By: Edwin Nasr

In 1955, filmmaker Satyajit Ray—regarded as the “godfather” of modern Indian cinema—released the first chapter of his Apu Trilogy, titled Pather Panchali. The film aimed to break with the dominant codes of the Hindi film industry by establishing an aesthetic continuity with the European neorealist movement. It subsequently garnered international accolades. Shot with mostly non-professional actors in a poor Bengali village, the film narrates the birth of its main protagonist, Apu, to a marginalized Brahman family composed of an abused sister, a stoic mother, and an absent father. Pather Panchali went on to represent India at the Cannes Film Festival, but its selection was increasingly met with hostility by the Indian government and film critics alike. They claimed its representation of social misery undermined postcolonial India’s international image and subsequently actively called on the Central Board of Film Censors to include depictions of “abject” poverty in its list of censorable images.[i] The debate generated by the release of Ray’s film extended to the medium of cinema and its representational function within a postcolonial, nationalist context.[ii] Anthropologist Brian Larkin argued the controversy revealed “an awareness that any film shown abroad might come to speak for the nation irrespective of its content or aesthetic form.”[iii] He was echoing Frederic Jameson’s argument for a reading of third world texts as being always already concerned with or framed as “national allegories.”[iv] In this sense, India is not unique despite its large domestic film market. The problem of national allegory is a feature of contemporary cinema in many postcolonial states. In a place like Lebanon, the film industry’s dependence on international funding produces a tension between its compliance to an aesthetic regime of representation (imposed by festival and distribution circuits) and its supposed responsibility to reflect a collectively desired image of Lebanon (including a certain optimistic exportability).

[Spoiler Alert: As a review, this article reveals plot developments in Capernaum that in the film are intended as a plot twist.]

Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum occupies this tension in a rather intriguing matter. The film follows the mishaps of its main protagonist, twelve-year-old Zain (Zain Alrafeea), as he stands trial for avenging his younger sister Sahar. She was sold off as a bride in exchange for rent, and died of internal complications during intercourse with her adult husband. Through a series of interconnected flashbacks, we learn that Zain’s parents earn their living by smuggling a cheap opiate mix into Roumieh prison. Struggling to make a living as a family, the parents force their children to abandon their studies and beg for money in the unforgiving streets of Beirut or performing excruciating tasks at the local groceries and supplies market—such as delivering gas tanks to remote areas in the neighborhood. When the mother coerces Zain’s sister, Sahar, into marrying the owner of the mini market, the twelve-year-old boy flees the household in protest. He then meets an undocumented Ethiopian domestic worker named Rahil (Yordanos Shifera) at a neglected amusement park located on the city’s coast. Rahil’s subjection to the kafala sponsorship system compels her to hide the existence of her infant, Yonas (Treasure Bankole). She is trying to secure fake papers through the black market to legitimize her presence in Lebanon. Zain offers to take care of Yonas in exchange for shelter, but soon finds himself fending for their survival when Rahil gets arrested by the police for failing to provide documentation.

When Zain finds out about his sister’s murder, he stabs his brother-in-law, ending up in a juvenile detention center. During the trial, his status shifts to that of a plaintiff as he decides, along with his lawyer (played by Labaki herself), to sue his parents for birthing him, positing it as a “crime of neglect” in and of itself. Capernaum’s determination to tackle the kafalasponsorship system, child labor, and human trafficking could have set off a public debate around notions of national representation and prompted Lebanon’s notorious and trigger-happy Censorship Bureau to intervene. After all, local activists and international organizations have long documented and condemned these issues, highlighting the complicity of government officials and calling for fundamental changes in the legal system. Instead, the Ministry of Culture selected them to represent Lebanon at the Oscars—where it managed to score a nomination in the foreign-language film category. The film also garnered praise from an overwhelming number of government officials, including Prime Minister Saad Hariri, following its Cannes premiere in May 2018. At Cannes, Labaki took to the stage to accept her Jury Prize as she brushed off implicit criticism of Lebanon by stating that, “despite everything it is accused of, [the country] gets by as best it can.”

Evading Censorship?

