“I don’t want them to have any more children.”
This is the pay-off line of Nadine Labaki’s movie titled “Capernaum,” Arabic for chaos or, in Labaki’s word, “hell”. It is a line that has been richly justified by the event sequences of the film itself.
Uttered by Zain, the film’s 12-year-old protagonist, the line comes late in a film whose editing throws it into a kind of chaos all its own. But it is a curious chaos. Because its actors are not professionals. They are real people, living in real time the kinds of lives the film script dictates they portray, but at the same time, because of their authenticity, it is a film in which real events and narrative are braided together in such uncanny ways, that if migrant conditions in Lebanon (and the U.S.) were not so catastrophically predictable, they would make the film seem downright prophetic. Real events (such as the incarceration of its “illegal” actress and of her baby [unrelated to the actual actress] by immigration authorities) overtake the actors in real time, much as they are developed by the film itself.
The film tells the rather complex story of marginalized people, half of whom has lost a country (mostly Syria) they once imagined was theirs, and those born in a country (Lebanon) in which they currently live, but where they are as much in exile as the refugees who come seeking a minimal survival on their shores. In Lebanon now, both migrants from Syria and Africa and Lebanese natives are roughly equal in number.
|Tide of migrants risking drowning in the Mediterranean
The film’s events uncannily mirror one another: a Lebanese-born family “sell” their underage daughter into a marriage which ultimately kills her, and the protagonist himself, in a final desperate measure, gives up the baby whose survival has become his burden to bear, by giving him to a racketeer who falsely promises to see the baby adopted by a family which can give him a more stable life.
|Zain and his sister Sahar
Untangled, the film’s plot could have appeared even more forthright than it is: Zain, the 12-year-old protagonist has been born into a numerous, and abusive family unable to feed or care for him or his many siblings in any way that might make it resemble even a marginally normal one. His threshold for abuse is crossed when his parents “sell” his favorite, barely-pubescent sister, to their landlord, for a clutch of chickens, hoping to guarantee themselves survival, and their daughter a bed.
Zain goes on the lam, eventually ending up in an amusement park where an “illegal” African cleaning woman takes pity on him, invites him to stay, and care for her baby, whose existence she needs to keep secret in order not to lose her job. When she is picked up by the authorities because of her unofficial status, that baby, who is the run-away star of this film (and in real life, actually a girl named Treasure) becomes his ward to feed and house relying on his street wits as best he can.
|Zain and Treasure
When his slum landlord changes the lock on Zain’s hovel, with no shelter his any longer, he is forced to turn the baby over to the racketeer who falsely promises him a home, and who in turn will sell him, as he does others into a warehouse full of other miserable refugees, whose clandestine existence is exposed by authorities in a midnight raid.
Meantime, because he has exhausted other places to be, Zain returns home, demands his official papers, non existent because his parents are too poor and irresponsible ever to have registered his birth, and failing to secure them, steals a butcher knife, determined to kill the man who married his sister, and who has become responsible for her death. Because he succeeds only in wounding him, Zain is brought to trial for his crime, and imprisoned.
While in prison—and here comes the film’s Achilles heel—he watches a phone -in TV show which urges him to sue his parents for having been born, incidentally an idea originally culled by the director in her three years of original research among actual Lebanese slum dwelling children prior to shooting the film.
But in its truthfulness, the shabbiness of the film’s pretext exposes the fake global TV West-imported culture. Despite its arbitrariness, the device allows Zain finally to confront the parents whose unacceptable abuses have motivated the film’s action all along.
On the personal level his final line: “I don’t want them to have children any more”, unpacks the realities of unimaginable poverty and family abuse; but on the public level, the universal ring of that line is what elevates the film, flawed as it is, to a major work of art, because it conveys a message of which the film-maker herself is apparently still unaware: “This planet is no where to have children any more.”
The catastrophic effects of global warming of which we have been aware—some of us—even before the 70s, is now upon us: Half of Syria is emptied of its inhabitants motivated as much by war as by a catastrophic drought. And what is occurring on the U.S. southern border is as much the result of warming temperatures and drought leading to crop failures as it is by U.S. ”regime change” policies (which show no signs of let up); and of NAFTA. The famine, flood and fire, of which we have been promised, is now in delivery.
I am reminded of what I published i on the anniversary of the Fukushima disaster in Devil’s Tango: How I Learned the Fukushima Step by Step:
If you were a child of Basra, playing in abandoned vehicles or tanks, you would have inhaled DU (“depleted” uranium, more toxic even than weapons grade plutonium) and probably ingested it. You, too, would become a statistic—an Iraqi one—one of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children developing childhood leukemia. You would be five times more at risk for developing cancer of the thyroid. You would be condemned to a short life of bodily suffering, and while you sickened and died, you would have to see the pain in your mother’s eyes, your father’s grief—if you still had a mother or a father. If you were or are a woman in Basra, your risk of giving birth to a severely handicapped child would have increased 60%. Either you might have been helpless to prevent a pregnancy, or perhaps you would have ignored the advice of those Iraqi doctors who had not already fled Iraq who said, “Iraq is no longer a place to have children,” because had you given birth to such a child, you would have had to care for it with the little food available to you, bathed him with contaminated rain or sewer water. Perhaps you would have had to carry him, if in his short life he could never have hoped to walk, or see, or feed himself—or any of the kinds of things that characterize human living in the world. And you yourself might be one of the 70 out of 1,000 people to develop cancer.
Over 1,000 U. S. military bases have metastacized throughout the war-making world, all of their war-making activities productive of pollution and global warming. How many more ruined countries besides Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Niger, Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan until the world itself has become so polluted people everywhere can’t even consider bearing children any more?
(Did you know that if you have trouble with any of these links, you can search for the same petition on line?)
Support Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by demanding end to family separation and child detention at the borer by signing:
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Urge Congress to cancel Puerto Rico's mountainous debt at
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