Nadine Labaki, first woman Arab film-maker to win major prize at Cannes festival

Labaki used amateur actors living in circumstances much like those in the film.
Sunday 27/05/2018
Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki (R), her husband Lebanese producer Khaled Mouzanar (L) and Syrian actor Zain al-Rafeea pose with the trophy she won for the film “Capharnaum” at the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival, on May 19. (AFP)
Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki (R), her husband Lebanese producer Khaled Mouzanar (L) and Syrian actor Zain al-Rafeea pose with the trophy she won for the film “Capharnaum” at the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival, on May 19. (AFP)

BEIRUT- The euphoria over Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s win at the Cannes Festival with her film “Capernaum” being awarded the Jury Prize was clouded by comments from Hezbollah members belittling the unprecedented achievement by an Arab female film-maker.

Manar Sabbagh, a reporter with Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV, tweeted that “there’s no reason to be proud of Nadine Labaki’s accomplishment when the deaths of Hezbollah militants in Syria are high.” Hezbollah MP Nawaf el Moussawi pitched in saying: “Can you name one movie about (Hezbollah’s) resistance (against Israel) or any Arab resistance winning a Western prize?”

The tweets sparked a public outcry. A comment on social media blasted the Iran-backed group for entrenching Lebanon in a “culture of death.”

“How the hell does a movie about mistreated children, child brides, illegal workers and a Lebanese director winning at Cannes somehow turn into an existential crisis for Hezbollah members?” one commentator asked.

“Obviously, this culture of death sees an insult in a director telling the story of a Syrian refugee that was rendered as such by the very same regime they’re fighting for,” he added.

 Another tweet said: “Bravo Nadine Labaki. The Lebanese resistance aka Hezbollah is the new opium of the people.”

The controversy popped up in the inaugural session of the newly elected parliament. First-time MP Paula Yacoubian said she voted for Labaki in the ballot for electing the speaker, a vote that was disqualified.

“I wanted to highlight the greatness of Nadine inside the parliament after the campaign that was waged against her. I wanted to make a point that Nadine held Lebanon’s name up high and to tell her that we are proud of her,” Yacoubian said. “It was a direct retort to the smearing comments by Hezbollah members. I don’t understand how any person can see Nadine as a liability. She should be honoured and celebrated by the state.”

Hezbollah issued a statement clarifying that the comments made by Sabbagh and Mussawi reflected their personal opinion and not the party’s stance.

“Capernaum” sheds light on the plight of children begging in the streets of Beirut or engaging in poorly rewarded labour. It was considered among the leading contenders for Cannes’ top prize after it received a lengthy standing ovation at its premiere.

Labaki used amateur actors living in circumstances much like those in the film. The lead character, 13-year-old Syrian refugee Zain al-Rafeea who plays the role of a boy of the same name, was working as a delivery boy in Beirut until recently when Labaki discovered him. He had only just learnt to write his name but turned in a performance that critics said would melt the hardest of hearts.

In the film, Zain runs away from home after his desperate mother and father sell his 11-year-old sister into marriage for a few chickens. He takes his parents to court for having brought him into a world of pain and suffering. Labaki discovered the girl who plays his sister, Cedra Izam, selling chewing gum in the streets.

“Cinema is one of the most powerful weapons we have to draw attention to problems, it is one of our responsibilities as artists,” Labaki told Agence France-Presse.

She said she found the idea for the film staring her in the face one night when she was driving home from a party.

“I stopped at a traffic light and saw a child half-asleep in the arms of his mother who was sitting on the tarmac begging. It became an obsession for me… These kids are facing extreme neglect. A lot of the things I saw shocked me, children who were incredibly neglected.

“You feel completely powerless and that’s maybe why we turn away,” said Labaki, who is also known for her far less gritty beauty parlour story, “Caramel.”

It was Zain’s on-screen rapport with an unbearably cute baby Boluwatife Treasure Bankole that created the most cinematic magic. In an astonishing sequence, the boy is left to look after the breast-fed baby in a shanty town after his mother was imprisoned by police.

The baby’s real-life Kenyan and Nigerian parents were arrested during filming and the film’s casting director stepped in to look after the infant in the absence of her parents.

“I wanted to be in the head of these kids and understand what happens when you turn away and the kid goes around the corner and disappears,” Labaki said.

“I’ve been spending the past few years going to detention centres, going to prisons for minors and it’s always the same theme that keeps coming up: Why do you bring me into this world if you’re not going to love me, if you’re not going to nurture me, if you’re going to let me suffer so much, if you’re going to leave me to fate to raise me?

“It always comes up. It’s the why that breaks your heart.”

“Capernaum” is the third feature for Labaki, whose feature debut “Caramel” played in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight in 2007. Labaki is the first Arab woman to have won a major prize at the festival and only the second to have had a film competing for Cannes’ Palme d’Or.

Labaki dedicated the Jury Prize to her impoverished amateur cast and her homeland.

“I really think about them (the cast),” she said. “I hope the film will enable the voices of these children to be better heard and trigger a debate.”

Labaki was gracious with her country, “which, despite everything it is accused of, gets by as best it can,” she said. “It has welcomed the most refugees in the world (relative to its population), despite not having the means to meet the needs of its own population.”

However, she appealed: “We cannot continue to turn our back and remain blind to the suffering of these children who try their best to make their way in this Capernaum (confused jumble) that the world has become.”

Labaki grew up during Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war and her father missed out on his dream of becoming a film-maker.

“I said to my father: ‘One day I will go to Cannes.’ So I have helped my father fulfil his dreams,” she said.