Two months prior to Capernaum’s premiere at Cannes, the Censorship Bureau had banned Rana Eid’s feature-length documentaryPanopticon, from screening in Lebanese theatres. A powerful and thought-provoking cinematic essay, it is at once troublingly personal—as Eid’s father is an army general—and unsparingly political. Panopticon examines local architectures of surveillance and technologies of containment, pointing at the repressive state apparatus and the function of fetishism in militarist discourses. The film had featured previously unreleased footage of Lebanon’s immigration detention centers and the interiors of the infamous Burj El Murr skyscraper. The General Security officials at the Censorship Bureau deemed Eid’s film unfit for public consumption due to it being a “threat to national security” and being critical toward security institutions.[v] Several years earlier, the bureau first heavily censored Lebanese filmmaker Danielle Arbid’s In the Battlefields (2005), then banned outright the screening in Lebanon of her A Lost Man (2007) and Beirut Hotel (2010). All three were feature films. The censorship of Beirut Hotel was a particular topic of public debate, and its implicit examination of state corruption and collective paranoia was unanimously scrutinized. The Censorship Bureau also deemed the work “a threat to national security.” Arbid launched a court case against the Lebanese state, expecting support from the country’s left-leaning cultural institutions.[vi] By then, many critics, journalists, and public officials had already partaken in a lucrative smear campaign that shifted the attention away from the film’s censorship, and the mechanisms through which the Lebanese state silences dissenting artistic-cultural practices. Instead, the focus of discussion was now on the film itself and its negative, undesirable depiction of Lebanon. How, then, did Capernaummanage to avoid inciting representational anxiety? And, while Labaki herself is not known to have taken a public stand against censorship (or been a victim herself), why did the Lebanese state not intervene, censor, or ban the film, given that the film’s purported exploration (and condemnation?) of poverty, inequality, and racism in Lebanon?

I would argue that Capernaum stages, first and foremost, misguided lines of inquiry: a missed opportunity to shed light on structural processes of exclusion and dehumanization in Lebanon, even though the filmmaker assumes she is doing so.[vii] Labaki might have been granted access to some of Beirut’s most inhumane spaces, namely immigration detention centers and refugee camps and neighborhoods (or “slums”). However, nowhere in the film does one denote a willingness to address manifestations of power and control that both produce and regulate these spaces. This is an especially questionable endeavor for two reasons. First, it is nearly impossible to access and document the brutal conditions and practices being enforced in Lebanon’s highly secretive immigration detention centers (which the filmmaker herself admittedly reflected on in an interview with Indiewire).[viii] Second, there is an urgency in addressing the allegedly mysterious deaths of migrant domestic workers and Syrian and Palestinian refugees either at the hands of their employers or the repressive state apparatus.

Capernaum seeps through prison walls and makeshift housing curtains within a supposedly militant intention to record marginalized modes of living,[ix] but it refuses to engage with the necropolitical logics that dictate the operability of these spaces. It demands of its non-professional actors to reenact their embodied traumas with utmost conviction, while deceptively dislocating the source of their injury in the process. The voices that populate Labaki’s film are loud but silenced. They are asked to reflect on their condition within a vacuum that blurs the lines between culprit and plaintiff, as well as oppressor and oppressed. For example, Zain is himself a Syrian refugee whom Labaki asked to play the role of a precarious Lebanese child. While his character’s torments, along with that of his family, are typical manifestations of the plight of Syrian refugees, they are systematically erased and treated within a forcibly nationalized framework. This erasure allows Labaki to evade having to respond to the particularities of refugee narratives. It also allows her to insert narrative subplots, such as Zain suing his parents for negligence, that would otherwise be inconceivable and would risk casting doubt on the film’s documentarian aspirations. In doing so, the film evades ethical and political responsibilities by stripping staged realities from their social, political, and legal contexts.

Beyond “Poverty Porn”

Many what have accused Capernaum of being “poverty porn,”[x] pointing to Labaki’s aestheticized, downright voyeuristic rapport to poverty and her dubious insistence on suffocating her narrative with cues of totalizing deprivation. This framework, however critical, might be insufficient in problematizing the film’s cinematic proposition. Capernaum itself demonstrates an ambivalent relationship toward its consistently unclear focus and purported aims. The film confusingly shifts from poverty as a subject matter in and of itself, to the alleged structural conditions that enable said poverty and reproduce it. Labaki’s film echoes NGO discourses on “cultures of poverty” and the necessity of fertility-reducing programs. Such discourses and the film share in their pathologizing of the choices made by marginalized mothers and migrant workers toward the improvement of their material conditions, or that of the advancement of their children.

