by director/co-writer Nadine Labaki
A few years ago, a picture of a Syrian refugee child found dead on a beach in Turkey took over the internet. He drowned in the sea while his family tried to reach Europe amid the Syrian refugee crises. He was only 3 years old. When I saw his frail lifeless little body lying there on the beach, so tiny, so beautiful, so peaceful, I thought: “If this child could talk what would he tell the world? How would he address the adults who failed him, that are dragging him like a puppet in our stupid wars and conflicts and failing systems?” The sight of children begging or working has become the backdrop of our cities.
They say there are over 280 million children working around the world and deprived of their most basic rights. The situation is quite difficult in Lebanon, a country which has hosted more than a million and a half Syrian refugees over the past few years.
I was driving home one night, and I stopped at a traffic light and saw a little child and his begging mother sitting on the side of the road. He must have been around a year and a half. He was very sleepy and there was no place for him to lie down, so his little head kept dangling over his body like a tired puppet with his eyes closing and opening unable to sleep. The sight was a turning point for me. How did we get here? How did we get to a point where we are depriving that child of his most basic right which is only to sleep when he is tired?
I came home and drew the beautiful and angry face of a child screaming at adults standing in front of him. I decided to go on a journey to find out what really goes on in the minds of those children deprived of their most basic rights. How do they see the world they live in? How do they look at us, the adults that failed them? How does this boy standing next to my car window look at me, not looking at him? How does it feel to be nonexistent and invisible?
So I began researching his journey with my co-writers. We went everywhere, to the most deprived neighborhoods to prisons, to homes, to courts. We spent a lot of time in courts trying to understand the justice system and the failures of the system. We tried to understand the problems from many different angles.
We met hundreds of children in dire circumstances. I would always ask one question at the end of the conversation: “are you happy to be alive?” Unfortunately, most of the time the answer was no, “no, I’m not happy to be alive”, “I wish I was dead”, “you don’t deserve us”, “why am I here if no one is going to love me?”, “if I’m never going to hear a nice word? Why? What am I being punished for?”
So I tried to translate the angry “why” and it became the story of a 12-year-old child who would sue his parents for giving him life. But what he was really doing was suing the whole world for his misfortune. The research turned into a screenplay and screenplay into a film and we went on the crazy search to find Zain! Our 12-year-old boy. And we did. We found him in the slums of Beirut playing with his friends. Now when I look back at the drawing that I had made a few years earlier, I realized it was Zain, two years before I met him.
Capernaum means chaos and miracles, and this is what our adventure became. During all the chaos we were in, miracles kept happening. From the way we found our actors who are non-actors, the way we encountered them living in slums, the way we produced this homemade film and how we were surrounded by a beautiful team that became our family. Zain, a Syrian refugee lived in difficult conditions in Lebanon is now living in Norway with his family and started school for the first time in his life.
I truly believe in the power of this wonderful thing called cinema. And how it can be used as a magnifying glass to shed light and to humanize certain issues and problems.
Working on this beautiful journey changed my life forever.