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Existence and its discontents.

A Fortnightly Review.

Written and directed by Nadine Labaki

R | 2h 6 min | Drama | UK release 22 February 2019


THE HANDCUFFED BOY is led into the court, his face grave. It is scarcely the face of a child. The judge orders that his handcuffs be removed and his name is confirmed, Zain. His address is a juvenile prison. Age? His birth was not registered by his parents, but he is probably around twelve. ‘Do you know why you’re here?’ the judge asks. ‘Yes,’ Zain answers. ‘I want to sue my parents.’ ‘And why do you want to sue them?’ ‘Because I was born,’ Zain answers.

In the opening sequences of the film we have a glimpse of the world Zain has grown up in. A gang of young children, Zain among them, run through the rundown streets of a city in Lebanon brandishing toy weapons made from pieces of wood, empty tin cans and tape. They ‘shoot’ at each other from the walkways of tenement buildings, smoke marijuana in a derelict apartment. After the court scene, the grim realities of this world are elaborated in the backstory which makes up most of the film, recounting events leading up to the legal action Zain brings against his parents, a story which also exposes the plight of others caught up in the ‘capernaum’ (Arabic for chaos) that is present-day Lebanon.

This is Nadine Labaki’s third feature, and it is markedly grimmer in tone than her two previous films. Caramel (2007), her debut work was a romantic comedy with a feminist slant, centred on a hairdressing salon in Beirut. Her second film, Where do we go now? (2011) tackled inter-communal violence through the medium of fairy tale. In a village where Christians and Muslims have historically lived amicably as neighbours, the women endeavour to preserve a peace which is threatened by national inter-faith conflict. They do so by first trying to isolate the village from news of conflicts elsewhere in Lebanon, and when this fails, by enlisting the services of a troupe of Ukrainian erotic dancers to keep their men distracted. The local priest and imam collaborate with the women to try to contain the violence which repeatedly threatens to erupt.

This is not a ‘true story’. The suing of the parents is a dramatic device Labaki uses to structure her material…

Capernaum shares with its predecessor a concern with social crisis, but here Labaki employs the conventions of ‘realism’ as the primary means of rendering her subject, though the film is not entirely ‘real’. This is not a ‘true story’. The suing of the parents is a dramatic device Labaki uses to structure her material, and its fictionality has something of the fairy-tale quality of Where do we go from here? There are also comic moments in the film which have an air of the fantastical. When Zain boards a bus to escape from home, a man dressed as Cockroach Man (a parody of Spiderman) sits next to him. Zain follows the man to a fairground, where he spends the night. In the morning Zain climbs on to the top of a carousel and peels back the clothing of a female figure on the roof, exposing her breasts. These moments of strangeness and humour make the harshness of the boy’s existence all the more poignant. They also humanise the story, enabling us to engage with Zain rather than seeing him only as a victim of injustice.

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Zain’s parents have no ‘papers’ and are therefore without identity, non-existent in the eyes of the state. They are ill-educated, violent, do not care for their children and depend on a relative for cramped and squalid accommodation and supplies of food. They have many children. Zain is particularly close to his sister Sahar who is a year younger than him. When she starts to menstruate he encourages her to hide the evidence for fear their parents will dispose of her through marriage to the uncle who provides their accommodation and food. Zain’s suspicions are well founded, and this is what eventually happens. His attempts to block the marriage lead to a massive fight with his parents and Zain leaves home.

AS HE UNDRESSES the figure on the carousel in the fairground Zain is watched by a young woman cleaning in a nearby cafeteria. She is amused by his antics and touched by his loneliness, and she lets him to stay with her when he appeals for help. She is Ethiopian, one of the thousands of illegal, low-paid workers employed in Lebanon’s poorly regulated economy. Her name is Rahil and she is a single mother, forced to conceal her infant son. If he is discovered by the authorities he will likely be taken from her, or they will both be deported.

One evening Rahil doesn’t come home after work. The following day Zain takes the baby and goes to look for her. Unknown to him, Rahil has been caught in a police raid and, lacking appropriate papers, is in detention, afraid to report the existence of her son. Zain takes on the responsibility of feeding and caring for the child. Now living on the streets he meets a Syrian refugee girl of around his own age. Through her he learns about the distribution of food aid, and is able to acquire powdered milk and diapers for the baby by adopting a Syrian accent.

The girl tells him that she plans to travel to Sweden, where she expects to be given asylum. She paints an idealised picture of a society free of exploitation and violence where people care for others. Zain decides he also wants to go to Sweden, and begins negotiating with a ‘fixer’, Aspro, through whom Rahil had previously tried to obtain forged papers. Aspro had offered to take Rahil’s child to sell for adoption as part payment for her papers, but she refused. He’s a small time crook with a fake chumminess who ruthlessly exploits those who need his help. Zain, unable to cope with his infant charge, ends up handing over the child to this man in return for a passage out of Lebanon. He returns to his parents’ house to obtain the identity papers he needs, and discovers that he has none. At the apartment he learns that his beloved sister Sahar has died in pregnancy, and he runs off and stabs her husband with a kitchen knife. This is the crime for which he is jailed.

