I thought sitting outside in the hallway of the Berger-cinema would let me see the faces of its visitors while they were leaving out after the end of the first period. Still were nearly twenty minutes to the beginning of the second.
But for me, the show was by then on. I sneaked around counting the newcomers who were purchasing the tickets. How would they react?, I asked myself. However, the more the time evaporated, the more I got excited to ‘let it go’. I thought it would be chilling to hear the Arabic language, music, songs, just loud, clear, wide and resonant. I would recall the smells, maybe the mild air of the Mediterranean. I would like to see ‘us’, we refugees, we Syrians.
For the last eight years of the Syrian heartbreaking war, hundreds of interpretations to the armed struggle on land have been produced, including all media and inter-medial genres, documentaries, photo-galleries, journalistic analyses, novels, films inside and outside the circle of struggle; Syrians, Arabs, Europeans or Americans. Just recently, an American friend of mine had a year ago produced a theatrical production reflecting on the ‘refugee crisis’ at the coast of Lesbos in Greece http://www.mermaidmadonna.com . In this play, she said, there are three characters of real heroes who were nominated for Nobel peace prize due to their noble services in rescuing the devastating traumatic families and children landing ashore form Turkey in their way into safety in European countries. Two characters were created by inspiration of a text I had once written https://nuhaaskar.com/2015/06/01/crossing-the-borders-worldmerit-org-competition-2015/ . A poetic script is aptly written and interwoven to show solidarity towards refugees in a contemporary dramatic manifestation to human misery of displacement and dislocations. A destiny that is eventually not confined to the tragedy of the Syrian war, but to humanity in all times and spaces.
The play was an experiment and the team suggested ways to help by listing names of organisations on the distributed brochures of the show. The team is now preparing for a professional performance to the same play next Summer to which I was invited to attend and present. I find myself grateful to their modest production; they, at least, ‘lighted a candle in the darkness’, as it is commonly said.
However, I’ve always wondered how many institutions and publications have made ‘trade’ out of our ‘crisis’, in particular productions that sustainably earn high returns?
The bet I had made was whether I would see ‘us’ in the film. If (because, in Lebanon exploitation of Syrian refugees in work, housing, camps is widely known), if a Lebanese Production would enjoy the glimmer of fame not by making use of ‘us’ to fatten pockets, but by bringing ‘us’ on stage, by piercing the eye of truth, so to speak?
Such emotions, anxious anticipations had possessed me before the film. Nadine Labaki is not an obscure director, she is a representative of modern movement in the Arabic cinema. I remember her film “Where Do We Go Now” w halla’ la wayn 2011 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Te9c2jReOg , not only because it was audibly praised and premiered in Cannes Film festival. But I primarily appreciated the story and the highly allegorical intercourse between the movement of the camera and the text itself. She had then a leading role, unlike her appearance now as a guest in “Capernaum” in which she is the only fiction in the story, the intruder that is only watching the suffering of these people; as she said in one of her latest interviews.
Ten minutes had passed away before the beginning at 6.40 p.m. People by then had started leaving the hall. An old woman was breathing thick air out of her chest; two women were whispering feverishly. Words fell into my ears like gibberish. Another was looking around, smiling, yet her cheeks were burned red. A man strode quickly out seizing a cigaret between his left-hand fingers. A group of three walked-by, talking; a word flew towards me: O God. I counted them all in the first period of the second day of the film-release; only 9 (one ran to the toilet, I couldn’t catch his face well).
No Arabs. And no Arabs between the other few people waiting with me to watch the film.
Nadine Labaki had referred to the dialogue in the film before. There is much space of improvisation in “Capernaum”, that is completely clear; typically to chaotic life in slums and shantytowns. These improvisations draw the line of difference between spontaneous monologues or interjections of characters and her obviously memorised few sentences. It could be intently meant to be hesitant, timid and embarrassed since she said that she was the only actor in the film.
However, poverty is the all-present lifeless character in all scenes; a substitute for the presence of God, although moving the camera from above to show light over the location, at the beginning and oft, has the implication that God is there, watching but there.
