2018 saw the release of six films of the highest quality which took many of the top prizes around the world at festivals and national awards. Cold War was followed into UK distribution by Shoplifters and then Roma. Burning appeared in early 2019 and now we have Capernaum. Happy as Lazzaro appears next month. What a year 2018 was! And there are others to come which I haven’t seen yet. We might struggle to find such quality across this year’s output.
Capernaum (the title translates as ‘chaos) is one of the most controversial of the six films. While many audiences and critics have raved about the film, there are some who have accused Lebanese writer-director-actor Nadine Labaki and her musician-producer partner Khaled Mouzanar of various kinds of offences. The most widely expressed of these centres on the concept of ‘poverty porn’, something previously visited upon Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire (UK-US-India 2009). I struggle to understand exactly what ‘poverty porn’ might be but first here’s a brief outline of Capernaum and its production.
Lebanon is a country which has suffered more than most because of its own internal divisions, partly derived from its colonial past, and its proximity to the wholescale disruption of people’s lives in Palestine and Syria and the subsequent migrations of refugees to Lebanon. At the same time, Beirut has maintained its position as a major economic and cultural centre for the entire region. Nadine Labaki has attempted to bring together several social issues as the basis for her story about Zain, a 12 year-old Lebanese boy who leaves his family and for a brief period lives with a migrant worker and her infant child. The story engages with the ‘street culture’ of Beirut, the refugee camps, the difficulty of achieving resident status and the ways in which so many people can easily become ‘invisible’ because of their lack of official recognition. Thus the ‘chaos’ of life in Beirut. Labaki’s strategy is to create a narrative which at one level appears to explore this world using the techniques of neo-realism, but also with some of the more expressionist devices of contemporary cinema such as the drone shots which show the extent of of cheap housing and shacks. The narrative structure uses a series of flashbacks from a central court case in which the young boy sues his parents for bringing him into this world of chaos.
Nadine Labaki’s previous films as director are Caramel (2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (2011). The first is a form of realist melodrama centring on the lives of women from different backgrounds who meet at a local beauty shop. The second is an unusual form of musical comedy which explores questions about civil war via the idea of women in an isolated village attempting to defuse hostilities by manipulating the sexual desires of the men. Capernaum is in some way an amalgam of the styles of the first two films, bringing together a realist style with the narrative device of a courtroom in which the trial becomes an indictment of a whole structure of government policies in Beirut. This is something used in a slightly different way in a film like Bamako (Mali-France 2006). Nadine Labaki also starred in her first two films as a director (she also works as an actor in both French and Lebanese cinema) but in Capernaum she plays the role of the Zain’s counsel in court, an important, but secondary role. Although the trial seems an unlikely event, Labaki consulted retired judges to ensure that the scenes have some credibility. Many of the actors in the film are non-professionals, often with ‘real-life’ experience of the kinds of roles they play.
Only a vocal minority of commentators are against this film which scores a very high 8.4 on IMDb. But it is worth looking at the negative reviews to try to understand the issues a little more clearly. The Slumdog Millionaire comparison is interesting because some of the critics refer to Capernaum as ‘Oscar bait’ and accuse it of ‘manipulation’. (The film was distributed in the US by Sony Classics in the US, giving it a higher profile than Labaki’s earlier films.) At the same time there are charges from some critics that the film is ‘without cinematic merit’ while for others its use of hand-held camera and drone shots (and its flashback structure) are cinematic devices which ‘get in the way’ of presenting the real conditions faced by the thousands living in cheap housing or on the streets in Beirut. The charge is that Labaki is a relatively wealthy woman exploiting her non-professional actors in order to make American audiences cry – and presumably to make themselves feel better. One commentator calls Labaki a ‘Western woman’. But not everybody who is educated, talented and speaks French and/or English is ‘Western’. It seems that Nadine Labaki had to help some of her non-professional actors in ‘real life’ because of their precarious positions. ‘Zain’ is played by Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon and ‘Rahil’, the woman he meets and befriends is played by Yordanos Shiferaw, an Eritrean refugee in Ethiopia who became an illegal migrant worker in Lebanon. Both Zain and Yordanos were helped in different ways. The parents of the little girl who plays Rahil’s son were also arrested during the shoot and the crew had to intervene. Even so the mother and child were deported back to Kenya and the father to Nigeria. This information is taken from the film’s Press Pack.
