Category: Arab Cinema

Gaza City gets a cinema?

Cinema screenings are being prepared in a disused theatre space in Gaza City.

Things are pretty grim at the moment but we search daily for good news. Perhaps this is a good news story. The image above is taken from the website of The National, an English language publication based in the UAE with an international digital presence. The story is by Nagham Mohanna and Rosie Scammell and the photograph is credited to Majd Mohamad. You can access the article here.

Gaza is one of those territories (and there are arguably more than you might think) where there are no public screenings on a regular basis. It wasn’t always the case in Palestine. After the Nakba in 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians by the forces of the new state of Israel, Gaza was designated as land for Palestinians under Egyptian control with a ‘buffer’ separating the small strip from Israel to the North and East and a border with Egypt to the South. More than 70 years later Gaza has a population approaching 2 million in the strip with the third highest density of population worldwide. As in the West Bank and Jerusalem, there were cinemas in Gaza from 1948 up until the First Intifada in December 1987. Gaza had ten cinemas (see this Al Jazeera article from 2016) but just as in the West Bank, cinemas were closed because of opposition from religious groups. In the 1930s and 1940s, cinemas in Mandate Palestine had shown Egyptian films alongside those from Hollywood but in the post-war period films had to be imported through Israel and this increased the opposition. Cinemas in the West Bank and Jerusalem have re-appeared and several are mentioned on this blog (see this post on a Nablus re-opening and this on a Jenin cinema operation). In all there have been four or five cinemas operating in the West Bank and Jerusalem during the last twenty years (see also this 2012 re-opening in East Jerusalem). I don’t know how many of them have survived until the present but I’ve seen an announcement about screenings in Palestinian cities in 2021.

I know that there have been screenings in Gaza in various venues (including bomb sires and a mobile cinema van) since Hamas were elected as the local government in the territory but none I think that have endured as permanent cinemas. Apart from religious objections, many buildings have also suffered from Israeli attacks. I do hope a permanent presence can be established. Gaza’s residents and especially its large proportion of young people, have difficulty leaving the territory and experiencing what the wider world has to offer. The social experience in watching films with an audience is an important human right and it is certainly necessary in order to inspire new Gaza-born filmmakers. Palestinian cineastes face many problems in making films in Palestine and usually must rely on co-funding from Europe, the Gulf or North America. It is to their credit that Palestinian cinema is so highly regarded in Arabic language film culture, but it is important that their films are shown in Palestinian cinemas. I wish the cinema at the Holst Park and Cultural Centre in Gaza the best of luck in establishing itself.

It Must Be Heaven (France-Germany-Canada-Turkey-Qatar-Palestine 2019)

Elia Suleiman as ‘ES’, always centre frame

Elia Suleiman’s fourth fiction feature in 23 years (he has also made a documentary and a handful of shorts) is perhaps his most beautiful and most perfectly formed yet. It won a prize at Cannes in 2019 and finally reached the UK in Summer 2021. The film works on two levels. On the surface it is a deadpan, absurdist silent movie which follows Suleiman himself (‘ES’) as the central character, a filmmaker who travels from Nazareth to Paris and to New York/Montreal. But this ‘comedy’ is underpinned by a sometimes obvious, but often disguised, critique of not just the Israeli occupation of Palestine but also the ways in which Palestine’s situation is viewed in Europe and North America. There is also a ‘third dimension’ in which the kinds of oppression felt in Palestine are also spreading in other cultures but are not always understood in the same way. Suleiman himself offers us this explanation:

If my previous films tried to present Palestine as a microcosm of the world; my new film It Must Be Heaven tries to show the world as if it were a microcosm of Palestine. (from the film’s Press Pack.)

This statement perhaps doesn’t make immediate sense, but it is worth pondering and thinking through as the incidents during Suleiman’s journey play out. I suspect that different audiences will react differently towards what they see on screen. Some of these differences are evident in the (generally very positive) reviews of the film. However, a good example of what I mean is that some reviewers and scholars still persist in referring to Suleiman’s comedy as based on or similar to Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati. I like Keaton very much and though I don’t know Tati’s films very well, I can understand to some extent why these references are used. But there are three problems here.

ES in Paris where the police are checking the café’s encroachment onto the pavement

The first is that Suleiman himself says that he has not been influenced by these two film artists and that if he has been influenced by other directors it is Ozu and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Second, Keaton and Tati have been seen as creating ‘universal’ characters understood through their mute responses to the trials and tribulations of the situations in which they find themselves. It is often their actions that trigger the chaos around them. Suleiman is quite different. He is a passive observer, he doesn’t get involved – the craziness is ‘out there’ and he just watches. In this film he speaks just once, to a taxi driver, and acts only to command a small bird to leave him alone when he is writing. Significantly, he breaks his rule of passivity on only one other occasion when he engages with a security official at the airport in a hilarious spoof of martial arts combat. I think this might be a reference back to one of his earlier films in which he pole-vaults over the security wall which divides Israel from the West Bank.