IN FEBRUARY 2019, a young Mumbai businessman, Raphael Samuel, announced that he was going to sue his parents for having him. The story attracted a great deal of media attention. Samuel said he was embarking on the legal action because he wanted to highlight the issues of children being born into lives of misery. He also believed the Earth would be a better place without humans. ‘There’s no point to humanity. So many people are suffering. If humanity is extinct, Earth and animals would be happier. They’ll certainly be better off. Also no human will then suffer. Human existence is totally pointless.’

Samuel launched a website a year ago where he argued the case for a philosophy known as ‘anti-natalism’. His legal case, though never likely to come to court, was a vehicle for attracting attention to his cause. It seems that Capernaum gave him the idea, a case of ‘life’ imitating ‘art’.

Anti-natalist philosophy of the kind espoused by Samuel has precedents dating back to the Greeks, and it had its champions during the twentieth century. Two leading contemporary proponents are Julio Cabrera, an Argentinian philosopher, now retired, who taught at the University of Brasilia, and the South African David Benatar, a professor at the University of Cape Town. Cabrera in his book A Critique of Affirmative Morality: A Reflection on Death, Birth and the Value of Life, argues that human life is ‘structurally negative’ in the sense that it inevitably involves pain, grief, and suffering. Historically, moral philosophy affirms the value of life, and views threats to life as negative. Cabrera seeks to stand this view on its head, arguing against the presumption that life is intrinsically ‘good’. Benatar, similarly, contends that existence brings with it both bad and good experiences, but on balance more bad experiences. The logical consequence of this, according to his book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, is that it is morally wrong for us to bring more sentient beings into the world.

The term anti-natalist itself comes from Théophile de Giraud, a Belgian writer and activist born in 1968. His witty and provocative book, The Impertinence of Procreation (2000), argues for an end to human reproduction. His essay The Art of Guillotining the Procreators: Anti-Natalist Manifesto (2006), covers similar ground, its core message: ‘If you love children, don’t create them.’

These sorts of ideas, and others derived from ecological concerns about human impacts on the planet, have been taken up by social activists. The website of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEM) states: ‘Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health.’ The movement presents arguments from different disciplines in support of its core thesis. It’s a position which provokes many hostile responses, and the organisation’s website anticipates some of these, for example ‘Why don’t you just kill yourselves?’ The very reasonable answer offered is: ‘Advocating suicide, by any method besides old age, would be a particularly hard sell. There’s no way we could convince enough people to kill themselves to make a difference, especially after we’re too dead to talk.’

Visitors to the website can leave comments, for and against the anti-natalist position. There is a numbing repetitiveness, as in much social media ‘comment’, in the misspelled observations posted on the site by those who are opposed. One contributor writes that he or she is ‘making a baby right now’. Samuel’s Facebook page similarly attracted a stream of abuse after the media picked up on his story.

One argument advanced by those opposed to an end to having children is that large families are the product of poverty, ignorance and indolence. It’s the wrong kind of people who are breeding excessively, they say, people like Zain’s parents. As the VHEM itself summarises the argument online: ‘It’s “those stupid, slack-jawed degenerates who shouldn’t breed. Those too poor to raise children, or so warped they don’t even like children and might abuse them.”’ The movement’s repost to such arguments is that affluent people, through their consumption, have a much larger impact on the biosphere than the poor. There is also no evidence that ‘intelligent’ parents will necessarily produce an intelligent child, or vice versa. Zain, as we see him in the film, though he is of course a fictional character, is an intelligent, responsible, and resourceful individual despite his heritage.

PROFESSOR CABRERA, AS well as writing on negative ethics, is also interested in cinema, and in the potential of film as a medium in which to do philosophy. This idea of film as philosophy, as opposed to film as simply a subject for philosophy, has gained adherents in the last few decades. Cabrera describes his own position on his website as follows:

…in the period of my adolescence…I was attracted by the ideas of Sartre through his novels and plays, giving me many valuable and fascinating elements for thinking about the world. I knew that my first access to philosophy had been literary, that there should be a dimension of thought that was articulated in literature. Why not in cinema?

…literature and cinema can think the flow of experiences and historicity without feeling the need to reduce it to intellectual forms of representation. It is in this territory where the cinema can think, even better than the tradition of written philosophy.

A central idea of my book [Cine: 100 años de Filosofia. Una Introducción a la filosofía a través del análisis de películas (Cinema: One hundred years of philosophy. An introduction to philosophy through the analysis of films)]…is that cinema creates concepts not in a purely intellectual way, but intellectually-affective concepts, or “logopathic”, as I prefer to say, giving affections and emotions a conceptual role.1

Such beliefs are contested by many philosophers, some of whom deny the legitimacy of this approach altogether while others take a middle position, arguing that films can operate as ‘thought experiments’, presenting ‘what if’ scenarios which explore the implications of positing a particular set of concepts.2

Labaki, of course, is not necessarily advocating an ‘anti-natalist’ agenda in Capernaum. But this does not mean that the film is void of philosophical questions. She uses Zain’s adoption of such a position to pose deep questions about the plight of children like him. Perhaps the central question of the film is, if not anti-natalism then what? How do we answer the logic of Zain’s position, which he bases on harsh experience, not on abstract reasoning?

