Carphanaüm is the story of a boy named Zain who attempts to sue his parents for giving him life. It rests on a very powerful, albeit impossible postulate, which leaves you with a lump in your throat. However, this fable develops into a disturbingly realist tale portraying the lives of millions of abused children around the world. In a sense, the film stands as a defence speech retracing the story of Zain, shedding light on the abuses and struggles he had to face. It follows the codes of the documentary: a somehow instable camera, close-up shots which capture the protagonist’s expressions, very restricted script, etc. Nadine Labaki aimed to reflect with honesty the reality of neglected children who, as she had seen from her fieldwork, demonstrated little will to live. “Why was I born? For you to give me insults, violence, beatings? Why give life to me if you cannot love me?”. This clear unawareness of the sanctity of their being is devastating.
The film is shot almost entirely on the streets of Beirut, in slums, by highways, in markets. The scenes are way too familiar. The honks of the cars, the music flashing out of shops, the constant buzzing of the streets, everything recalls the daily life in a developing metropole.
This realism is accentuated by the brilliant performance of the actors whose lives tragically resemble that of their characters. On this point, main actress Yordanos Shifera claims: “This is not a film. This is my life.” Indeed, she was arrested three days after Rahil, the undocumented Ethiopian woman whom she portrays in the film. As she later shot the prison scenes, she was touched to be with women she had come to know in those same circumstances in life. The film parallels life because it is the uncompromised reality.
Nadine Labaki, believing in the role of art as a motor for change, attempted to give a voice to the voiceless. Beyond the themes of abused childhood, she apprehends a difficult question: do we need papers to exist in life? Both of the Ethiopian undocumented migrant who faces deportation and the unregistered young boy abandoned to the violence of the metropole’s streets are invisible to society as they are invisible to the state. They live in anonymity, on standby, on the verge of society. “Parasites”, “outcasts”, they have no one to protect them, no one to turn to.
However, this film is not a direct critique of Lebanon, a country which in the Labaki’s words “struggles as it can, and despite all that we hold against it, has welcomed the largest number of refugees in the world when it can barely meet the needs of its own population.”
This film is a larger plea for these little adults, an attempt to humanise them, hope that the future might be brighter.
It took me a moment to leave the cinema hall. I thought about the 3 beautiful girls I had seen some months ago begging on the streets in the middle of the night as their “mother” sat on the pavement behind them. “Shame on her!” I contained myself back then as everyone around me did. I wonder where they are now. I thought of the children who sometimes wait by traffic lights and knock on my window, asking me to buy tissues or chewing gum, or simply begging. “They should be in school. Where are their parents?” I thought back on many of these invisible who were brought into this life against their will and suffer because of the egoism of others. Many things flashed through my mind, but I turned to my mom and thanked her.