The Waifs of Beirut

In ‘Capernaum,’ Kids Surviving on Society’s Fringe

…and the award for most realistic portrayal of a toddler goes to Boluwatife “Treasure” Bankole, and the cast and crew of Capernaum.

Not since Thomas Balmès’ 2010 documentary Babies have the never-ending grunt work and tedium of caring for a young child been captured in such vivid detail.

Which is not to say Capernaum is boring. On the contrary, director Nadine Labaki’s film, set in and about the slums of Beirut, will remind many parents in the audience that the dull routine of their own family lives is, in fact, a blessing. Any youngsters who wander in (the film, mystifyingly, is rated R) will watch the credits roll with a renewed understanding that they live in relative comfort.

Capernaum’s protagonist, 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), flees a traumatic family event only to form a new, and less chaotic family with a young Ethiopian woman (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her toddler son, Yonas (played by Treasure, a girl). All three are accustomed to eking out a meager existence, far outside the bounds of respectability.

Zain, whose cinematic forebears include Paper Moons Tatum ONeal and The Florida Projects Brooklynn Prince, is an undocumented hustler who survives by his wits, peddling shots of “juice” spiked with stolen pharmaceuticals, furiously cursing out anyone who gets in his way.

CAPERNAUM ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by:  Nadine Labaki
Written by:  Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily
Starring: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole
Running time: 121min.


Rahil, the young mother, also lacking in proper documentation, does what she can to conceal Baby Yonas from her employers. She wheels him in and out inside a covered shopping trolley and stashes him in a “broken” public toilet stall as she hands out paper towels for tips.

The stress is constant, though Yonas is a delight, a mostly cooperative, good-tempered little burden. Unfortunately for all involved, he requires a constant supply of milk and fresh diapers. The situation dictates that the others must do what they can to help him maintain a low profile, lest a neighbor alert the authorities to his mother’s illegal status or…worse.

It’s a bit exhilarating when circumstances force Zain to pack up Yonas and fly the coop. We’ve spent a lot of time penned up with them in Rahil’s tiny corrugated shack, as they drowse, stave off hunger with sugared ice cubes, and invent amusements from the available flotsam. Like Zain, we’re primed for some sunshine, as he crosses the threshold with his bright-eyed infant companion in a wagon cobbled together from a stolen skateboard and some beat-up cooking pots.

There’s a sense of purpose to this Our Gang-ish vision. Yonas may be oblivious, but Zain and, particularly, the audience will find their enjoyment tempered by the knowledge that adult perils are all around–speeding cars, immigration police, human traffickers disguised as sympathetic marketplace vendors.

Zain harbors a fierce desire to do right by Rahil and Yonas, whose loving parent-child bond provides a sharp contrast to the one he experienced in his own family home. He’s a shrewd customer, but ultimately, he’s also an undernourished, uneducated, impoverished 12-year-old boy, ill-equipped to manage an already unmanageable situation.

By Capernaum’s end, the opening credits, in which Zain and some neighborhood cronies run wild with ingeniously-constructed homemade toy machine guns, may no longer seem shocking, even to American eyes. Compared to what comes after, such antics are merely child’s play.


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Ayun Halliday

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.

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