Film: Capharnaüm
Rating: 5/5 stars

There are growing global whispers that Nadine Labaki’s latest film, Capharnaüm, will be a fierce Oscar contender next year. While it’s flown under the NZ radar, the film received a 15-minute standing ovation at its debut at the Cannes Film Festival and claimed the jury prize. This was a win not only for Labaki and her cast and crew but for women and the Arab world at large. It was the first time an Arab woman had been honoured with a major prize at the festival.

Set in Labaki’s homeland of Lebanon, Capharnaüm delves into the harrowing life of those grappling with child abuse and modern slavery. Where they must fight for dignity and respect in a world where documentation papers are a prerequisite to simply exist and be treated as a person. Taking inspiration from stories that were shared with Labaki by child refugees on the streets of Beirut, the film is ultimately meant to serve them. Labak hopes her film will have the power to capture people’s hearts and trigger global dialogue, with the voices of these children taking centre-stage.

Capharnaüm is reminiscent of films, such as Slumdog Millionaire and Lion, with its mix of documentary-style realism and fiction with a cast of fresh-faced actors. While stylistically, it tends to stray away from the shaky and over-manipulated camera style that often plagues this genre, preferring to keep it simple and clean instead. The film structures itself around Zain’s trial, a 12-year-old boy who is suing his parents “for giving him life” in a world that has been nothing but cruel to him. A world which has drained wonder, hope, and life from his mind, body, and soul. Here, it would have been easy for Labaki to slip down into the rabbit hole of ‘poverty porn’. However, she deals with the subject matter with both intelligence and heart, tugging at the viewer’s heartstrings every step of the way. It’ll force you to process your rambling thoughts and emotions in silence.

When it comes to performances, it’s hard to fathom how this level of talent can appear at such an early age. Child actor Zain Al Rafeea (the protagonist Zain) delivers a realistic and tear-inducing performance that leaves audiences feeling stunned and breathless.