When filmmakers take issues of the day and shine a glaring light on them – smartly – it can shake your world in the best possible sense. DIANE DE BEER highlights two of the best:
Living in South Africa, we all know what it means to read about something and the horror of living it. For too long we lived in a country where it was a matter of law to keep things separate and in the dark. Evil needs to be shouted from the mountain tops.
Two films (one currently on circuit) currently making the rounds in cinemas and available out there to stream, tell stories that are as close to living it as is possible on screen.
The first is Capernaum, a film by Nadine Labaki, a Lebanese filmmaker whose previous two movies (Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?) were screened locally with this one, Oscar nominated, currently on circuit.
She truly believes in the power of cinema and her latest, Capernaum, which in this context means chaos, deals with refugees, people who are stateless and as she says, “become invisible.”
The story she picked to tell was specifically that of the children trapped in these lives. “We’re talking about children not receiving their fundamental rights,” is how she describes it in an interview.
With a script in hand, she started to look for the actors and smartly turned to the very people whose stories she wanted to tell. And then she listened to their lives and adapted her screenplay to reflect their reality.
Most important in this equation is Syrian refugee child actor Zain Al Rafeea as Zain El Hajj, a 12-year- old living in the slums of Beirut. In yet another interview the director explained that in real life he is that age, but because of their lives, the children are all smaller because of malnutrition. (He and his family have since moved to Sweden where he is going to school for the first time.)
It’s a world of pain but those living there are simply trying to survive. When landing up in prison simply because he’s fighting for others in his life, a 12-year-old boy sues his parents for neglect. “Being born,” is how he says it.
If you want to see what survival looks like, this is it. It is done with compassion but without shying away from the harsh realities that many people – in this instance children – find themselves in. The number of refugees in the world at this specific time is horrifying with many countries and world leaders fighting to keep them from safety – that is, their countries.
The film reflects the lives of the children who had to flee Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, Honduras, and the list goes on and keeps expanding daily.
“I need proof you’re a human being?” A sentence that might not be familiar to any of us, but in this world you need papers to say who you are and where you belong. Without them, as the director says, you become invisible.
And when one child is left caring for another because the mother has gone missing, your heart breaks. Even towards the young in that harshest of worlds, having nothing isn’t enough to change anything. Survival means exactly that, a drop of water, a crust of bread and no one to turn to because everyone is hustling – some more cunningly than others.
The ingenuity of children who have to look after themselves is astonishing. A car-wash, for example, will clean both bodies and clothes. When feeding a baby ice because there’s nothing else, he says: “Seriously, isn’t this better than a shawarma sandwich?” And your heart shatters as it should because we all need to understand the lives of others.
And the parents? Can you judge them? Have you walked in their shoes? They believe that more children is their way out.
But when one child dies, another is born and the young son tells his mother, “My heart aches”.
This 12-year-old is tired of those who can’t care for their children. “That kid in your belly will be just like me,” he tells his mother.
In a similar vein, Monsters and Men deals with the scourge of African American men dying at the hands of police, publicly and visibly, yet nothing happens to change the situation. We from afar watch in horror.
But here are some answers as the movie follows the rise of tensions in the neighbourhood and how it affects the bystanders, one of whom filmed the scene as it unfolds – something that often happens.
It is the dilemma of the innocent, how to react and what to do. How to be a man when you’re living among monsters. That’s the story director Reinaldo Marcus Green tells with such honesty and clarity. There’s no way you don’t get this one.
When a black policeman asks his white female colleague how often she has been stopped that year, her response is that she drives too well not understanding the nuanced question. “I have been stopped six times,” he says, “and it’s only June.” That sentence captures his life and that of every black man living in America (and of course elsewhere). Skin has always mattered, no matter where you live – even in Africa.
But how does he go about his life and building a career when his chosen calling is policing in a force where he is regarded as the monster. To share his insights on the officer who was fast to draw his gun, means the end of his career, his livelihood and his “normal” family life that we all expect when we live in a certain way. But not here.
The young man who captures the event on his phone finds himself compelled to send it and his life turns into the nightmare he knew it would.
And then there’s the young sport star on the verge of making the big league – a new life not only for himself but also for his long-suffering father. How are you expected to make these life decisions about doing the right thing in a world that won’t take even your best word? Not even being caught on camera will seal the fate of those who go around terrorising African American men because they can.
What both these films do so majestically yet with illuminating simplicity is take you for a walk in the other’s shoes.
These stories need to be told and to be seen so that we all understand how the world works and what is at stake with every choice we make.