Capernaum gets AUB alumni thinking about Lebanon’s most vulnerable

Capernaum, a film by Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki (Hon DHL '16), swept film festivals last year, laying low critics and moviegoers with its visceral depictions of desperation and destitution in Beirut, a cri de coeur from the heart of the city's slums. The film sees Zain El Hajj, played by Syrian refugee Zain al Rafeea, defend his sister from a predatory suitor, flee his abusive parents, and rescue an abandoned Ethiopian infant, before succumbing, after committing a noble act of revenge, to the country's criminal justice system.

For a Lebanese film, Capernaum has punched above its weight, receiving positive reviews from critics at major American and European news outlets, including the New York Times, Guardian, and the New Yorker, and even garnering an Oscar nod for Best Foreign Language Film. A tiny handful of critics have attacked the film as exploitative of Lebanon's poor; however, the vast majority praise the charisma of the film's lead, its eye for detail, realism, and ultimate humanity.

The buzz around Capernaum has caught the attention of AUB's alumni community, who saw in the film a means to bring alumni together for thought-provoking, cinematic experiences. The heads of several alumni chapters in Baltimore, Ohio Valley, Michigan, and Chicago hosted screenings at nearby independent theaters.

May Sanyoura (BS '04), who hosted a sold-out screening in Chicago, thought the film “portrayed Lebanon in a dark way," though she admits that “a lot of us are living in a bubble." She pointed out how far behind, in terms of access to basic technologies like the Internet, children like Zain are.

Manal Assi (BS '91, MD '95), who hosted a screening in Michigan, saw the film through the lens of her profession, child psychiatry. She read in Zain's noble behavior the “capacity to form attachment even when your parents don't model that for you."

Throughout the film, Zain almost never smiles, holding instead a determined grimace, which Assi says, is realistic. “People in those situations, they don't smile. They're broken on the inside. Their chronic trauma affects brain structure. On this, Nadine was absolutely on point,"

Lina Melhem (BS '85), who screened the film in Baltimore, though it might have been a little exaggerated. “I was actually shocked by the level of poverty. I didn't notice that there was such poverty in Lebanon. I think maybe it's a little bit exaggerated, it's a movie, trying to make a point."  

Both Assi and Melhem were quick to point out that such abject poverty is not endemic to Lebanon, but can be found all over the world, including parts of the United States. All of the alumni with whom AUB NYO spoke saw in the film, as Assi put it, evidence that “human beings are innately kind."