Did the film fall prey to cliches?
Both poverty and exploitation are not phenomenal to the widespread common knowledge about the life of the Syrian refugees, especially in nearby countries to Syria. Neither is the ignorance of the role of the family as an important social institution to build a community amidst such unhealthy environments is phenomenal. We see the bargains held by adults to plan early-age marriages or other violations of the children’s basic rights: food, health, education, shelter. The Lebanese legal and illegal system of hiring housemaids, their humiliation in work, their lack of owning their own lives, of maternity and basic human life. It is all well-known, at least, to the Arabic audience. Even theodicy and curse words are all cliches. The challenge was made implicitly among Arabic viewers, but also explicitly on critical pre-readings of the film before its release in the international box-office, if the movie will impress both Arabic and Western audiences and claim authenticity?
In my opinion, Labaki has managed this time to change the normal into the abnormal, to bring two mires under the spotlight of her camera. Two inequitable situations are brought into the same tunnel and destiny. Zain and Yonas, with all the allegory of suffering they represent of a whole community of refugees and foreign labourers. They are an allegory, because they are nobody. Both are not officially registered. No birth certificates, no papers. The smuggler said: “Give me a proof that you are a human”. The spontaneous fluidity of dialogues is set in parallel to the smooth movement of the camera that tends to capture the mosaic of all locations, all details. Let alone, its movement from the waist level; closer to the dirt of the streets, farther off the sky, symmetrical to Zain’s height.
I thought in the middle, when the maid -Rahil was in helpless trials to get money and buy herself an identity card, why she had never sought churches! Why then this insistence on showing her piety, wearing a necklace with a cross and praying for her kid, then for hers and Zain. Until the very end: Rahil was in prison, when a nuns came with a group of people for a visit. The nun said: “we are here to get to know you, to please you”, which sounds weird, yet it comes along with the whole point meant in the film. It is a satire to the whole civilian system in the country, if not in the whole world, wherein social, religious and political pillars of governments are standing still towards a human crisis. This leads me to comment on the maturity of Zain who is only 12 years old, both wise and naive. It is exaggerated to a certain level how he is capable of finding solutions, sensing danger or advising his sister. The slight fabrications, however, are part of the functional fiction in the story whose significance is diminished with all the powerful performance and emotional screenplay of the film. It has, as well, diminished, the ‘us’ struggle in me, that we are the only people suffering on earth, that we should be the only visible people in this film. Yonas and Zain have widened the lens to comprise all subjugated maltreated humans doomed of anonymity. “We are brothers, we look alike” -Zain.
I wouldn’t spoil the enjoyment of watching the film. You can google its plot in a sec. You may read critical comments and reviews from cinematic professionals. But all I want is to deliver an experience and anticipation as a Syrian. The film, I think, will be awarded the Oscar prize in the coming annual festival on February 2019 https://www.oscars.org/oscars. If so, Nadine should donate half of the returns not only to buy blankets to the frozen Syrian refugees in the Lebanese camps but to support human rights in her country as well.
We found ourselves free to pick our seats. I laid my whole down on a wide chair so that I could rest all the heavy stuff I had at that day on it. I took my notebook, a pen, the mobile to use its flash-light when needed.
Heavy darkness blocked every cell of my face, only my eyes were all ears, and a hand out of my senses and body caught a pen and danced on a white paper. A sullen pride or defiance to the pouring screen had dissipated after the first 15 minutes. A wave of salty tears flushed my swollen cheeks, blurred my eyes. I tried many times to restrain my flooding emotions but by looking around, I dare say all were weeping, the ten of us -the audience. In the end, it was difficult for me to move, the gravity was pulling me to stay more, the woman beside me, as well. She clung to the armchairs listening to the last melody, looking at the black screen and the white names falling down the stage. It took me a big effort to recollect myself and ran away, hiding my face under the cap of my jacket, running into the cold pale streets of a memorable winter day.