BEIRUT, Lebanon — Her first movie made Lebanon laugh at itself, her second gift-wrapped the trauma of its civil war in tender comedy, and Nadine Labaki’s third film, “Capernaum,” well, made people cry. Its title means something like “chaos” or “hell,” and it offers a not-far-from-real story of child abuse, vicious poverty and despair only a short drive from Lebanon’s grandest neighborhoods.
NPR called it “Dickensian.” Reviewing it for The New York Times, A.O. Scott called Beirut, as seen through Ms. Labaki’s camera, a “teeming vision of the inferno.” It is this image of Lebanon — rather than its hellish civil war, its beauty culture, its beaches and ski resorts or its hummus — that has captivated international audiences over the past year, winning the jury prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film and a spot in Mr. Scott’s Top-10 list for 2018.
But though international success has made Ms. Labaki the country’s best-known filmmaker, it is Lebanese eyes, hearts and consciences that she is after.
“Lebanese people need to know what’s going on,” she said. “They need to face it.”
“It,” as “Capernaum” shows, is an angry brew of seemingly every major Lebanese social ill of recent years, problems that rarely get a prominent airing in Lebanon.
Zain, a Huck Finnesque hero of about 12 (his exact age is a mystery to him), is suing his parents for bringing him into a world where they have neither the means nor, it seems, the will to care for him and his siblings, who are literally countless (it is never clear how many there are). Like many Lebanese families, they are too poor even to register their children with the government, all but cutting them off from schools, hospitals and legitimate employment.
Abused, neglected and forced to work, Zain witnesses a child marriage and commits a violent crime that lands him in prison. In between, he meets a Syrian refugee child, one of the million or so Syrians who fled the civil war for Lebanon, and finds a makeshift home with an undocumented Ethiopian woman — one of Lebanon’s large underclass of migrant laborers — and her toddler son.
Zain’s odyssey is a movie. Yet, Ms. Labaki, not wanting it to be dismissed as an exaggeration, made sure it was not quite fiction.
Ms. Labaki and her husband, Khaled Mouzanar, the film’s producer, co-writer and composer, spent three years researching the impoverished neighborhoods where “Capernaum” is set.
They shadowed social workers as they made the rounds of overcrowded apartments, visited prisons where juveniles and migrant workers were held and observed court proceedings. They found children left home alone, feeding themselves by spooning powdered milk straight from the can because they had no water; children shivering with cold; children who, diminished by malnutrition, looked years younger than their age.
They went on to cast mostly nonprofessional Lebanese actors from the same neighborhoods, most of whom had known only the privations the film depicts. They changed the apartments and streets where they filmed as little as possible.
The film’s star, Zain Al Rafeea, is a young Syrian refugee from a poor family who Ms. Labaki said had grown up largely on the streets, developing an eye-watering fluency in profanity that topped even that of his character, whose every third word seems to be a curse. (The United Nations resettled the family in Norway last year; Ms. Labaki said Zain was adjusting well. In fact, Ms. Labaki’s team has helped all the young children in the film enroll either in schools or part-time classes since the end of filming.)
None of this is Ms. Labaki’s usual milieu.
“This is happening five minutes away from a completely different life,” she said on a recent afternoon as her Land Rover jounced from the well-groomed streets of Achrafieh, where she lives and works, to the hardscrabble neighborhood called Nabaa, where she shot the bulk of the film. Garbage littered the sidewalks. Electrical wires sagged overhead; laundry slumped from balconies. Cockroaches trundled by Ms. Labaki’s gray Converse sneakers.
As Ms. Labaki got out, people hung out from balconies or waved from corner stores to congratulate her — “Mabrouk!” — on the Oscar nomination.
It was Ms. Labaki’s own ignorance about places like Nabaa, she said, that generated the film’s shock-and-dismay approach, which put off some reviewers.
“You know it’s happening,” she said, “but it’s shocking to see how unbearable it is. It’s different to be inside of it.”
Like “Capernaum,” Ms. Labaki is a homegrown product of Lebanon, one of only a few contemporary Arab directors not to have pursued her training or career in the West. Growing up in a village outside Beirut during Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, which killed more than 150,000 people, she remembers being cooped up at home with little to do but watch movies like “Annie” and “Grease” as the fighting burned outside.
She studied filmmaking in Beirut before making “Caramel,” a gentle 2007 social comedy about women of different religious backgrounds working together in a beauty parlor. Then, in 2011 came “Where Do We Go Now?” a riff on Lebanon’s history of religious strife in which village women go to increasingly absurd lengths to keep their menfolk from fighting one another. (Ms. Labaki, a sometime actress with dark, intense eyes, also starred in both movies.)
The civil war furnished Ms. Labaki with filmmaking grist. But she speculated that it had also inured the Lebanese to suffering, confining discussion of the problems “Capernaum” depicts to a few activist corners of society.
“We’ve learned to live with injustice,” Ms. Labaki said. “Every family has a tragedy. We’ve learned not to look. It’s become part of our story.”
Ms. Labaki said she had always wanted to make films that pricked the conscience, but did not know how. She began her “Capernaum” research after one night several years ago when she was returning home late from a party and saw a mother and son sitting on the sidewalk, the child asleep and vulnerable.
Doing her research, she was most struck by the juvenile detainees she met. Like Zain, few could say how old they were. When she asked, “Are you happy to be alive?” many answered, “No, I wish I was dead,” she said.
When she began filming in Nabaa, Ms. Labaki was breast-feeding her second child, a daughter. At first, she said, she was unable to contain her fury at the mothers who left their young children home alone, like the small girl she saw crying in a window day after day.
Ms. Labaki eventually confronted the girl’s mother. She responded, “What do you want me to do? I have to go to work,” the director recalled.
“Every time you sit down with the parents, you realize you can’t judge. You don’t know what to think anymore,” Ms. Labaki said. “It’s not their fault — it’s the whole system that is not helping anyone.”
Some Lebanese have emerged from seeing “Capernaum” arguing that the poor must be stopped from having more children. There are some who have questioned whether Ms. Labaki is proposing just that, with reviewers divided over whether the film condemns a systematic failure or the poor.
The film makes Zain’s case that it “probably would have been better if he’d never been born,” one Cannes reviewer wrote. When Zain’s parents tell his lawyer, played by Ms. Labaki, “that she has no right to judge them, and her eyes tear up, the guilt feels phony,” another wrote.
But Ms. Labaki, who sometimes speaks about the plot as though it were true, insists it is all real. She told the woman who played Zain’s mother, Kawsar al-Haddad, to draw on her own story for the scene, as she did with the other actors throughout the filming.
Now Ms. Labaki, who once ran unsuccessfully in a Beirut municipal election, wants to take her activism further, aware that good intentions may go only so far.
At one point in “Capernaum,” a group of volunteer musicians visits a prison to put on a concert. Some of the detainees sing along from behind the bars, but the camera lingers on those who do not, whose despair seems beyond the reach of any music.
But Ms. Labaki insists on trying.
“It’s really a luxury not to talk about politics,” Ms. Labaki said, “especially if you live on this side of the world, where nothing is going right.”