But what about ‘poverty porn’? Describing something as ‘porn’ suggests that it is produced in order to ‘arouse’ audiences/readers, to stimulate an excessive interest in something. In the case of ‘gastro-porn’ or ‘gardening porn’ it’s used as a criticism of middle class readers who revel in the expensive beauty of these objects of consumption. But how does this work with images of poverty? Their status as pornographic images can derive only from the perceived exploitation of the actors or the behaviour of those who watch/read the imagery. However, unlike haute cuisine or beautiful gardens, images of poverty are also concerned with exposing and circulating ways of living/surviving that are often excluded from cinema screens. There is always a case for showing not excluding. The argument must be about how they are shown, but also about the need to show them in such a way to attract audiences who might not otherwise be aware of the issues.
If I think about my own reaction to the film, I don’t think I was ‘shocked’ or that I felt ‘manipulated’ by the film. Many scenes are certainly difficult to watch and I was emotionally engaged but I’ve seen similar films before. Once or twice I was struck by similarities with Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988) and, more oddly, I thought about Battle of Algiers (Algeria-France 1966) – I think it was the prison scenes. I was very impressed by the performances of the non-professionals. Zain in particular is a very distinctive young boy, small for his age but seemingly fearless. The fact that he is a very attractive and appealing child has perhaps fuelled some of the negative reviews. The German-Lebanese cinematographer Christopher Aoun is still in the early stages of his career but I thought his work was very effective. The music by Khaled Mouzanar worked for me and he and Nadine Labaki have produced a film with a universal story that is stunningly presented in the context of Beirut.
I don’t know Nadine Labaki personally and I can’t judge whether she has exploited her non-professional cast. All I can do is watch the film and read what she has said about its production. Her most vocal critics might have some local knowledge about life in Beirut but from my perspective this is a powerful film that deserves its large audience. The claims that it has no ‘cinematic merit’ just seem silly. In the wider context I hope that Capernaum makes audiences more aware of the refugee crisis in Lebanon and exerts pressure for changes in international policies affecting the region. It would be good if attention switched to a little further down the coast and focused on the major causes of the refugee crises in Lebanon over the past 70 years – the forced flight of Palestinians from their homelands and the proxy war that has just been fought in Syria. I’m also looking forward to whatever Nadine Labaki produces next.
Here’s the Canadian trailer:
The Films From the South Festival opened strongly tonight with a real crowd-pleaser. Heidi Sandberg and Lasse Skagen, the festival’s Managing Director and Artistic Director respectively, opened the ten days of screenings and introduced Nadine Labaki, the director, co-writer and star of Where Do We Go Now? As the final credits rolled Ms Labaki received a deserved standing ovation for a film that will no doubt attract healthy audiences across the world following a highly successful opening in France and Lebanon.
The film’s title is taken from its last line of dialogue. I won’t spoil your enjoyment by explaining it, but in case you might think that a parting shot like this makes the film sound despairing, I hope you will be assured that it’s actually the opposite and filled with hope – while recognising that the problem hasn’t been solved yet.
I’ve been mulling over the various genre descriptions of the film such as ‘musical comedy’ and the inimitable Variety ‘dramedy’. I was surprised that there is a moment of real tragedy in the film. This definitely changes the overall tone of the film, sharpening up the comedy and adding to the real satirical edge which is there in the film underneath all the music and laughter. Where Do We Go Now? is clearly a follow-up to Labaki’s earlier Caramel, but also something ‘bigger’ in cinematic terms. Its use of music helps to propel it away from the more realist tone of the earlier film and towards something more fantastical.
