“Capernaum” Tells a Universal Story—But it’s Hard to Watch

Picks of the Week is Women and Hollywood’s newest resource. We are often asked for recommendations, so each week we’ll spotlight the women-driven and women-made projects—movies, series, VOD releases and more—that we’re most excited about. Sign up for the Women and Hollywood newsletter at womenandhollywood.com to get each week’s pick delivered to your inbox.

This Week’s Pick: Capernaum

Directed by Nadine Labaki; Written by Nadine Labaki, Michelle Kesrouani, Jihad Hojeily and Khaled Mouzanar 

The sole woman-directed film up for Best Foreign Language Motion Picture at the upcoming Golden Globes, Capernaum tells the story of Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a 12-year-old boy who sues his parents for bringing him into a world of pain and suffering. Co-writer and director Labaki spent four years researching the film, and it shows. The characters depicted, and the extreme poverty they live in, are neither sensationalized nor sentimental.

To present the story realistically, and without judgment, Labaki had to confront her own preconceptions. “While I was doing my research, we went to the most unfortunate, difficult, miserable and poor neighborhoods with extreme neglect in Beirut,” Labaki told us. “Any big city has those belts of misery surrounding it. I used to knock on a door at random and go into those apartments—we can’t really call them apartments because they are divided into rooms and each room has a family. We used to find kids two and three years old on their own all day long. I used to see kids on the balcony, on the window, or crying without anybody there. So, the first thing that would come to my mind was: Who is this mother who leaves her babies all day long alone? What kind of a mother is this? Doesn’t she know that those kids are exposed to danger by being on their own? I used to wait for the mother to come back because I was angry and I wanted to give her a piece of my mind.” (Click here to read Women and Hollywood’s interview with Nadine Labaki.)

“I felt like I was entitled to say that because I think I’m a better mom,” Labaki explained, “but then, 10 minutes after we started talking, I would think, how could I even have dared to judge her? I’ve never been in her shoes. I’ve never been hungry. My kids have never been hungry. I’ve never had to sell my daughter, who is 11 or 12 years old, to another man because I have no other choice and because I have to feed my other babies. Or because I think maybe she’s going to be better off.”

As difficult as Capernaum is to watch, the film never devolves into manipulative poverty porn. Zain’s story is heartbreaking, but he’s never reduced to a symbol or a generic “victim” robbed of his distinct personality. The story is universal, but seen through one particular boy’s eyes. And Zain doesn’t want pity. He wants understanding.

The winner of Cannes’ Jury Prize, Capernaum is likely to receive an Oscar nod when nominations are announced in January. (Laura Berger)

“Capernaum” opens in NY and LA December 14. Find screening info here.


Women and Hollywood educates, advocates and agitates for gender diversity and inclusion in Hollywood and the global film industry. The site, founded in 2007 by Melissa Silverstein, sets the standard, defines the conversation, fuels coverage and reinforces messages throughout the specialized and mainstream media to call for gender parity on a daily basis. Follow W&H at @WomenaHollywood and Melissa @MelSil.