for these people to be heard.
How much of the dialogue was scripted?
Most of it was not scripted. Most of it was just putting them in the situation. Explaining the situation and also…how do you say? Deviating their reality towards the fiction that I wrote. It’s like I told you, it’s a choreography, a dance. It’s about always being there to tell him what to do, and just throwing things at him, and him reacting to what I’m saying. It’s like a ping-pong all the time. But it’s not a scripted thing. Of course there is a script, one that took a while to be written with my co-writers, but when we started shooting, the most important thing for me was to give space to these characters to just be free and do what they feel. And it’s a matter of trust. When do I give them the freedom to say what they want, and where do I direct what they’re doing towards my fiction? So it was always like a ping-pong that allowed me to accomplish that.
How did you know that the boy playing Zain was going to be able to carry the whole movie? Did you ever worry that he wouldn’t?
No. I think this is my strongest point. That’s why I’m in love with what I do. I love my actors; I just know when I meet them that they’re not going to fail me and that I’m not going to fail them. There’s something in me, when I’m observing them, that tells me they’re not going to fail me. I don’t know how to explain it, but I was confident I would be able to direct him towards the fiction that I wanted to tell, and at the same time keep him as close to reality as possible.
Are there many real-life cases like this?
There are thousands of cases like this. It’s a problem that is huge, and I don’t know what the solution for it is. There’s thousands of cases of children that are born and die without anybody knowing. They’re completely invisible. Cases of extreme neglect. You hear of kids dying because they fell off a balcony, because there was no one home to take care of them. These kids are facing extreme neglect, and we have to acknowledge the problem. It’s an ongoing problem and it’s growing bigger day by day, and we need to talk about it. It’s important that we talk about it. It came out of anger—the whole story started with anger and frustration with what was happening, and then I decided, OK, I’m going to try to do something out of this frustration. Most of the kids I talked to, at the end of the conversation, I always asked them, “Are you happy to be born? Are you happy to live?” Most of the time they say, “No, I wish I was dead. I wish I wasn’t born.” So this says a lot about what these kids are living through. And most of them have the wisdom to tell me, “Why did my parents bring me to the world if they’re not going to care for me, if they’re not going to love me?” I’ve seen situations that are beyond neglect. Things that are unbearable to see, so I just needed to talk about it. It was a life-changing experience for me and for all the crew, for everybody that worked on the film. Because it’s not a film. We were filming reality.