At the heart of the spell-binding film Capharnaum is a street-smart 12-year-old boy scratching a living in the back alleys of Lebanon’s slums. 

His name is Zain and he is played by Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea with a compelling sense of reality.

Like the film’s Zain, Al Rafeea knows what it is to struggle for survival. The streets were his school – he has learnt everything there, seen everything.

Though he had never acted before he brings an extraordinary maturity to the role of an undocumented 12-year-old living in squalid conditions with his drug-peddlling parents and their brood of children. 

Capharnaum starts and ends with courtroom appearances. Zain has been convicted of stabbing “an arsehole” and sentenced to five years’ jail. And he is mounting a law suit against his pathetic parents, “because I was born”.

In the rest of the film Lebanese director and co-scriptwriter Nadine Labaki paints a vivid picture of Zain’s hustling life on the streets, running errands, helping his parents with their shady deals, vainly trying to save his young sister from being sold off to an older man.

Zain looks angelic, with tousled hair and melting brown eyes, but he is tough, intelligent and resourceful. His non-stop battle for existence shows in his weary expression – he hardly ever smiles .

Disgusted with his parents, he walks out and tries to survive on his own until he runs into Ethiopian refugee Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who has a precarious life as a cleaner, using a fake ID card.

Rahil has a cute 12-month-old toddler Yonas (Boluwaitife Treasure Bankole) and Zain looks after Yonas while Rahil goes to work.

The rapport between the two children is remarkable, and the touching scenes of the pair together are a highlight of the film. 

Then Rahil gets arrested as an illegal immigrant and Zain gets increasingly desperate, searching in vain for her, and trying to look after himself and little Yonas. 

First he tries to carry the chubby baby through the streets, then he rigs up a rattling skateboard trolley with Yonas sitting on top in a giant cooking pot. It looks comical but the situation seems hopeless.

Capharnaum is a powerful plea for compassion for the many stateless refugees searching for a better life in the face of official barriers and publlic indifference.

The film was made on a shoestring $4 million budget with non-professional actors, many of them refugees. 

It won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Feature at the Academy Awards.

Most of the refugees who took part in the film have now been resettled in new countries. Zain and his family have moved to Norway, where they live in a two-storey house overlooking the sea and he finally goes to school.

Director Labaki and her husband Khaled Mouzanar (who wrote the music and produced the film) plan to make a sequel following the real-life stories of the refugee actors who took part.

Capharnaum, a Perth Festival film, will be shown at 8pm at Somerville Auditorium from Monday to Sunday, February 11-17, and at ECU Joondalup Pines from Tuesday to Sunday, February 19-24.

Watch the trailer…

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