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Capernaum

CapernaumIssue cinema can be seen as exploitative or socially progressive. Poverty, child abuse, immigration and refugees regularly appear on the news and in public discourse. Amidst all this discussion, statistics can sometimes obscure the human face. With Capernaum (translated as Chaos), writer-director Nadine Labaki makes these topics human and relatable, raising awareness of child poverty and the non-status of certain groups in a way that is deeply empathetic and heartfelt. Capernaum follows Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), an approximately 12-year-old Syrian refugee living in Beirut. Imprisoned for five years, Zain sues his parents for having him, arguing that his birth condemned him to a terrible life. The film then largely narrates Zain’s story through flashback, covering his fractious family life, witnessing a child marriage, his time as a runaway, a friendship he forms with Ethiopian immigrant Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw). Along the way, the film explores issues of correct and forged papers and the difficulties of identity, as well as experiences of imprisonment. While the film remains focused on Zain and, to a lesser extent, Rahil, Labaki utilises the richly textured locations to capture a great deal of social detail. Other immigrants in a detention centre, extreme poverty, remarkable ingenuity, multiple black markets – all appear without the film ever labouring its points or coming across as preachy. While the film’s ethical standpoint is clear, there is no sense of finger-wagging or chiding the audience for being responsible, rather we are presented with this troubling aspect of our contemporary world and invited to respond. Much of this invitation can be credited to Labaki’s vibrant and immersive style, consisting of handheld cameras often held at a child’s level, expressing the rush as well as the drudgery of life below the poverty line. Much of the film is a hard watch, with scenes involving Zain and Rahil’s baby Yonas being especially heart wrenching. But throughout, Zain’s indomitable courage and ingenuity shines through, the young actor’s performance never less than captivating. Capernaum is ultimately a film of hope and humanity despite its regular portrayal of inhumanity, making it that finest of issue cinema – where the politics are the people.

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