Outsiders and Insiders: Spotlight on Lebanon

he acclaimed animated long length feature film The Tower by Norwegian director Mats Grorud and Oscar nominated Lebanese film Capernaum by award winning director Nadine Labaki share the same terrain. They are both cinematic portrayals of past and present refugee camps in Lebanon focusing on children.     


Capernaum is a full-throttle les miserables journey of children living in extreme poverty, many in a kind of stateless, undocumented, in-between existence. The film begins with a 12-year-old Zain who is suing his parents for bringing him into the world. He is wild and undernourished preteen who runs away from his family after his 11-year-old sister, Sahar, is married off to a local shop owner. Zain wanders the streets of Beirut and eventually encounters a kindly worker, Rahil, at an amusement park, who takes pity on him and brings him home. Zain repays the favor by taking care of Rahil’s baby son, Yonas, a boy she had out of wedlock and whose existence she hides from the world, bringing him to work with her in a wheeling suitcase that she stashes in the bathroom while she does her job.

The Tower brings the story of an 11 years old girl in a refugee camp in Lebanon who returns from school one day and is exposed to the life story of 3 generations in her family. Spending time in a camp, the director witnessed a session where a group of elders told the young about what happened to them in 1948. Everybody was crying together and the traumas and wounds of those people made him make the film. The raw reality of Capernaum becomes not less brutal in The Tower where the animation is distancing oneself from something and still present an original take on it. Animation is one way of recreating spaces that have been erased as a consequence of the expulsion of Palestinians and other people from their lands. The heartfelt film flourished as an idea even prior when the director’s mother worked as a nurse in Lebanon during the 1980s. She would go and come back, and Mats and his siblings would see pictures of the camps. During the First Intifada in 1989, they  lived for a year in Cairo and went to Gaza and Jerusalem. Later, when he went to live in Lebanon in the camp of Bourj el-Barajneh where the film takes place, he got the idea for the film.

Similarly, the protagonists of Capernaum are migrants without any papers. Rather than write a fully plotted script from beginning to end, Labaki pieced together her story based on the research she conducted within, as she puts it, “the belts of misery that surround our cities.” Many of her actors are real people who were living in similar situations to the ones she depicts on-screen: The actress who plays Rahil, Yordanos Shiferaw, an immigrant herself, was, in fact, detained for a time during the making of the film, just like her character; the parents of the child who plays Yonas were also rounded up; the baby, a girl named Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, lived with members of the crew until her parents were released, Labaki recounted.

Unlike Grorud’s process, the writing and the research of Capernaum happened at the same time. Some truly remarkable scenes in Capernaum were filmed within a hellish parking garage that was turned into a detention center, a real-life prison that Labaki says she got access to through a lot of persistence but also by forming allies on the inside. It was her intention to show the world of horrors. Both films took the chance on a topic that could easily come out as exploitative. However, both succeed in transcending the viewer’s experience from mercy to sympathy and awareness. Capernaum was rapturously received at Cannes, where it elicited a 15-minute standing ovation and won the Jury Prize. 


The Tower also received positive nods in animation festivals as well as in Arab countries festivals. Close to perfectness, the tactility and texture of the puppets and sets make it easy to represent the girl protagonist Wardi’s real world today. On the meta level of filmmaking, in puppet animation the filmmakers are used to using whatever they have at hand, and this is exactly what people do constructing their towers in the refugee camp.


Capernaum is a film about poverty, but it also seems to me that it is a film about who “should” be a parent. The Tower is a film about heritage and who should carry it on to the next generation. Both shed light on one of the Middle East’s most forgotten backyards.