Interview: Nadine Labaki on “Capernaum” and Its Importance

Nadine Labaki, director of Capernaum, headshot, courtesy of Sony Picture Classics

Life is an amusing thing, and for some it may appear like a toy. Just see how many families are out there that want to have children, but cannot. And how many are out there that can have as many children as they can, but do nothing for the safety of their children and even fail to provide the most basic care. Nadine Labaki’sCapernaum” raises one important concern which, I must say, is so true, so painful, and so heartbreaking that it is the only way to solve the problem.

I always wanted a story like this to be told in a movie. Because the same parents must somehow face their own reflection to realize how wrong they are, and, perhaps to trigger a discussion that may end, at some point, such injustice towards children.

“Capernaum” is a movie that must surely be seen. Nadine Labaki’s approach, her way of thinking, and much broader reasons which lead to it is something you would certainly want to find out after reading this interview.

That said, I am proud to present an interview with Nadine Labaki, writer and director of “Capernaum”, and by far the most imaginative and deeply thinking director you may see nowadays.

MOVIEMOVESME:  In certain countries, if not in every, parents produce children as a source of funds because at the end of the day all what they care about is money those children can bring. This is something that every viewer will find itself thinking about as they watch “Capernaum”. So, what is the source of inspiration that led you to making it?

Nadine Labaki: I think it’s the sight of all of these kids on the streets that is more and more becoming part of our lives, everywhere, in the big cities of the world, with economical crises everywhere, with the problem of refugees around the world. This sight of these kids that are on the streets is a sight that is becoming a part of our lives. So, for me, it started with wanting to know why. How do we permit this injustice? How did we come to a point where we allow for this to happen? And how stupid is our system to allow for this kind injustice towards kids who didn’t ask to be here. They are only paying the price and being punished for our mistakes, for our stupid mistakes. For our wars, for our conflicts, for our stupid decisions, our stupid governments, so they are the ones paying the price.

 So for me, it started with wanting to understand how. How come our societies are accepting this and sometimes not even looking at it. They don’t want to look. They just keep on with their lives and don’t want to look. And for them, even when they are helping these kids, when they give money to the kids… How many times I see people saying “No, you shouldn’t give them money. They are part of a mafia.”

So for them, they aren’t even human anymore. They don’t humanize these kids. They don’t think individually about this kid that is standing in front of your window, begging for money. So what happens when he disappears around the corner. Where does he go? Who are his parents? How does he live? How does he think? So for me, it started like that. Wanting to understand, what is their perspective on our mistakes. So I started to do a lot of research.

I went to many, many places in Lebanon that are very difficult neighborhoods. Like camps, prisons for minors, detention centers for minors. I spent so much time in court, wanting to understand how the judicial system works, also. And how it fails these kids and how it works with these programs. I used to have a lot of conversations with those kids, and every time at the end of the conversation I would ask one question, which is, “Are you happy to be alive?” And most of the time the answer was no, I’m not happy to be alive. I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t ask to be here. I don’t belong in your world. Why am I punished? What is the reason? What is the purpose for my existence? Is it only to be punished? And if I am punished, what am I punished for? What did I do.

And most of the time they said, “I wish I was dead.” So that’s how it became the story of this kid who was going to sue his parents and, through his parents, he’s suing the whole system, for being born. It was really inspired by this anger and I wanted to translate this anger. So how am I going to translate that cry of that child?

Even before this idea was born, four years ago, it was very strange, four years ago. In 2014, after one day of going out and seeing all of these things and coming back frustrated and angry, I drew the face of a kid with his mouth wide open. Shouting at adults in front of him. Which is something that I don’t do. I don’t draw naturally, I just drew that. And now when I compare the drawing, it’s actually Zane. And I drew Zane even before I met him. If you see Zane’s picture and this picture, it was him.

This anger sometimes transforms into something important.

MOVIEMOVESME: The movie is not just about suing parents or about the parents’ poor choices, but it’s also about how they take advantage of those kids. Zane tells his sister, Sahara, “Please, don’t tell anyone that you have your menstrual cycle, otherwise they are going to sell you.” Eventually she was sold by her parents to a much older man. Can you talking about the process of building that narrative around her?

