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  • Corine Dhondee

Chaos and Miracles

Updated: May 16, 2019

In 2019 Lebanese writer-director Nadine Labaki became the first Arab woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for the film Capharnaüm. Corine Dhondee looks at the films timeline and how filmmaking enabled Labaki to speak out about crimes against children and influence change.


Boluwatife Treasure Bankole and Zain Al Rafeea film poster Capernaum. © Sony Pictures Classics.

BODRUM, TURKEY—SEPTEMBER, 2015: Turkish journalist Nilüfer Demir photographed the lifeless body of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi, his face still partially in the water as his body lay half in the water and half in the sand. The image shared by Human Rights Watch went viral almost instantly. Stories of the ignoble refugee by a hostile press and government are bountiful. This image challenged such dominant voices. Aylan Kurdi became a symbol of refugee children and families who lost their lives trying to reach safety.


BEIRUT, LEBANON—SEPTEMBER, 2015: Over 1 million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon, half of whom are children. Tough regulations contribute to children becoming the primary source of income for families. For Nadine Labaki it was common to see refugees as young as six carry out heavy manual street work, and sell goods, such as chewing gum and flowers in an attempt to support their families. According to Labaki, for those who see children suffering daily the problem can become too big, making invisible the oppression by continuing to live ordinary lives is one way to cope.


The horrifying image of Aylan Kurdi compelled Labaki to examine her response to the suffering she saw. Initially she wanted to ask him questions such as, “What would you say to the world, to those who are actually doing this to you, to the society who has failed you?” Aylan Kurdi marks the moment when she could no longer keep silent about crimes against children. Returning home one night she saw a one-year-old trying to sleep on a cement block. That morning she drew a picture of a child shouting at adults. The image was the beginning of Capharnaüm.


To write the screenplay Labaki had to become the voice of children. Not feeling entitled to tell their stories Labaki and her team interviewed children over three years to understand their point of view towards the world, adults, and the daily injustices they experienced. Interviews were held in shelters, detention centres, juvenile prisons, impoverished neighbourhoods, with those who faced extreme neglect, who were abused, raped, tortured, and beaten up. Everything they heard from children and families was poured into the screenplay. The research led Labaki to the story she wanted to tell. She said, “The film became a story of a child who was going to sue the world for bringing him into this life and not giving him his most fundamental rights.”


Director Nadine Labaki and Syrian refugee lead actor Zain Al Rafeea filming Capernaum. © Sony Pictures Classics / Fares Sokhon

When casting the film Labkai chose mostly non professional actors, four of whom were refugees. The lead Zain is a Syrian refugee who arrived in Lebanon when he was seven-years-old. At twelve-years-old he was working as a delivery boy and was cast in a part that reflected his own struggles. Never was he asked to act, only to respond to situations and navigate his truth within the constraints of fiction.




UNHCR and UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund) was involved during the whole shoot and this led to Zain and his family being resettled in Norway. Only one percent of refugees worldwide have access to resettlement.


Boluwatife Treasure Bankole and Zain Al Rafeea Capernaum. © Sony Pictures Classics.

Whilst Treasure, who played baby Yonas returned to Kenya. Both children are now attending school. All of the children who took part in the film no longer live on the streets. A Capharnaüm foundation was set up in order to sustain and assist them. For Labaki and those who worked on the film the children’s stories are small miracles.



ACADEMY AWARDS, LA—FEBRUARY, 2019: Capharnaüm, which means chaos and miracles, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. The nomination was a historic one as Labaki became the first Arab woman to be nominated for an Oscar whilst also being the only woman director to be nominated for a feature film. Although the film did not win it did generate a lot of support during its year-long campaign whilst shedding light on the plight of refugees. At Cannes, Labaki won the Jury Prize making her the first Arab filmmaker to win a major prize in competition.


Composer Khaled Mouzanar, from left, director Nadine Labaki, actors Zain Al Rafeea, and Yordanos Shiferaw pose for photographers during a photo call for the film 'Capharnaum' at the 71st international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 18, 2018. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

After Cannes the Beirut UNIC (The UN Information Centre) and luxury limited edition held a screening intended to raise awareness about the brutality of child abuse, whilst UNHCR held a screening in New York.


In an interview with The Guardian Labaki stated, “For me, film-making and activism are one and the same thing. I really do believe cinema can effect social change.” After the campaign ends and with the assistance of organisations such as UNHCR, UNICEF and others that deal with children’s rights the film will be screened to government. Round table discussions with lawyers and judges will be organised in an attempt to make real changes in Lebanon for children like Aylan Kurdi and the children whose harrowing stories are told in Capharnaüm.


Written by Corine Dhondee March 2019


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