You can’t presume to understand somebody until you walk a mile in their shoes, but most people won’t even have the opportunity to experience other people’s struggles, if they were even inclined. Cinema can offer at least a mile’s worth of walking though, and Capernaum does just that.
Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is prison for stabbing an adult. The medical examiner guesses he’s 12 but they can’t confirm because Zain’s parents don’t have his records and can’t even remember when he was born. As Zain tells the judge his story of what led him to commit assault, Capernaum shows us what life is really like for families in Lebanon. For Zain it is a world of stealing and selling just to get by day to day.
What else can they do? They have no papers so the state doesn’t even recognize that they exist. They can’t get jobs and it empowers black market dealers to prey on them.
Zain also has to protect his sister Sahar (Haita “Cedra” Izzam) from their own parents (Fadi Kamel Yousef, Kawsar Al Haddad), who want to trade her for rent and goods. You can understand their desperation, or they even think they’re helping her have a better life, but it’s your daughter, man.
On the street, Zain meets Syrian and Ethiopian immigrants who each face difficulties unique to them. They all share a common struggle of this desperation is preferable to the alternative, whatever they may be running from.
Al Rafeea and the rest of the cast were non actors whom director Nadine Labaki discovered. Zain the character is streetwise and fearless, resourceful and tireless as he carries jugs of water and rigs a mirror to watch a neighbor’s TV, not to mention helping Sahar with her period so he’s got that responsibility too.
Capernaum ultimately indicts the parents for having more children without papers. It would certainly seem that adding to a family with no hope of getting recognized by the system is irresponsible, but it seems like there’s more to it than that too.
There’s the suggestion that the parents see children as negotiable assets, which is also bad parenting, but there’s the notion that the administration and society encourages them to see children as such.
Dramatizing this plight is certainly a way to make palpable the kinds of problems that privileged Americans will never face. Not that American poverty is a picnic, but everyone’s struggles are real.