LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
OK. This is the time of year when film critics announce their best of lists. Among the Hollywood titles, there is one film from the Middle East that reviewers are praising. It's called "Capernaum," and it's already won the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of homeless children in Beirut, Lebanon. And it opens in the United States this week. NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports.
BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: In one of the first scenes in "Capernaum," the camera flies above Beirut's slums.
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QURESHI: There's no sight of the Mediterranean or the glamor of the so-called Paris of the Middle East. This is the other Beirut, as film critic Nana Asfour describes.
NANA ASFOUR: You're seeing dilapidated buildings, children running around, playing with pieces of metals and just whatever they could find on the street, not actual toys. You know, they're trying to have fun within this environment.
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QURESHI: The images on screen are a reflection of Beirut as it is today - a condition captured in the film's title.
NADINE LABAKI: Capernaum in French is used usually in French literature to signify chaos, to signify hell, disorder.
QURESHI: That's Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki. In recent years, Lebanon has taken in more than a million refugees fleeing the war in neighboring Syria. Labaki says the sight of hundreds of children begging on the streets has become the new normal. And she remembers the night she decided she had to do something.
LABAKI: I was coming back from a party at 1 o'clock in the morning. And I see a mother with her child begging. He was almost like 2, and he was dozing off. And he couldn't sleep. And for me, it was this sight of this kid that doesn't want anything but to sleep. And we were not giving him the right to sleep. And it struck me. Everything that this kid is going to know for the next two, three years is this half a meter sidewalk. It's his only playground.
QURESHI: Labaki was pregnant at the time.
LABAKI: How come we got to that point? How do we allow for such injustice to happen to the most fragile human beings in our society?
QURESHI: The answers came with years of research, spending time with the families living that reality. Nadine Labaki's husband Khaled Mouzanar is the film's producer and composer.
KHALED MOUZANAR: We spent four years with all these people in the poorest and darkest places of Beirut, where all these people end up after going on the streets of rich neighborhoods where they are beggars. They go back to these places where they live. And it is close to hell.
QURESHI: His wife says she wanted to show that hell from a child's point of view, so she interviewed hundreds of kids living on the streets.
LABAKI: I used to make it a point at the end of the conversation to ask them, are you happy to be alive? And most of the times, the answer was, no. They just see themselves as insects, as parasites. Some of them use those words. I'm just an insect. I don't exist. I'm invisible. So I wanted to translate this anger.
QURESHI: And that's translated on screen in the form of a 12-year-old boy named Zain as he takes the stand in a courtroom.
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ZAIN AL RAFEEA: (As Zane, speaking Arabic).
ELIAS KHOURY: (As judge, speaking Arabic).
AL RAFEEA: (As Zane, speaking Arabic).
QURESHI: He tells the judge he is suing his parents for the crime of bringing him into the world.
LABAKI: And by suing his parents, he's also suing a whole system, a whole society that is not allowing him to have his basic rights.
QURESHI: The film then goes back in time to show how hunger and abuse drove Zain into that courtroom. For most of its running time, "Capernaum" feels more like a documentary. That's because so much of it is not fiction.
LABAKI: There's no extras in the film. You know, we come to a place. We shoot with everything in it - with the people. We shot in the prisons with the prisoners. These are real prisons. The apartments are real apartments. The drawings on the walls are drawings made by kids who lived in these apartments, so the rule was to intervene the least possible in order to be able to tell the truth.
QURESHI: In one of the film's most powerful scenes, Zain's beloved sister is sold into marriage. And as she's taken away on a motorcycle, the young actor runs after her in tears.
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LABAKI: He went around the block going after the motorcycle five tours around the block. He wouldn't stop running, and the cameras would not stop running behind him. Everybody, the whole crew was running behind him because we are at his service. He decided to run, and we ran. And it was the only way for me to achieve what we achieved.
QURESHI: Nadine Labaki is already one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the Middle East. She says movies were her escape as a child trapped at home during the Lebanese Civil War. Her first film was a lighthearted, feminist comedy called "Caramel." It was an international hit. "Capernaum" is a departure for the director with an unapologetically activist agenda. But film critic Nana Asfour says it succeeds because it is, first and foremost, a great piece of filmmaking.
ASFOUR: The cinematography's great. The editing is fantastic. The acting is incredible - that she coaxed such amazing performances out of these non-actors.
QURESHI: But "Capernaum" also has its critics. Some reviewers have called it poverty porn - art that exploits the suffering of its subjects for accolades. When I asked her, Nadine Labaki says she doesn't care.
LABAKI: When people use the word porn poverty and all that, I don't even know what it means. But I cannot do anything towards people who just decide to be cynical towards me wanting to tell a story just because I haven't lived. OK. I haven't lived their lives. Of course I haven't lived their lives, but somebody needs to tell that story somehow.
QURESHI: Nadine Labaki's film version of that story is two hours long. But as she says, the real story will be playing on the streets of Beirut for generations to come. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.
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