Nadine Labaki: You know when you want to portray the situation it’s almost unbelievable how all of these things can happen to one single family. So, if you ask when you start doing your research, Zane in real life knows somebody who has been sold at 12 years old. He knows kids who are beaten up by their parents. He knows kids who are abused by I don’t know who. All of these stories you find them difficult to accept and some people say, “Oh, it’s poverty porn.” Or “It’s too much.” Or “These things don’t happen.” These things can happen to one single family. It’s one vicious circle, where all these things are linked together.

 They are born, they are never registered because there is no money to register them. And in Lebanon it costs money. You can’t declare your kids because you don’t have money, so your kids end up being completely invisible. They can’t go to school, they can’t be hospitalized if they are sick, they can’t work, they can’t travel, they are living on the fringes of society. So they end up, somehow, some of them, because there are too many kids, they are abused, they are violated, they are not treated the way they are should so they leave their house. They end up on the streets. They get raped. They get abused. They become delinquent. They do some kind of theft or something and end up in jail. So their life is just failure after failure after failure.

If you talk to these children, it’s always the same pattern. And so Sahara is a part of this pattern. Sahara is a part of a lot of families that are in this situation and… How do you say it? It’s not human traffic, but selling your or giving her to get married at that age, early marriage, I’m trying to find the word. Early marriage is a pattern also, it’s something that is happening in a lot of families and no one is talking about it.

And the number is growing by the day and nobody is talking about it. Because even they don’t exist. They don’t exist. Nobody knows. Some kids are born, die, without anybody knowing. They die because they are jump out of the balcony, or they get electrocuted, or because they put fire on the house. And so these stories are happening everyday and nobody is talking about them. So Sahara was a very important part of this story.

MOVIEMOVESME:  What I want to go back to is Sahara. Actually Sahar in our language means, “the morning”. There was one moment when they judge asks the parents, “Why did you sell your daughter?” The mother used a very, very cheap, unreasonable excuse saying that, “I want my daughter to sleep in a proper bed and a sleep blanket.” But that she will be raped every single night by a grown up man is what she did not really care about.

Nadine Labaki: You know this anger is something that was, and still is, for me, this court symbolizes us, society. And the judge is us, being judgemental and judging these people. And I found myself in this situation so many times where I entered into a house where I see two year old, three year old, four year old, alone in the house. And I go back, “Where is the parents? Where is the mother? Where is the father? Why are they not taking care of those children? What’s happening?” And it always takes ten minutes after I meet the parents or I meet the mother and we talk, and I understand the situation that she’s in. And I understand that at the end of the day we’re all part of one system that is allowing for all of these injustices to happen. And they are victims as much as they are… I don’t know how to choose the word… in fault. And they are part of a system that is not helping them. They are part of a culture. Ignorance is not helping them.

 He says, “That’s how I was born and raised this way. I don’t know more than that. For me it’s normal to do what I’m doing. And yes, I was trying to giver her a better life.” But yes, he’s not thinking of the rape that is happening everyday. And this is completely contradictory. You cannot analyze. Human behavior is something that you can analyze. Or psychologists, people that analyze a certain situation or certain behavior. In that case, you cannot analyze. It’s a completely contradictory personality. You never know what to expect and how to analyze the situation. And it’s difficult and we need to acknowledge that. And we need to talk about that and something needs to be done.

MOVIEMOVESME: When the judge asks Zane, “What is it that you want from them?” He says, “I want them to stop having children.” I would like you to go deeper into that answer.

Nadine Labaki: For him, it’s not an easy decision to end it this way. And it’s coming out of his own mouth, because for him, that’s it. That’s the only thing he knows. For him, the kid that is inside her belly is going to turn out just like him. The answer for him is if you can’t raise me, don’t have me. And it’s also inspired by a lot of kids who were saying it, who were formulating it exactly the same way. Why do they bring me to the world if they are not going to be able to raise me? If they are not going to be able to love me?

 So this translated into Zane saying, “Stop it. I don’t want to belong in your world anymore. Stop. Stop it. If you can’t raise me, just don’t have me.”

You know waking up these parents and this consciousness. It’s seen through his own eyes and that’s how he feels. And that’s how a lot of kids are feeling.

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