The story of the refugee Zain

Cast:  Zain al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Nadine Labaki.

Film director: Nadine Labaki

Screen writers: Labaki, Jihad Hojaily and Michelle Keserwany

Meaning of the title: Capernaum (Kfar Nahum) is a historical village located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, Israel now. It means the village of comfort in Hebrew.

The actions of the film take place in Lebanon. So, from where does the movie take its title? Capernaum’s title is a nod to the French term for ‘chaos’. So we expect chaotic actions to happen throughout the Lebanese film. The name has been chosen for its link with the biblical references. The chaotic and doom-like scenes resemble those of Capernaum throughout history.

Genre: documentary-like realism, drama

It is a doc-like realistic movie as it portrays the real life of the refugees in Lebanon. It is a doc like movie as its characters are real refugees not actors. So, some of them are just repeating their real life in front of the camera’s lens.

Zain al Hajj, the film protagonist, is one of them. He was discovered in the streets of Beirut by director Nadine Labaki. At the time, his life shared similarities with that of his character of the same name. He and his family have since been resettled in Norway.

Setting: it is set in the slums of Beirut

Synopsis: the film is about the story of a 12-year boy named Zain who is accused of killing a man. Throughout the film, Zain is seen in two szttings with different people. First, with his family. Then, with Rahil, an Ethiopian woman. What pushes him to kill the man? Is he a real criminal? What makes him become so?

Plot: the film opens with three different scenes. The first portrays a medical examiner checking a little boy. The second shows women’s refugees including an Ethiopian woman called Rahil and the third leads us to the story of the film. it takes us to the court where we find the examined boy sitting in front of the judge calling himself Zain.

Zain is accused of stabbing a man.  Meanwhile, he decides to sue  his parents, his mother, Souad, and his father, Selim. When asked by the judge why he wants to sue his parents, Zain answers “Because I was born” or, more precisely, “because you had me”.

The movie then flashes back several months to before Zain was arrested. Our protagonist  lives with his parents and takes care of his seven siblings who make money in various schemes instead of going to school. Zain also works as a delivery boy for Assad, the family’s landlord, and the owner of a local grocery shop.

To prevent his sister Sahar from getting married to Asaad, Zain makes plans to escape with her and begin a new life. However, his plan is canceled when his parents forced Sahar to marry Assad in exchange for two chickens. Furious at his parents, Zain runs away. Later, he meets Rahil, an Ethiopian migrant worker who is working as a cleaner at a park. She takes pity on Zain and agrees to let him live with her at her tin shack in exchange for Zain babysitting her undocumented infant son Yonas when she is at work.

 Rahil’s documents expire and she is arrested by Lebanese authorities. As she doesn’t return home, Zain panics and begins looking after Yonas on his own, claiming that they are brothers.

Going back to his parents, he realizes that his sister has recently died due to difficulties with her pregnancy. Furious, Zain steals a knife and stabs Asaad. He is arrested and sentenced to five years at Roumieh Prison.

While in prison, Zain learns that Souad is pregnant and plans to name the child Sahar. Disgusted by his mother’s lack of remorse for her daughter’s death, he contacts the media and says that he is tired of parents neglecting their children and plans to sue his parents for continuing to have children when they cannot take care of them. When the judge asks him what he wants from his parents, he says “I want them to stop having children”.

Techniques used: flashbacks

Language: slang words

Critique of the film:

Much like Labaki’s previous movies, Caramel and Where Do We Go Now?, this film features a cast of mostly nonprofessional actors, and tackles societal ills such as issues of the refugees and children’s rights.

Throughout this story, Labaki addresses several themes. Zain decides to take civil actions against his parents for giving him life in such a chaotic world. In fact, he is not only suing his parents but the whole system which is responsible for creating disorder and evil.

So, we can say that the film takes a political stand vis a vis the identity documents issue. Refugees are not accepted by authorities without showing their documents and consequently are put in jail. They are considered as criminals. Such laws remind us of South Africa’s Apartheid system which imprisons blacks who do not carry their passes. 

The question raised in this movie is the following: is the identity document which makes a human being a good citizen?

In the same context, Nadine Labaki says to NewYork Times magazine “Capernaum,” though set in Lebanon, is a universal story because “we’re talking about kids not receiving their most fundamental rights.”



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