Labaki’s award-nominated film exposes Syria refugees’ plight

The nomination for an Academy Award of Lebanese film "Capharnaum" makes Nadine Labaki the first Arab woman artist to vie for the prestigious award and one of the few female directors to compete at this year's Oscars.
Friday 25/01/2019
Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki (L), her husband Lebanese producer Khaled Mouzanar (R) and Syrian actor Zain al-Rafeea pose with the Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury prize on May 19, 2018. (AFP)
Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki (L), her husband Lebanese producer Khaled Mouzanar (R) and Syrian actor Zain al-Rafeea pose with the Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury prize on May 19, 2018. (AFP)

BEIRUT - The plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is expected to receive an influx of international exposure with the Academy Award nomination for Lebanese director Nadine Labaki's film "Capharnaum." 

The film will be competing in the Best Foreign Film category.

The nomination makes Labaki the first female artist in the Arab world to vie for the prestigious award and one of the few female directors to compete at this year's Oscars, which feature another all-male lineup in the best director category.

“Capharnaum," the masterful neo-realist drama about a 12-year-old Syrian refugee boy and a Kenyan toddler who live parentless on the streets of Beirut received a 15-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film festival and won the Grand Jury prize.

Labaki called the making of the movie a life-changing journey that started four years ago. Its theme resonates beyond regional politics, she said.

"We can't help but acknowledge that there is a certain fear of refugees in general around the world and there are these walls we are building, and this fear that keeps growing. (When) you see this kid with so much potential and so much wit and smart and heart and so much resilience and strength, you can't help but break all the clichés that you might have in your head," she said.

“Capharnaum” humanizes the real struggle of people mentioned in the news only fueling fear of strangers, Labaki said.

Like the majority of the cast, the film's star and narrator Zain Al Rafeea is a non-professional actor and a Syrian refugee, spotted by Labaki while he played on the streets of Beirut throughout her two years of research in the area.

In the film, Zain sues his parents after they fail to protect his little sister against child marriage and for continuing to have children they are unable to care for.

The United Nations called it "inspiring" and Oprah Winfrey gave it acclaim on Twitter.  The film “makes you think of all the children for whom this story is a daily reality. Bravo team # Capharnaum.”

The film marks the second Lebanese feature to be in the running for the foreign language Oscar, following Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult” in 2018, and has also been screened at other film festivals worldwide, including Toronto Film Festival and the London Film Festival.

“Capharnaum” is Labaki's third feature film. Her movies have demonstrated wit and humour in tackling Lebanon's complex politics, winning her local and international acclaim. In "Caramel," which was a runner-up in 2006 for a nomination in the foreign film category, she dug into the lives of ordinary women from different religious backgrounds as they struggled with tradition, their own sexuality and ageing. Her 2011 film "Where Do We Go Now?" is a tale of a small village's brush with religious tension where women bond to stop local men from fighting.

Watching her small country struggle with a growing number of refugees, Labaki said she felt it was her "duty" to speak out against the chaos and government failing to deal with it. Lebanon is host to the largest number of Syrian refugees per capita in the region, an issue that has fanned political tension and a social backlash against them

For the cast, “Capharnaum" offered a platform to tell their real story.

"And their story is very painful," the 44-year-old director and mother of two said. "They had a hard struggle in their lives sometimes to even prove they exist. All of a sudden, they exist — not only in a film but they exist on such a big level. And with such a huge exposure and their voice is resonating so much louder because of that exposure they are getting."

“Capharnaum" faces stiff competition from Alfonso Cauron's Mexican drama "Roma," an awards season favourite that has 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture. The other foreign films that “Capharnaum” is up against at the Oscars include Germany’s “Never Look Away,” Japan’s “Shoplifters” and Poland’s “Cold War.”

Earlier this month, “Capharnaum” was in contention for a Golden Globe, where it lost out to Cuaron’s much-feted “Roma.”