July 22, 2019

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Street kid shines in harrowing tale

The title refers to the Lebanese city in which the film is set. But it also aptly translates to “Chaos.”

An Oscar nominee for best foreign language film, and a Grand Jury Prize winner at last year’s Cannes festival, this drama from director Nadine Labaki is a harrowing documentary-like depiction of both hell and grace in the urban slums of Lebanon.

Working to provide for his parents and innumerable siblings is Zain (Zain Al Rafeea). Anybody’s best guess is that he is 12 years old. His parents don’t know for sure and he has no official papers.

He is growing up tough, but he is still devoted to his younger sister Sahar (Haita Izzam). When he realizes his sister has started to menstruate, he tries to help her disguise the fact to prevent his parents Selim and Souad (Fadi Yousef and Kawsar Al Haddad) from marrying her off to a creepy local merchant.

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The title refers to the Lebanese city in which the film is set. But it also aptly translates to "Chaos."

An Oscar nominee for best foreign language film, and a Grand Jury Prize winner at last year’s Cannes festival, this drama from director Nadine Labaki is a harrowing documentary-like depiction of both hell and grace in the urban slums of Lebanon.

Working to provide for his parents and innumerable siblings is Zain (Zain Al Rafeea). Anybody’s best guess is that he is 12 years old. His parents don’t know for sure and he has no official papers.

He is growing up tough, but he is still devoted to his younger sister Sahar (Haita Izzam). When he realizes his sister has started to menstruate, he tries to help her disguise the fact to prevent his parents Selim and Souad (Fadi Yousef and Kawsar Al Haddad) from marrying her off to a creepy local merchant.

Zain (Zain al-Raeera) (Mongrel Media)

Zain (Zain al-Raeera) (Mongrel Media)

But when Zain’s efforts fail, he runs away from home, eventually finding refuge with Ethiopian refugee Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who employs the boy to care for her one-year-old child Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). She is desperately trying to avoid being sent back to her homeland, and must negotiate with an array of forgers and hustlers to achieve that goal, even as one of her contacts offers to buy her baby.

The film is often reminiscent of Hector Babenco’s 1981 film Pixote, which, like Capernaum, employed real street kids to portray the danger and depravity of an illicit existence. And like that film, it feels nerve-racking to watch a child placed in one dangerous situation after another. (One of Zain’s marketable skills is acquiring and selling the painkiller Tramadol for recreational use.)

The film is bracketed by scenes in which Zain, having been prosecuted for a violent crime, attempts to sue his parents. When the judge asks the grounds for his suit, he replies: "Because I was born."

So, yes, this is grim stuff. Fortunately, director Labaki found a natural and charismatic young actor in the untrained Zain Al Rafeea. As much as one might fear for his character’s fate, it’s easy to get on his side as he takes extraordinary risks to protect those he loves.

He makes for a good symbol these days, when a xenophobic wave has made "refugee" a dirty word.

One hopes at least Al Rafeea gets a career out of this. One is pained to remember that the street kid who played the title role in Pixote was, like his character, eventually shot and killed by police.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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