Although most reports set the film in Lebanon, there aren’t any direct references to that country. It could really be set in any relatively isolated community. In this case the village is in the mountains, linked only to civilisation by a narrow track that is heavily mined on either side. The two teenage sons of the shopkeeper take their ‘scooter and trailer’ down the mountain each day to collect supplies. Meanwhile the women visit the village’s twin cemeteries, Christian and Muslim, replacing the flowers on the graves of husbands and sons lost in a civil war between sectarian groups. When the boys set up a new aerial on the hillside it brings both music radio and television channels to the village which gathers to usher in the millennium. But television also seems to bring seeds of discord, partly through the news of what is happening elsewhere in the country and partly through the sexualised imagery which inflames the passions of the men of all ages. Perhaps fittingly, the village women will eventually use sexual allure (in the form of a group of Ukrainian nightclub dancers) as a decoy device in order to prevent the men from reaching the inevitable conclusion of an outbreak of the civil war directly in the village itself – and that’s where the comedy comes in.
In a press interview (see below), Nadine Labaki says that she wanted the film to represent something that could happen in any village threatened by civil conflict of any sort, not just religious. But she does say that she was prompted to make the film when in May 2008, on the day she discovered that she was pregnant, Beirut once again moved into civil war mode:
“And I said to myself, if I had a son, what would I do to prevent him from picking up a gun and going out into the street? How far would I go to stop my child from going to see what’s happening outside and thinking he had to defend his building, his family or his beliefs? The idea for the film grew out of that.”
There are two main differences between this film and Caramel as I see it. The first is the scale of production. With more co-production partners, including support from both Canal + and the Doha Film Institute as well as Pathé (the international sales agents who will also distribute in much of Europe), the film was genuinely international and the budget was forecast as $6.7 million (Variety November 2010). I suspect that is quite large by Lebanese standards. I’m not sure if it was significant in attracting cinematographer Christophe Offenstein (who lensed the two Guillaume Canet Fims, Tell No One and Little White Lies). He certainly makes good use of the CinemaScope frame in the opening musical sequence and creates plenty of excitement in the composite village scenes (which were shot in three different Lebanese villages, one of which has its church and mosque close together). Despite the bigger budget, Labaki decided to stick with her original decision to use non-actors in most roles. I was sure that I’d seen some of the actors before but I was wrong. That’s a tribute I think to Labaki’s skill in moulding the performances of a large cast of non-professionals into such a wonderful ensemble.
The second difference is the injection of what Labaki calls “a mood of fairytale and fable” – via the use of music. I’d like to tell you that she drew on Indian popular cinema or Egyptian melodramas but she told her Cannes interviewer that it was Grease and the Disney animations Snow White and Cinderella that originally inspired her. The music is written by Labaki’s partner Khaled Mouzanar and the writing process is quite an organic part of writing the film. The words are by Tania Saleh and I’d like to listen to the songs again. I do think that the film feels oddly ‘universal’ and I thought of lots of other similar narratives from Greek tragedies and fairy tales to one of my favourite Cuban films, The Waiting List (2000) about a community of travellers trapped in a country bus station who create a kind of utopia. In Nadine Labaki’s film her isolated community in a sense create a fantasy about a world in which people work to avoid wars and to live with difference – now that is a political idea, isn’t it?
Download the Cannes Press Pack (pdf) here.
Unfortunately I couldn’t make the Q&A or the Press Conference given by Nadine Labaki in Oslo, but I hope to have more luck with the next festival guest, Eric Khoo from Singapore, whose films I’m seeing tomorrow.
Cineuropa ran a piece today on this festival, pointing out that there is a new initiative from Films From the South and the Norwegian Film Institute to set up a ‘South Fund’ encouraging co-productions between filmmakers from the South and Norwegian partners. The Norwegian government has pledged €1.3 million over 5 years and 13 potential projects have been selected for a forum to be held during this festival.
