'Capernaum': The Clash of Movie Politics and the Art of Film

This article was initially featured as an editorial for the Wyoming Horizon newspaper in January 2021.

1/6/21

As a writer for a movie blog, I try to use my platform to expose readers to a diverse array of film. At present, I am working on the second edition of 10 Films, 10 Countries, 10 Days, a recurring column that serves to showcase international film and diverse perspectives. I slate my movies in advance, by country and by streaming service, and over ten days I watch the films, gradually bringing together my write-ups. It’s usually very pleasant and very straightforward. However, this time I was faced with a problem.

It is not my expectation that one film is representative of an entire culture or national sentiment. The artist sharing the art is the one under the spotlight, and its ideas should not be viewed as one and the same as a nation’s interest. However, sometimes the politics of a story can loom over the impact of a performance, or the narrative design, or how tasteful and imaginative the cinematography is. Think Birth of a Nation (1915), a pioneer American movie credited for making great strides in the medium of filmmaking but reviled today for its content, glorifying KKK members and promoting racist propaganda. Movies are oftentimes vessels for obscene messages, whether intentional or not, as reflections of the society in which they are constructed. This movie that I watched, not aware of the controversy that surrounded it, seemed to prove more dangerous by being included in my international lineup than if I were to leave well enough alone.

The film in question today that treads that line is Capernaum (2018), a movie from Lebanon directed by Nadine Labaki. The film has the components for a progressive statement on the nature of poverty in the country: a young boy forced to grow up fast, a mother and her child separated by the immigration police, even a young woman at the helm of the movie in a country where discriminatory policies against women are the norm (see: here). It is very well-regarded in the movie world, winning the Jury Prize at Cannes Film festival and eliciting several nominations at American awards shows. The controversy in this movie, be it slight, stems not from gender or ethnicity- it’s from class and social theory.

The central conflict of this movie follows young Zain (the phenomenal Zain Al Rafeea) who runs away from home after his sister is sold into marriage with an older man. Zain is taken in by an undocumented Ethiopian immigrant and her infant son. The film is interwoven with Zain in court several months later after stabbing someone, when we find out he has taken it upon himself to sue his parents for having birthed him into such terrible conditions. This is an admittedly compelling subject: I was glued to the screen from beginning to end. In fact, I saw no issue with the movie until its final moments, and after when I read into it and uncovered the small wave of backlash Capernaum is facing for subtly promoting eugenics.

Zain’s conclusion is that the world is unfair. When he discovers that his abusive mother is pregnant again, to be named after his married-off sister who died when she became pregnant at eleven years old, he is thrown into a fit of rage. These parents, he contests, should not be having children if they’re going to give their children a bad life. In context, his fury is perfectly understandable, and admittedly an interesting reason to bring in the law (perhaps child abuse is the preferred path of seeking justice, as Zain doesn’t even have a birth certificate). But this is tricky, tricky ground for a movie to operate around- a rhetoric that criticizes the impoverished and not the state’s lack of provisions for them- especially when the storyteller is from an upper class background.

Director Labacki is politically implicated, a candidate on the list of the new political movement Beirut Madinati from 2016. Regarding a circulating picture of a deceased three year old Syrian immigrant, she said, "I remember thinking if this child could talk, what would he say, and how would he address the adults that killed him? I wanted to become their voice, their vehicle for them to express themselves,” (Source). She wants to bring issues to attention and propose solutions. Of course, what simple solutions are there to the millions of children in poverty, unable to attend school or feed themselves when their parents are stuck in the same rutt? It is implied, it seems, by the film, that people without the means should just stop having kids. Boom, no more begging kids on the street. People can focus on working and making a comfortable home for themselves. This idea is fuel for social class fire and entirely incomprehensible as a consideration for economically disadvantaged people who wish to have a degree of control over their lives- and that’s without even delving into the gender roles at play.

The difficult part is that I don’t wish to outright demonize the movie. I do not see it as “poverty-porn”, the optimal term employed by many critics when addressing a tragic story that occurs among the most disadvantaged people imaginable. Frankly, despite my concern that liking this movie would render me supportive of an unsavory political agenda, I don’t know enough about Lebanon nor its constituents to declare that Capernaum as a vessel is finding a candy-coated way to suggest sterilization of its poorest citizens. I can only go off what I see on review websites from people who despised it, such as Letterboxd user Forrest who decries, “Capernaum is both blinkered and determined to make a point, a combination that lands it somewhere between Social Darwinist and Eugenicist… one would hardly think to connect this bad lot with the Lebanese Civil War and the French and British imperialist aims that contributed to it,” (Source). Since the vast majority of reviews are positive, it would be easy to ignore the few that are in opposition. But this is not an issue that is simply a matter of opinion.

What is the movie implying about the right of poor families to have children?

I suppose I am made all the more sensitive to this matter in the recent days because of news that Uighur Muslims are still being persecuted and sterilised in China, although it remains largely unaddressed in the U.S. news stream (no doubt this attack on the Capitol will remain at the forefront of American attention for weeks to come). In a war-torn place, poverty is inevitable. But where it becomes confusing, thematically, is the legal ramifications of Zain’s lawsuit. Here, the state is presented as the only gateway to justice, with Labaki herself playing Zain’s lawyer (I boast no criticism here except a slight impression of self-saviorism I see in Labaki’s quest to be “the voice for change”). Is it a genuine concern for the children, or an unreserved condemnation of the parents?

Says Labacki to Vogue, “I would go into these shacks and see kids who were left alone all day. You start to ask yourself, What kind of mother leaves her child alone, with nothing to eat for the entire day? And then the mother would return and you would feel entirely different,” (Source).

These are muddy, muddy waters. I offer no clear consensus on the film nor its statement, as reading about backlash makes it harder to view a film in the same light. The film will have no doubt struck your curiosity by now, but it is not up to me to incite you to watch it given the circumstances. Perhaps, if you do choose to watch, it should be to celebrate the impressive performance of actor Zain, a Syrian refugee who is now living with his family in Norway. Regardless, there needs to be pushback, I believe, on films which are daring enough to cross the line and offer a solution to capernaum, or chaos, as Labaki defined its old world meaning. Because of this, I know that I can’t in full confidence offer this movie as a part of my world cinema exploration. It is simultaneously too vague and too incendiary to consequent a recommendation.


I, Lydia Smith, am the creator of Buffed Film Buffs and this work, which was debuted in the form of a public link to a Google Doc to a limited audience. It was never officially posted online.

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