I watched the film, Capernaum, en route to Taiwan to visit my daughter. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. In the midst of family time, fun, jet-lag, and new discoveries, it has permeated my consciousness. I had to research the setting to discover that it took place in the slums of Beirut. The documentary-like film making and apparent authenticity of the actors led me to discover that none of the actors were trained in theatre or film. I learned that Capernaum means “chaos” in Arabic and what that looks like in Lebanon. In her research to co-write and direct her film, Nadine Labaki, tells us “I asked the children I spoke to if they were happy to be alive, and for the most part the answer was no.” As an educator and as a human being, children living with chaos cannot be passively accepted.
One scene of Capernaum frequently comes to mind. After another hellish day of trying to eek out survival, 12 year old Zain and his younger sister, Sahar, sit looking out at the sunset. She puts her head on his shoulder and you see the palpable love between the two siblings. It resonates because it is the almost living of one life that exists between similar aged siblings, often of different genders, that reflects the understanding of all aspects of their shared life. I saw it with my younger brother and sister. I see it with my own children. In both cases, the older brother assumed responsibility for the care of his younger sister. She reciprocates with ultimate loyalty and devotion.
It makes the film all the more devastating when Zain is unable to protect his sister, loses hope and lashes out. His despair takes him to a place where he tries to sue his parents, in his words, “(b)ecause I was born.” There is no evidence of parental love or protection in the story. There is also no evidence of a society that has embraced the age-old concept that It takes a village to raise a child.
Capernaum also exposes the multi-faceted joy, desperation, hopelessness and kindness of the young woman named Rahil. She is in Lebanon illegally from Ethiopia. The cost prohibitive system commands a registration fee beyond her means and puts her in direct line of abuse, by a human trafficker. She is a pawn in the power struggle of the maker of rules and opportunists, both with no regard for her. She lives for her young son and he brings her joy. When you see the little man standing in squalor, crying when a warehouse is raided by police, it is clear that all that child needs at that moment is his mother and a “village” to help her raise him.
In a recent interview, Nadine Labaki, director and co-author of Capernaum, states: “For me, film-making and activism are one and the same thing. I really do believe cinema can effect social change.” In the case of this film, it already has. The twelve year child who was illiterate and living on the streets in Beirut during filming, is now resettled in Norway and is going to school and learning to read. The world is less able to close its eyes to life in the Beirut slums and Lebanese prisons. The whole focus of Amnesty International has been to shine a light on human rights abuses so governments are held responsible for both the laws the make, the rules they enforce and when they choose to look away.
The difference with this film is the integrity of the director and the research. The focus of the film has not been on box-office statistics, pleasing the crowd or propagandizing for power. It is a call to action to change our world for the better. Now more than even, it takes a village to raise a child. We have the power of a global village that can be mobilized. Since the 80’s in Canada, we have been teaching children to write about what they know. As the power of social media and social commentary has grown, we have not kept pace with teaching children how to harness their power to effect change. Passive acceptance of any stance hands over the power to the person with the agenda. Researching the source, understanding the politics and motivation of the source, triangulation of source material must be taught. Aldous Huxley warned us about becoming passive receptacles that take in a message and do nothing, in his book 1984. Our responsibility is to teach how to go after truth and accept you have a role and a responsibility to effect social change to make our world better for all. Otherwise, we are choosing to live passively with chaos.