The Saturday Profile: In Beirut, a ‘Teeming Vision of the Inferno’

The Saturday Profile

In Beirut, a ‘Teeming Vision of the Inferno’

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Nadine Labaki and her husband, Khaled Mouzanar, spent three years researching the impoverished neighborhoods where “Capernaum” is set. He’s the producer, co-writer and composer of the film, which has been nominated for an Oscar.CreditCreditDalia Khamissy for The New York Times

By Vivian Yee

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Her first movie made Lebanon laugh at itself, her second gift-wrapped the trauma of its civil war in tender comedy, and Nadine Labaki’s third film, “Capernaum,” well, made people cry. Its title means something like “chaos” or “hell,” and it offers a not-far-from-real story of child abuse, vicious poverty and despair only a short drive from Lebanon’s grandest neighborhoods.

NPR called it “Dickensian.” Reviewing it for The New York Times, A.O. Scott called Beirut, as seen through Ms. Labaki’s camera, a “teeming vision of the inferno.” It is this image of Lebanon — rather than its hellish civil war, its beauty culture, its beaches and ski resorts or its hummus — that has captivated international audiences over the past year, winning the jury prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film and a spot in Mr. Scott’s Top-10 list for 2018.

But though international success has made Ms. Labaki the country’s best-known filmmaker, it is Lebanese eyes, hearts and consciences that she is after.

“Lebanese people need to know what’s going on,” she said. “They need to face it.”

“It,” as “Capernaum” shows, is an angry brew of seemingly every major Lebanese social ill of recent years, problems that rarely get a prominent airing in Lebanon.

fled the civil war for Lebanon, and finds a makeshift home with an undocumented Ethiopian woman — one of Lebanon’s large underclass of migrant laborers — and her toddler son.

Zain’s odyssey is a movie. Yet, Ms. Labaki, not wanting it to be dismissed as an exaggeration, made sure it was not quite fiction.

Ms. Labaki and her husband, Khaled Mouzanar, the film’s producer, co-writer and composer, spent three years researching the impoverished neighborhoods where “Capernaum” is set.

resettled the family in Norway last year; Ms. Labaki said Zain was adjusting well. In fact, Ms. Labaki’s team has helped all the young children in the film enroll either in schools or part-time classes since the end of filming.)

None of this is Ms. Labaki’s usual milieu.

“This is happening five minutes away from a completely different life,” she said on a recent afternoon as her Land Rover jounced from the well-groomed streets of Achrafieh, where she lives and works, to the hardscrabble neighborhood called Nabaa, where she shot the bulk of the film. Garbage littered the sidewalks. Electrical wires sagged overhead; laundry slumped from balconies. Cockroaches trundled by Ms. Labaki’s gray Converse sneakers.

As Ms. Labaki got out, people hung out from balconies or waved from corner stores to congratulate her — “Mabrouk!” — on the Oscar nomination.

It was Ms. Labaki’s own ignorance about places like Nabaa, she said, that generated the film’s shock-and-dismay approach, which put off some reviewers.

“You know it’s happening,” she said, “but it’s shocking to see how unbearable it is. It’s different to be inside of it.”

Like “Capernaum,” Ms. Labaki is a homegrown product of Lebanon, one of only a few contemporary Arab directors not to have pursued her training or career in the West. Growing up in a village outside Beirut during Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, which killed more than 150,000 people, she remembers being cooped up at home with little to do but watch movies like “Annie” and “Grease” as the fighting burned outside.

wrote. When Zain’s parents tell his lawyer, played by Ms. Labaki, “that she has no right to judge them, and her eyes tear up, the guilt feels phony,” another wrote.

But Ms. Labaki, who sometimes speaks about the plot as though it were true, insists it is all real. She told the woman who played Zain’s mother, Kawsar al-Haddad, to draw on her own story for the scene, as she did with the other actors throughout the filming.

Now Ms. Labaki, who once ran unsuccessfully in a Beirut municipal election, wants to take her activism further, aware that good intentions may go only so far.

At one point in “Capernaum,” a group of volunteer musicians visits a prison to put on a concert. Some of the detainees sing along from behind the bars, but the camera lingers on those who do not, whose despair seems beyond the reach of any music.

But Ms. Labaki insists on trying.

“It’s really a luxury not to talk about politics,” Ms. Labaki said, “especially if you live on this side of the world, where nothing is going right.”

Related Coverage

‘Capernaum’ Review: A Heartbreaking and Defiant Look at a Boy’s Life in BeirutDec. 13, 2018ImageBest Movies of 2018Dec. 5, 2018Image‘Capernaum’ Is Not Just a Film, but a Rallying CryDec. 14, 2018Image

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