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Acclaimed film sheds light on suffering of street children

By Xu Fan | China Daily | Updated: 2019-04-18 08:28
A screen shot of the film Capernaum by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki shows protagonist Zain Al Rafeea, a 12-year-old boy living in the slums of Beirut. [Photo provided to China Daily]

When Lebanese director Nadine Labaki was doing research for her film Capernaum, she interviewed many children struggling for survival in Beirut and asked them one question at the end of the conversations.

The question was: "Are you happy to be alive?"

Sadly, most of the answers were in the negative.

The children from poverty-stricken families talked about their miserable situations such as being abused, starving and even being raped and were skeptical about why they were brought to the world.

At the ongoing 9th Beijing International Film Festival, Labaki appeared during a screening in a downtown cinema to share her film's behind-the-scenes stories with the audience.

The film which premiered at the 71st Cannes Film Festival has so far received a lot of acclaim and scooped several honors, including the Jury Prize at Cannes and nominations for the best foreign language film at the 76th Golden Globes and the 91st Academy Awards, respectively.

Labaki, who was inspired to make the film after seeing a mother with a child in her arms begging on a sidewalk in Lebanon, spent five years on the film, including three on research and six months on shooting.

The two-hour film, which begins with a court hearing where Zain, a 12-year-old boy is suing his parents for bringing him into the world, has many flashback shots to show his sufferings.

In the movie, Zain, who lives in the slums of Beirut, escapes from his cold-blooded parents who sell his 11-year-old sister to an older man to be his wife.

Then, after encountering a female Ethiopian illegal immigrant he is temporally harbored by her and takes care of the woman's infant, but his life is soon disrupted as the woman is arrested by the immigration authorities.

The screening also drew many emerging talents in Chinese film industry, including director Dong Yue of The Looming Storm, and actress Li Chun, known for the hit series The Legend of Ruyi.

Speaking about why she made the film, Labaki says: "We can't continue hiding and living as if nothing is happening. I did this film because I want things to change."

Except for a cameo role by Labaki, who is also an actress, all the other members of the cast are nonprofessionals who acted for the first time in their lives.

Zain Al Rafeea, a 12-year-old Syrian refugee who has lived in Lebanon with his parents for eight years, was recruited to play the protagonist Zain El Hajj.

"He (Rafeea) is in a way trying to survive on the street every day. So this made him a very strong and wise character, although physically smaller than his age because of malnutrition," says Labaki, adding that the child actor looked much younger than 12 when the shooting started.

She says the teenager quickly agreed to take the lead "as if he was going to become the voice of all those voiceless kids that he was surrounded by".

Most of the other actors also had similar experiences in real life with regard to what they struggled with and suffered as shown in the film.

Labaki says she didn't prepare a script, but instead the crew spent a lot of time to help the actors understand every detail of the scenes. The raw film footage was around 500 hours.

Speaking about her unconventional style, she says: "I'm not denying the actors' work in general. But in this particular case, we had to just go with the truth as much as we could.

"I didn't expect them (the actors of Capernaum) to know the lines, as most of them even don't know how to read.

"So, we needed them to put the scenes into their own situations and start digging in to find the emotions they needed.

"We had to be very mobile and always ready for whatever was going to happen and to capture it. It was a very organic process."

Currently, the film has 8.8 points out of 10 from the ratings of more than 17,000 netizens on the Chinese review aggregator Douban, also deemed a barometer of popularity.

For those who will miss the festival screenings, the film will have a general release across Chinese mainland cinemas on April 29.

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