The death of Sahar is a major trauma in his life, and it is her fate as much as his own which informs his actions. When, during a prison visit, Zain’s mother tells him she is pregnant again, and describes the unborn child as a gift from God, sent as compensation for the loss of his sister, Zain rejects this supposed ‘consolation’ and tells his mother he never wants to see her again. ‘You have no heart,’ he says. These are ‘logopathic’ concepts of the kind Cabrera describes.

Images of parenting, good and bad, are important to the discourse of Capernaum. While Zain’s parents use verbal abuse, physical constraints, and violence to control their children, Rahil presents a very different image of parenting. Her affection for her child is obvious, and this warmth is also extended to Zain. Life for her is no less tough than for Zain’s parents, if anything it’s more challenging. As an illegal foreign worker she has to resort to all sorts of ruses to conceal the child. But when Aspro offers to buy her son Rahil will not even countenance it. In contrast Zain’s parents gave their 11-year old daughter to their landlord as a bride in lieu of rent on their apartment. Zain’s father may protest in court that his own life is a misery and it’s unfair for anyone to judge him, but the example of Rahil suggests that he has alternatives.

In Where do we go now? Islam and Christianity are represented as neutral actors – religion a potential force for both mutual respect and conflict. In Capernaum, when a group of Christians and a priest visit the prison where Zain is being held, the rendering is almost parody. Some prisoners join in the worshipful singing and dancing, but Zain, along with other inmates, looks on with indifference at these ‘happy-clappy’ do-gooders. The boy is equally apathetic about the Muslim men praying in his cell. Zain lies listlessly on his bedding, staring at nothing. Religion seems at best an irrelevance, at worst another factor which contributes to the ‘hell’ which is Zain’s life. For his mother, pregnancy is God-given and religion a source of absolution, allowing her to place responsibility in the hands of an unknowable Deity. Whatever happens, it is His will. For Zain, her behaviour is a display of grotesque irresponsibility.

The film is neither a portrait of unavoidable tragedy (there is no catharsis), nor an exercise in rationalising Zain’s predicament in terms of wider social ‘causes’.

The film is neither a portrait of unavoidable tragedy (there is no catharsis), nor an exercise in rationalising Zain’s predicament in terms of wider social ‘causes’. There is a relentless focus on those with whom Zain has an immediate relationship. The broader national and regional context is present in the film but is treated obliquely, for example through the Syrian refugee girl.3 Syrian refugees are a part of his reality, not a cause of it, and their presence, rather than representing competition for scarce resources enables Zain to obtain help he desperately needs. Labaki says she made the film because for her not to talk about these children’s lives would leave her complicit in a situation she finds insupportable. The narrative confronts us with a multi-dimensional and complex tangle of issues, including questions of personal responsibility and the role of religion, without seeking to ‘explain’ them. It leaves that work to us as the viewers.

ZAIN’S EVENTUAL ESCAPE comes through the medium of a live phone-in programme on television devoted to social issues. The boy calls the programme from the prison and tells the presenter about his life. He had thought, he says, that he would grow up to be a good person, but ‘God doesn’t want that’. He asks for help to sue his parents. Other prisoners start shouting that Zain is on the TV, and there are roars of excitement, the broadcast affording them for a moment a kind of celebrity through Zain. It’s another fantasy moment in the film. Zain becomes an ‘heroic’ figure as he speaks to the reality of his life.

The actor who plays Zain, Zain Al Rafeea, was discovered by Labaki’s casting team on the streets. They knew at once that he had the charisma they were looking for. His actual experience, and those of other non-professional actors in the film, informed the scripting of the dialogue. The ‘realism’ of the film is the product of a collaboration between the actors and the director.

Al Rafeea in real life has a caring family, his story is not Zain’s, but the spotting of his talents by the filmmakers has transformed his future prospects. In a story where again life imitates art, the child actor has been enabled to escape a life of poverty through the magical medium of cinema. But what of all the other children still hawking sweets on the street, peddling drugs, and suffering abuse from their parents? In the final shot, Zain is being photographed for his identity card. The photographer asks him to smile, and Zain does so, looking directly into the camera for the first time in the film. Then the picture freezes. No answers are given, there is no resolution. We are left with the sense of the chaos of these children’s lives, and the unanswerable challenge of how to help them.

Simon Collings lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including StrideJournal of Poetics ResearchCafé Irreal,Tears in the FenceInk Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN ReviewOut West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik in 2017, and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, was released by The Red Ceilings Press in 2018. An archive of his work for The Fortnightly Review is here.
  1. Cabrera, “Cinema and Philosophy” on his personal website.
  2. For a short discussion of these issues see: Wartenberg, Thomas, “Philosophy of Film”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  3. There are around one million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon according to UNHCR, one refugee for every four Lebanese nationals. Labaki has talked about the huge challenge this represents for her country in interviews she’s given about Capernaum, but solving this crisis would not in itself deliver Zain from ‘hell’.
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