When I came out of my first viewing of Capernaum, what came to mind was Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas trilogy—Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000), and Colossal Youth (2006). Costa’s trilogy sketches personal and collective experiences within the no-longer-existing shantytown of Fontainhas. Located in Lisbon, it was the place many Cape Verdean immigrants, lumpenproletariat, and drug addicts would pile up in dark slums. Prominent film critics had accused the filmmaker of “complacency” due to his attachment to formalism and the trilogy’s avoidance in partaking in fleshed-out sociopolitical commentary, but others, such as Jacques Rancière, identified a force “that lies at the tension between the settings of a miserable life and its inherent aesthetic possibilities.”[xi] It is through the aesthetic possibilities of misery and devastation that Costa is able to record structural dispossession. He rethinks ways through which a filmmaker could engage with the limitations and potentialities of social realism and bear witness to collective testimonies of marginality. The same, however, could not be said about Capernaum.

What differentiates Labaki and Costa lies in the economies of production they respectively operate within. Costa’s work methods, as well as his filmmaking practice’s relationship to space, place, and subject (which Volker Patenburg terms “digital realism”),[xii] inherently depend on the intimacy facilitated by the absence of a film crew and the filmmaker’s willingness to organically allow himself to exist alongside his characters—often spending years building trust with them. In contrast, Labaki’s ethos of a staggering film crew, mediatic fanfare, impressive camera drones, and more, is closer in tone and structure to a Coca-Cola advertisement. She barges into impoverished neighborhoods or detention centers without the slightest of concern for community agencies, failing to blur the faces of criminalized immigrants held and captured by the Lebanese state, and failing to administer for the material needs of the non-professional actors cast for her film beside Zain’s—who has now been relocated to Norway alongside his immediate family.

But perhaps what also renders Labaki’s inquiry into “misery” exceptional is the ideological undertone that consciously seems to drive it. She echoes Malthusian reasoning and hegemonic discourses on poverty to situate—and make sense of—what the film records along the way. The specter of the Lebanese state is prevented from looming over the choral dysfunction at the heart of Capernaum. Instead, the film attempts to locate negligence, cruelty, and opportunism among its own protagonists. For instance, no character is dragged through the mud with the same persistence as Zain’s mother, who is single-handedly blamed for otherwise structural processes that facilitate the social reproduction of poverty by way of her decision to bear children, therefore extending her precarious material conditions to that of her offspring. Throughout the film, audiences are relentlessly bombarded with sequences of children being mistreated or abused. Within the first half-hour, an infant is shown chained to a bed and eating powdered milk off a dirty floor, another is caught dangerously playing with a lit cigarette during a prison visit, and a third child is sold into marriage in exchange for rent.[xiii] During a court scene, Labaki, in her role as Zain’s attorney, righteously states that perhaps his mother should not be having children. This is, in fact, a belief the filmmaker holds to be true, as indicated in interviews where she implicitly questioned on more than one occasion marginalized women’s right to reproduction.[xiv]

Furthermore, Labaki portrays the Lebanese criminal justice system in a treacherously virtuous light. This is similar to Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult, which itself represented Lebanon at the 2018 Oscars. In both Labaki and Doueiri’s films, the protagonists—almost all of whom are either racialized and/or belong to the lumpenproletariat—are granted a fair and transparent trial presided over by a wise and understanding judge (or panel of judges in Doueiri’s case). Any judicial or extrajudicial altercations and failings are the protagonists’ own and are epiphenomenal to a system that does its best to cater to their presumed innocence or rights-based demands. Likewise, the repressive state apparatus, absent throughout most of the film’s duration, is strategically called in and lionized when it dismantles a human trafficking network or returns Yonas to his mother as they are both told to leave the country. There is even a strange plot turn in which the real-life Lebanese TV show, Hawa al-Huriyyeh (The Winds of Justice)—known to trade in collective panics and vigilante policing—operate as a deus ex machina to the narrative, bringing justice to the protagonists through a fictionalized episode. In it, the show tips off the authorities on the activities of the human trafficking network that kidnapped Yonas, and helps build up popular criticism among the general public against Zain’s incarceration. Never mind that back in real-life Lebanon, local yellow journalism poster boy Joe Maalouf—who plays the host of the show in the film—once aided in the mass arrest of gay men and sex workers.

