‘Capernaum’ team on Cannes success and the importance of using non-professional actors

LA Times reporter Mark Olsen, from left , discusses "Capernaum" with director Nadine Labaki, actor Zain Al Rafeea and producer Khaled Mouzanar at an Envelope Live screening at the Montalban.
LA Times reporter Mark Olsen, from left , discusses “Capernaum” with director Nadine Labaki, actor Zain Al Rafeea and producer Khaled Mouzanar at an Envelope Live screening at the Montalban.
(Ana Venegas / For The Times)

The Lebanese drama “Capernaum” made waves at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year when it opened to a lengthy standing ovation, was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or, and ultimately won the grand jury prize.

But unlike so many of the drama entries at the renowned film festival, “Capernaum” is unique in that it features a group of first-time actors. However, director Nadine Labaki said she wouldn’t have had it any another way.

“It was not even a choice,” she said at an Envelope Live screening of the film on Nov. 14. “It was, from the start, something that was imposed on me because I know how much the film can have a completely different impact on you when you know that you’re watching a real struggle on that big screen. You’re watching people who are really almost feeling the same circumstance and having the same struggle in their own life.”


Labaki was joined at the screening, held at the Montalban in Hollywood, by her husband, producer Khaled Mouzanar, and actor Zain Al Rafeea.

The last talked about tapping into his own experiences as a refugee leaving in Lebanon for the role — specifically for his dialogue in the film.

“It’s a mixture of what Nadine wanted me to say and also things that I invented myself,” he said.

“It was a real collaboration between what was written and also things that he would add from his own experience. Some of the things he said were really things that he experienced,” added Labaki. “Being in those very difficult neighborhoods, he’s seen a lot of things happening to other children.”

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It wasn’t just Al Rafeea who had a personal stake in the project. Mouzanar explained that he had to take a mortgage on his and Labaki’s home and also delay payments for his son’s school in order to fund the film.


“Through the whole process we were feeling that we were working on something bigger than us,” he said. “We were carrying a bigger message, something very important.”

He explained he also had to keep the issues with his son’s tuition payments a secret from his wife. “So it was a very stressful process but the belief was always there,” he said.

Those extra sacrifices made the process of filming “a life-changing experience,” in the words of Labaki.

Thankfully, come festival season, it all paid off when the film opened to rave reviews and won the grand jury prize at Cannes in May.

“It’s also a victory for those actors who really, a week before they went to Cannes, almost all of them didn’t any papers to prove that they even exist in this life,” she explained. “They are struggling everyday to just get the most basic rights just to eat and drink and have their basics so it’s for them all of a sudden they are not only in Cannes but they are loved and appreciated by so many people.”

And that was just the beginning, according to Labaki. When discussing the film’s final scene, she elaborated on how the actors’ lives, specifically Al Rafeea’s, have changed since the film opened.

“Finally, he has a Norwegian passport. He’s resettled in Norway. He’s been there for the past three, four months. He’s going to school for the first time in his life. He’s learning how to read and write. He’s regained his childhood. He’s playing in a garden; he’s not playing anymore with knives and in garbage. He’s playing with reindeer in the forest,” she explained.

“This smile has a completely different meaning to me now.”

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