I spent a very enjoyable 95 mins watching Caramel. Afterwards, the more I thought and read about the film, the more I thought this is exactly the kind of film that I want to discuss on this blog. It isn’t just the subject matter of the film, but what its production, distribution and exhibition raise as issues in global film culture.
To take the narrative first, Caramel offers a specific location – a hairdressing salon/beauty shop in Beirut – which acts as the locus for the intersecting stories of five women. (The title refers to the sugar solution used in depilation treatments.) The five women are different in terms of age and religion (and possibly ethnicity?) but they face similar problems in finding happiness in the still traditional society in this the most cosmopolitan of Arab cities.
The film has been widely described as a ‘romantic comedy’ but this is misleading, I think. Certainly, there are comic moments but these are matched by sad and downbeat scenes. This could make it a ‘bittersweet’ comedy, but the structure is wrong for a romantic comedy. Although the film ends with a wedding for one of the women, it isn’t the defining moment for the other four and no one story is really more important than the others, even if Nadine Labaki is the stand-out presence in the film, playing the character who runs the salon as well as directing and co-writing.
I think this is a good example of a melodrama. Were it not for the usual misunderstanding about terms, I would see this as a soap opera/telenovela kind of narrative – massively popular throughout the region whether from Egypt or imported. It isn’t as sensational as the TV soaps, but it has the same kinds of ingredients – the struggles of the women, the constraining family ties and that melodrama essential, a wonderful music soundtrack.
According to the press release and interviews by Nadine Labaki, most of the cast were non-actors so the film has the feel of a neo-realist melodrama. The playing is generally very good and deeply moving in very different ways – the frustration of living with a partner (it’s not clear if this is a sister, mother or aunt) with either dementia or learning difficulties, the cruelty of the modelling/acting game for older women, the gentle beginnings of a relationship between two younger women as well as the pain of a relationship with a married man. Haircutting is a potentially erotic activity and here it leads to a breathtaking transformation of an already beautiful woman into someone of astonishing beauty.
Caramel is a pleasure on almost every level. The shooting of the film must have been difficult (it wrapped just as the 2006 war broke out) and we actually see little of Beirut as a city, but there is a great deal of local culture and ‘colour’ crammed in. I may have missed a few things related to local culture, but overall I thought the film was well conceived in speaking to both local and international audiences.
Considering production, this is one of many films from Africa and Asia that have reached screens around the world thanks to the tradition of French producers and cultural agencies looking ‘outwards’ to promote films from Francophone countries and others – British producers please note. Lebanon was only directly under a French mandate for around 25 years from 1918 to 1943, yet French became the language of the Christian middle-class in Lebanon and a French language culture was established. (The importance of French-speaking as a marker of middle-class status and education is an ingredient in the plot.) Of course, French colonial policy was not necessarily benign or progressive, but its legacy has meant more films getting a wider release than their equivalents (not that there are many) from Britain’s colonial legacy.
Caramel was co-produced by a French company and it got its first break via an appearance at Cannes in 2007 and a subsequent entry for the foreign language Oscar. In the UK the film opened a year later with support for digital prints and has proved a notable success. In week 1 it opened on 46 screens courtesy of independent distributor Momentum and entered the UK Top 10 at 9. After three weeks it was still at No 10 and looks likely to make nearly £400,000 which I suspect will be a record for a film in Arabic in the UK (does anybody know a higher grossing film – Battle of Algiers possibly?). I’m pleased it has been a success and I’m sure the large numbers of people disappointed by Sex and the City would have had a much better time watching Caramel. Momentum is a UK company releasing both European specialised films and US/UK genre pictures.
Here’s a useful American review focusing on the representation of ‘modern women’ in Beirut: http://www.reverseshot.com/article/caramel
and here are a couple of regional reviews/discussions which include video clips:
And if you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the US trailer to whet your appetite: