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‘Capernaum’ Director Nadine Labaki Turns Her Camera on Post-Blast Beirut to Hold Lebanon Officials Accountable

Nadine Labaki Capernaum
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Less than two months after Beirut was blasted by one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, director Nadine Labaki has taken to the streets of the Lebanese capital with her camera. 

“I don’t know where it’s going to lead, or if it will ever lead anywhere,” says Labaki, whose latest film, the Oscar-nominated “Capernaum,” shed light on Beirut’s preexisting desperation. But as teams of volunteers clear rubble, feed survivors and try to rebuild — and the country’s “corrupt” government, Labaki points out, does the bare minimum — Lebanon’s most prominent filmmaker isn’t staying idle. 

The only positive development since Aug. 4, when 2,750 tons of neglected ammonium nitrate detonated in the city’s port, leaving 190 dead, more than 6,500 injured and roughly 300,000 homeless, is that civil society and volunteers, many of whom are young Lebanese, have been working ceaselessly.

The fact that a network of unpaid workers “got organized so quickly and efficiently” to remove broken glass and debris and start fixing damaged buildings and providing food and diapers to displaced survivors stands as further proof, says Labaki, that Lebanon “has always been functioning without a government.” And that, she notes, “is the only hope I still have of rebuilding the country.”

Still, Labaki wants Lebanon’s leaders to be held accountable, and she’s calling for an international probe into the “man-made” disaster. “We need to know the truth,” she says. 

Among those the filmmaker holds accountable is the current ruling class, which Labaki calls a “mafia” that is widely blamed for decades of systemic rot, and Hezbollah, the militant Shiite party that is both Lebanon’s strongest military force and its most powerful political power broker amid the sectarian forces that have been in charge since civil war ended almost 30 years ago.

As an artist, Labaki, who is also an actor, has always taken her cue from daily life in Lebanon, be it the bustling Beirut beauty salon in her first feature, “Caramel,” a safe haven for women of different backgrounds to gossip freely; or “Where Do We Go Now?” set in a village surrounded by land mines where Christians and Muslims manage to coexist. Or, of course, “Capernaum,” in which Beirut becomes the inferno where Zain al Rafeea, a real 12-year-old Syrian refugee fighting to survive in its slums, decides to sue his parents in court for giving him life.

Following the film’s release, Zain and his family resettled in Norway, and Labaki has been intermittently making a creative
documentary about “the very thin line between fiction and reality” in the child’s amazing journey. The movie, which launched at Cannes in 2018, brought the director international acclaim (she was already the Arab world’s most bankable director). But Labaki says she has been “almost paralyzed” creatively since that time. 

Even before the blast, she was trying to get her head around what was happening in Lebanon as it plunged into an economic crisis caused by unsustainable public debt, prompting escalating riots and protests in 2019. You really need to “have the right distance [to] deal with the situation responsibly” and remain fair, she says.

Labaki is coming out of that stagnation. Recently, the director started “filmingeverything” in Beirut since the blast — because “we need, at least, to capture what’s been happening,” she explains — though it’s still unclear how the material will take form.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country’s previously flourishing film community is at a standstill. The blast ripped through the center of Beirut, which is the cultural heart of Lebanon, where most production companies and movie theaters are located. To make matters worse, banks aren’t allowing individuals to withdraw more than $100-$200 per week, depending on the location, in a clumsy effort to curtail the economic crisis and prevent capital flight. 

And yet, Labaki and her family — she has two children — aren’t going anywhere. She also hopes there won’t now be an exodus, especially of young Lebanese. “I have this sort of feeling that it is my duty to just stay here,” she declares, and perhaps thinking of Zain, adds, “It’s as though this country is a small child who is sick and needs help.”

But a collective outcry and continued support from outside Lebanon are also needed. While the international community mobilized immediately after the blast, “It’s not enough,” she says, and concern is already dying down.

“Just because this tragedy happened in a small country that is almost invisible on the map,” Labaki says, “it doesn’t mean it can be forgotten so quickly.”