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Nadine Labaki poses at the 'Capharnaüm' portrait session during the 14th Zurich Film Festival on Oct. 01, 2018, in Zurich.

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

When the Lebanese writer/director Nadine Labaki was on location in Beirut shooting her latest drama, Capernaum, she witnessed something upsetting. The film takes a hard look at how children are paying the price for the international immigration and refugee crises, which grow worse every day. For a substantial chunk of its running time, two neglected boys, 11-year-old Zain and toddler Yonas (newcomers Zain Al Rafeea and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, who is actually a girl), fend for themselves on the streets. To shoot those scenes, Labaki placed her actors in doorways and gutters, where they huddled, dirty and blank-eyed. Then she and her camera crew backed off to a discrete distance and observed. Time after time, waves of pedestrians passed by the child actors. No one even looked at them.

“We didn’t ask people not to look,” Labaki said during an interview at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival. “They just don’t.”

Labaki, 44, is an elegant woman who favours flowing clothing and dangly earrings; glamour is part of her persona. Her previous films – Caramel (2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (which won the TIFF People’s Choice Award in 2011) – were much lighter in tone. Capernaum, however, was inspired by a quiet but fierce anger. “I’m angry every day at myself,” she says. “Why did we fail these kids? Where did we go wrong? Every big city in the world is facing the same problem” – not to mention thousands of children at the United States’ southern border. “I decided to do something about my anger.”

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She began visiting refugee camps and children’s prisons, and knocking on the doors of overcrowded apartments in Beirut’s worst neighbourhoods. “A three-year-old would open the door,” she recalls. “I’d go inside. There would be three more children, aged 2, 4 and 6, alone, with nothing to eat.” She saw children spooning milk powder from cans or sucking on uncooked ramen.

Zain Al Rafeea as Zain, left, and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole as Yonas in Capernaum.

Fares Sokhon/Sony Pictures Classics

She used to wait for the parents, to berate them. “And every time when they would come home, it was like a blow to the face,” she says. “How did I allow myself to judge them? They are also victims of a system that is not helping them.”

At the end of each meeting, she would ask the children, “Are you happy?” Their answers were unsettling, to say the least: “No. I’m not happy to exist. I didn’t ask to be here. I don’t belong in your world. Why am I being punished? Why am I not cared for? Why do I not receive affection?” Some dreamed of their mothers kissing them or eating when they’re hungry.

Labaki and her writing partners (Jihad Hojeily, Michelle Keserwany, Georges Khabbaz and Khaled Mouzanar) tacked up notes from these meetings on a corkboard, along with themes they wanted to explore: children’s rights, the absurdity of having to buy papers to prove you exist, the notion of borders, the plight of migrant workers. Looking at the tangle of misery, Labaki remarked, “It’s capernaum" – a word meaning chaos and disorder, derived from an ancient Hebrew town that was built up and destroyed over seven centuries. Eventually, she settled on a plot: Zain sues his parents for giving him life.

Labaki herself plays his lawyer, but her other actors were non-professionals, whom her casting crew found by striking up conversations on the street. Most were refugees or people with illegal status with no papers of their own. Yordanos Shiferaw, who plays Yonas’s mother, Rahil, was working illegally in a restaurant. Zain was a Syrian refugee who’d never been to school and barely knew how to read or write. It took some conversation to gain their confidence, but eventually they felt safe enough to share their stories.

“I didn’t want them to act. I wanted them to be,” Labaki says. “To bring their own experience. Real change only happens when you identify with the person that you’re watching. You know this is someone who is real. It’s not just another story that you’ll forget it in five minutes.”

Composer Khaled Mouzanar, left, Zain al-Rafeea and director Nadine Labaki pose with Jury Prize award for the film Capernaum at the 71st Cannes Film Festival on May 19, 2018.

JEAN-PAUL PELISSIER/Reuters

Some reviews have called Capernaum “poverty porn,” which angers Labaki, too. “So you prefer that nobody shows it?” she asks, her voice rising ever so slightly. “I agree that I haven’t been in their shoes. But I spent four years talking to them, to become their voice.”

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As well, she was born in 1974, a year before the Lebanese Civil War turned Beirut into a battlefield; she spent much of her childhood cloistered in her home, surrounded by sandbags. Luckily, the shop in her building rented video cassettes, which she and her family watched over and over. “Films became a big part of my life,” Labaki says. “I was able to travel through them, explore realities that have nothing to do with my own.” By 12, she wanted to be a filmmaker. At Saint Joseph University in Lebanon, she directed documentaries, music videos and commercials and began to develop her style, which she calls “a choreography between fiction and reality.” Her diploma project, 11, rue Pasteur, won the Best Short Film Award at the Biennale of Arab Cinema, in Paris, and she was off.

Labaki is an activist as well, part of the political movement Beirut Madinati, whose citizen-politicians focus on social justice. She hopes Capernaum personalizes these humanitarian crises and opens an international debate about solutions. “At least we can apply some pressure,” she says. “Even if it sounds naive, I believe each one of us can have an impact. Otherwise, generations of children – those who survive – will be angry adults.”

She was able to change the lives of two her actors. Shiferaw now lives in London; and Zain and his family have resettled in Norway. “He and his siblings will be able to go to school, finally. He’s going to be able to be a child,” Labaki says. “Of course, it’s not going to be easy, but as least he has a future, which he was not going to have living illegally in Lebanon with a million other refugees.”

Having to pay for one’s identity papers is the biggest problem, Labaki says. “If you don’t have the money, you don’t register your child. So they are invisible to the system. They can’t go to school or to hospital, they can’t travel, they can’t work. They are stuck on the fringes of society. Countless children are dying every day, out of neglect, accident, illness. They fall off balconies, they’re electrocuted, killed in fires, kidnapped, and nobody knows about them because to the system, they don’t exist. They are born and die without anybody knowing. And under this weight of the hardships of life, the value of a soul becomes completely erased.”

Labaki is asking us – urging us, imploring us – to look.

Capernaum opens Jan. 11

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