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A Cry From the Heart: An interview with ‘Capernaum’ director Nadine Labaki

Nadine Labaki

With CAPERNAUM, Nadine Labaki has captured the hearts of audiences across the globe. From Cannes (where the film nabbed the Jury Prize) to Sarajevo and Melbourne (both of which awarded the film their Audience Prize), the film is clearly resonating with audiences and will be one of the biggest Foreign Language Oscar contenders of the year. At TIFF, AwardsWatch’s Foreign Language correspondent Mina Takla sat down with Labaki to discuss the film and its resonance in today’s troubled world where millions of street children are leading soulless lives, marked by pain, deprivation, and suffering.

AwardsWatch: We noticed the film is a bit of a change of pace for you when you compare it to Caramel and Where Do We Go Now?. Both films were colorful films with a bit of optimism and [a] very flashy style. Was this a deliberate choice that you wanted to do something darker, more serious and substantial?

Nadine Labaki: I think it is only normal that you [as a filmmaker] mature with time, and with this, you develop a changing perception of the world and the problems we are dealing with on a daily basis, so I think it is only normal that you change your cinematic approach. As a storyteller, is impossible that I do the same film over and over again. It’s just not challenging anymore for me, so it was important that I explore something else. But not only for the fun of it – rather for the need to explore a crucial issue in very serious, profound, true and authentic ways. And it was, for me, the way to do it. It is not a deliberate change of pace, or style. It is just what the film needs from me, and I needed to try to reflect this reality more. Trying to go deep into what [these children] are going through. Intervening less as a director, or as a script writer. Intervening less in the sense that, I needed to try to be as much invisible as I can, and not to manipulate with whatever we want [in filming]. Even, wherever we shot was real locations, they were always real people, no extras. The people were just there. The prisoners were real prisoners. The prison was a real one. All locations were too, even the drawings on the walls are real drawings from real kids who lived in those apartments. So, it was not a deliberate [choice], it was what the film needs, I think. And I needed to be very true to what I was telling.

AW: The performances sounded very natural, and we don’t feel like they were acting, but they were rather expressing themselves. We’re wondering how much did you resort to improvisation and how much was it actually scripted.

NL: I had a problem with the word ‘acting’ on the film. For me, I didn’t want them to act, I just wanted them to be! To be exactly who they are. Which is why I put myself at the service of the characters, not the other way around even though there is a scripted film. While filming, I was open to whatever they were going to give me as  a reflection of their own experiences. I never had a script with me where I would tell them they have to memorize this and say those words. We knew where we are going with each scene, we know how it starts, how it will end, and we need to achieve that. We would film the scene with each of their own words and expressions and we would then do it twice, three times until we get it perfectly. But it is never like written in stone. It was never orchestrated, never structured. It was also important for me, as a storyteller, not to be scared of trying new things, I wasn’t scared of them saying phrases that were not scripted, and I wanted them to use their own words, words that they lived, experienced and deeply flat. I was going deep in the situation with them. If there were, at any moment, something that they felt like they wanted to say because, it is something they know personally or it is a situation they have been in, I totally welcomed it. That is how we did it.

Nadine Labaki directs Zain Al Rafeea in Capernaum

AW: How much was from the story based on research and how much was actually fiction. Was there anything you wanted to include in the story that you didn’t see happen normally?

NL: There was a lot of research – and it went on for over four years. A lot of the details you see [in the finished film] are based on this research, but there are things that are a little bit more symbolic. The court scene itself or the lawsuit itself. In real life, this is not realistic, it doesn’t actually exist. A child cannot sue his parents because [as the law stipulates], a minor has to have a guardian to be able to sue someone, and in most of the cases, the guardian is the parents so it was a very symbolic element in the film. Symbolism, however, does not contradict with realism – because what appears in the film was based on what these kids used to tell me [when talking to them during research]. When I used to ask them, ‘Are you happy to be alive?’ the answer, most of the time, was, ‘No. I am not happy to be here. Why am I here? Why did they give me life if they are not going to love me? If they are not going nurture me, then why bring me here? It was all inspired by everything they said, and so it became this lawsuit that Zain drives against his parents – and against the whole system.

Toronto Review: ‘Capernaum’

Many elements in the film may have been scripted. But in real life, Zain would have definitely met someone like Rahil and would have been part of her life in a way. And in real life, Zain knows children who got married at 12-year-old or sold at 12-year-old. Zain knows kids who have been indeed abused. All what’s in the film is painfully realistic.

AW: What impact do you hope the film accomplishes as more and more viewers get to watch it?

NL: The hope is to, somehow, create a debate about this issue, and create real awareness. I mean, I am not here to just, make people aware of the problem because people already know about the problem, but what I’m looking for is just a change of perspective. For me, that is the real aim of the film, and that what the film has been indeed achieving until now. This is what people come to me and tell me, ‘I am a changed person. I am looking at things differently. I couldn’t go on with my day normally after watching this. I couldn’t look at life the same way, I have a complete change of perspective. I am looking at these kids in a different way’. For me, this is what I set out to do from the start. And, then, later on, if [we in Lebanon] are able to implement change through which we can propose certain projects or change of laws or structures that are able to help a bit, then we would have really created something meaningful and impactful. As a filmmaker and storyteller, I should use my influence to do that at every opportunity.

About Mina Takla

Mina Takla is a foreign correspondent for AwardsWatch and the co-founder of The Syndicate, an online news agency that offers original content services to several film brands including Empire Magazine’s Middle East edition and the Dubai Film Festival. Takla has attended, covered and written for multiple film festivals online including the Dubai International Film Festival, Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Annecy Film Festivals. He has been following the Oscar race since 2000 with accurate, office-pool winning predictions year after year. He writes monthly in Empire Arabia, the Arabic version of the world’s top cinema magazine and conducts press junkets with Hollywood stars in the UK and the US. He holds a Master’s degree in Strategic Marketing from Australia’s Wollongong University and is currently based in Dubai, UAE.

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