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Mon 25 Feb 2019 08:46 AM

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Oscars 2019: Making 'Capernaum' felt like it was a duty, says Nadine Labaki

Nadine Labaki's heart-wrenching story of poverty and survival in Beirut's wretched underclass won a 15-minute standing ovation and the Jury Prize in Cannes last year

Oscars 2019: Making 'Capernaum' felt like it was a duty, says Nadine Labaki
Lebanese director Nadine Labaki arrive for the 91st Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on February 24, 2019.

For Lebanon's Nadine Labaki, whose social-realist epic "Capernaum" lost out in the Academy Awards to Roma for best foreign film, the toughest battle is only just beginning.

Her heart-wrenching story of poverty and survival in Beirut's wretched underclass won a 15-minute standing ovation and the Jury Prize in Cannes last year.

A former election candidate in Beirut, Labaki now hopes the Academy Award nomination will boost the film’s impact at home.

"So the conversation is starting now and that was my aim, to create this shock, and to create this debate," said Labaki. 

The 45-year-old has arguably become Lebanese culture's most prominent export and she is bent on making good use of her growing celebrity.

"I feel it like a duty, it's not a choice even, and this is what we're going to start doing, very, very soon: show the film to the government and organise these round tables with judges and lawyers," she said.

"Maybe it's going to have a big influence and maybe it won't, but we have to try," Labaki said.

The film has already changed the lives of its cast members, many of whom were experiencing the same struggles as their characters during the gruelling six-month shoot.

"Capernaum" follows the travails of Zain, a malnourished boy who runs away from his family when his 11-year-old sister Sahar is sold into marriage.

He is sheltered by an undocumented African worker named Rahil and ends up looking after her baby boy Yonas when she is arrested and jailed.

The parallels between the film's script and what happened to the actors in real life are uncanny.

'No make believe'

Baby Yonas's on-screen and real-life mothers were arrested together during filming and both were in jail when the scenes of the two children being left to their own devices in the streets of Beirut were being shot.

In the film, Zain keeps dreaming that he will one day escape his misery and move to Sweden.

The Syrian refugee child who plays Zain's character was recently resettled by the United Nations in Norway, where he now lives with family in a house overlooking the sea.

"I don't know why those things kept happening, maybe because the script was inspired by so much reality that it was actually bound to happen," Labaki said.

Zain is now going to school as are his parents as well as several other of the film's children.

Capernaum has already achieved new milestones for Lebanese cinema and received glowing endorsements from media mogul Oprah Winfrey and others.

Some critics however argued the film was unsubtle in rubbing the viewer's nose in social squalor, telling the audience when to smile and when to cry.

But restraint, Labaki retorts, is just not in her culture.

"It's as if people, especially critics, want all cinemas coming from all parts of the world to look the same way," she said. "Let each country bring its own identity."

"It's really very hurtful to hear words like 'poverty porn' or 'emotional manipulation'," Labaki said. "Especially when there's no big make believe in the film, everything that is in the film is a reality."

The activist in her wanted to jolt her audience into action and mobilise decision-makers in Lebanon, a country where Syrian refugees account for a quarter of the population but where faith in the government is rock-bottom.

"People come to me in tears, people say 'You changed me forever', 'I'm not looking at the child I see under the bridge every day in the same way', 'I want to do something about it', 'How can we help?'," Labaki said.

Though unsuccessful at the Oscars, its raised profile would further increase her chances of making a difference.

"Why do we use the word influencers? A celebrity is an influencer whether they like it or not, so they need to use this influence in the best way possible."