On paper, Capernaum seemed capable of goading the Lebanese state and its repressive apparatus while sparking national outcry over its portrayal of abject poverty and systemic oppression. On screen, however, Labaki’s film bypasses its self-anointed ethical and political responsibility to expose relationships of domination and structures of exploitation. Instead, it appears to make the case for a country struggling to grapple with its crumbling infrastructure, labor conditions, generational poverty, and an externally-imposed refugee crisis. If anything, Capernaum produces a cinematic possibility for international foreign aid to represent itself. Labaki’s film is, after all, a national allegory that mimics the ways through which the Lebanese government has consistently absolved itself of decades of neoliberal barbarism: crying wolf on its supposed inability to undo its own capernaum.


[i] E. Barnouw, Indian Film (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Brian Larkin, “National Allegory,” in The “Slumdog” Phenomenon: A Critical Anthology, edited by A. Gehlawat (London: Anthem Press, 2013).

[iv] Frederick Jameson, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Social Text 15 (1986), 65-88.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Rod Nordland, “Lebanon Artists Confront Rise in Censorship,” New York Times, 3 July 2012.

[vii] As Labaki put it, “I think cinema can have a much bigger impact when it’s actually showing the real struggle, putting a face on the real struggle, it’s humanizing the problem. You see it through a real child who is actually living that same struggle.” See Anne-Katrin Titze, “The Lives of Others,” Eye for Film, 16 December 2018.

[viii] Speaking about the negotiation process to obtain permits to shoot in the prison, Labaki claims, “We got a lot of opposition, because people in the government don’t want to show what is happening … We had to try to convince people that if they want things to change they have to show how it is.” Anne Thompson, “‘Roma’ or ‘Cold War’ For Best Foreign Language Oscar? Ranking the Nominees’ Chances,” IndieWire, 15 February 2019.

[ix] See Footnote 11.

[x] In response to some reviewers’ claims of “poverty porn,” Labaki says, “What do they mean by that? … But I cannot do anything toward cynicism, you know, toward people who just decide to be cynical toward me wanting to tell the story because I haven’t lived … of course I haven’t lived their lives, but somebody needs to tell that story, somehow.” See “’Capernaum,’ The Chaos of Lebanon from A Homeless Child’s Perspective,” NPR, 16 December 2018.

[xi] Jacques Rancière, “Die Politik der Kunst und ihre Paradoxien,” in Die Aufteilung des Sinnlichen (Berlin: B-Books, 2006).

[xii] V. Pantenburg, “Realism, not Reality Pedro Costa’s Digital Testimonies,” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 24 (2010), 54–61.

[xiii] For more on Capernaum’s portrayal of motherhood and reproductive justice, see R. Seghaier, “Poverty Porn and Reproductive Injustice: A Review of Capernaum,” Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research 4, no. 2 (2018), 229-35.

[xiv] “Capernaum is a film about poverty, but it also seems to me that it is a film about who “should” be a parent. Rahil lives a life almost as despondent and deprived as Zain’s parents, and yet she extends tenderness and care toward her ward and her son that Zain didn’t get at home, pumping breast milk that she leaves with Zain when she goes to work. When I tell Labaki that I felt profoundly conflicted about the characters she sketches, she tells me that this is precisely her intention. ‘I would go into these shacks,’ she says, ‘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.’ The shift could happen the other way, as well, she says. ‘I would see a mother breastfeeding tenderly, and then minutes later, she would turn around and smack her child.’” Chloe Schama, “In Capernaum, Nadine Labaki Visits Some of the Most Miserable Places on Earth—And Turns It Into Art,” Vogue, 14 December 2018.