CANNES, France (Reuters) - The actors in a film tipped for prizes at Cannes were not only amateurs plucked from the streets, they were also living lives as precarious as those of their characters, with one thrown in jail during the shoot and another deported afterwards.
“Capharnaum”, a realist drama set in the slums of Beirut, follows the life of Zain, a 12-year-old boy trying in vain to prevent his younger sister being married off as she comes into puberty.
The film starts and ends with a courtroom scene in which he is suing his parents, who have countless children and another on the way, for giving birth to him - the only plot contrivance in a film that otherwise sticks to facts witnessed by the director and lived by many of the cast.
Daily Telegraph critic Robbie Collin called it “a social-realist blockbuster – fired by furious compassion and teeming with sorrow, yet strewn with diamond-shards of beauty, wit and hope” that he predicted would win the Palme d’Or, to be awarded at the end of the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday.
Nadine Labaki, one of three women directors among the 21 in competition for the prize, said she filmed 520 hours of footage over six months as her novice actors, many of them young children, improvised - to achieve the intense realism.
The protagonist is played by Zain Al Rafea, whose family fled the Syrian war and who, like his character, has been working from a young age rather than going to school.
“It’s easy,” the 13-year-old told a news conference when asked about acting. “She asks me sometimes to be sad, sometimes to be happy - that’s it.”
Things were far harder for his co-star, Yordanos Shiferaw, a refugee from Eritrea who plays Rahil, an illegal immigrant who takes Zain under her wing but then disappears, leaving him with her year-old baby. We later learn she has been arrested and locked in an overcrowded jail cell.
“After the arrest scene, I was arrested for real,” she told reporters, tears streaming down her face. “I lived exactly the same thing.” After two weeks the movie producers managed to get her released and she returned to complete filming.
The baby boy, whom Zain pulls around town on a pram he has improvised from a large cooking pot atop a stolen skateboard, is also a real-life refugee.
Born in Beirut to parents from Africa, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, the infant actor, actually a girl, was deported in March to Kenya with her mother. Her father was sent back to his home in Nigeria, the other side of Africa.
“Capharnaum”, a word that Webster’s Dictionary defines as “a confused jumble”, is a film about these people, and, as Labaki said, “the absurd importance of this paper (identity documents) that we need to prove we exist.”
Writing by Robin Pomeroy; editing by Andrew Roche