Elia Suleiman has an unusual history. He was born into a Palestinian Orthodox Christian family in Nazareth in 1960. He has always maintained his Palestinian identity. He lived in New York as a young man (1981-93) where he began his involvement in filmmaking. Later he set up a Film and Media course at Birzeit University in the West Bank as part of a European-funded project in 1994. His feature films from 1996 onwards have been funded from various international sources and usually co-ordinated through Paris where he has based himself for the last twenty years or so. It Must Be Heaven thus presents not a ‘voyage of discovery’ but rather a set of observations linking contemporary Nazareth with what Suleiman sees as the changing worlds of Paris and New York (I’m assuming some of the New York scenes were shot in Montreal for funding purposes). Anyone who has seen Suleiman’s earlier films will also note that he makes references back to his own films and his own history and to his collaborations with others.

ES waits in the foyer of a film production company with his friend Gael García Bernal

The character Suleiman plays in It Must Be Heaven is perhaps a version of himself, as a filmmaker travelling abroad and looking for funding. There is the suggestion that someone in his Nazareth family has died and this refers us back to his previous film The Time That Remains (2009) which engages with his family history from the time of the 1948 war which saw Nazareth ‘incorporated’ in the new state of Israel. Suleiman is an actor in several of his own films and also one of the guests in a fantasy sequence featuring in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako (Mali-France 2006). It’s no surprise then to find other directors and film industry figures popping up in Suleiman’s films. Vincent Maraval, the co-founder of Wild Bunch and a prolific producer ,appears as a film producer and Grégoire Colin, an actor associated strongly with Claire Denis, as a menacing man on the Metro, both appear in the Paris segment of It Must Be Heaven. In New York, Suleiman is greeted by the actor-director Gael García Bernal in the foyer of a film production office. This is an important scene partly because of Bernal’s dialogue (he refers to his friend the ‘Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’).

This is the POV of ES as he watches what happens to the girl with the angel wings

It Must Be Heaven has a very distinctive aesthetic. The cinematography by Sofian El Fani is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.66:1 according to IMDb. This is wider than even original CinemaScope (2.55:1). El Fani’s work on Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014) included some memorable compositions in ‘extreme long shots’. In It Must Be Heaven, there are many wide shots, though perhaps not so many extreme long shots. But many compositions are geometrically designed with Suleiman himself central in the image, i.e. either central in the frame or with a POV which is from a central position. Suleiman’s aim as stated in the Press Pack is to present:

. . . the moment in the margin, the trivial, or that which is usually out of focus. Consequently, it approaches what is intimate, tender and touching. It’s the personal and human stories that are based on identification which raise questions and raise hope.

A good example is the sequence in Paris which focuses on a square with an ornamental pool and fountain around which various people are enjoying sitting in the sunshine. Suleiman watches on as others arrive and try to find an empty seat, sometimes moving the chairs around. There are small acts of rudeness and meanness in this sequence, as well as less offensive struggles to find a chair. Any reading of the film has to try to connect together the different observations in Paris and New York with those in Nazareth. To give just one example, in Nazareth Suleiman watches as his neighbour steals/takes without permission lemons from Suleiman’s tree. This has obvious connotations about the daily small acts of theft by Israelis, supported by their government, which sees Arab houses in the West Bank demolished, especially currently in East Jerusalem, and eventually replaced by houses for Israelis. Suleiman is arguing that some similar kinds of issues to those in Palestine are beginning to be experienced by Parisians and New Yorkers. They are relatively benign at the moment but the connections are there. I should emphasise that Suleiman doesn’t speak during his observations but some are accompanied by an eclectic range of music tracks including a song by his partner Yasmine Hamdan and other Arab performers plus Leonard Cohen and Nina Simone (singing ‘I Put a Spell on You’ – the same song appeared in an earlier Suleiman film sung by Natacha Atlas). It Must Be Heaven is a film to watch, admire and re-watch. The trailer below offers glimpses of several of the extended sight gags, pointing to another issue – how Suleiman’s films are promoted to international audiences. The film is on several streaming services, including MUBI – which also offers 7 Days in Havana (Cuba-Spain-France 2012) including a segment by Suleiman which in some ways pre-figures It Must Be Heaven.

As I Open My Eyes (À peine p’ouvre les yeux, Tunisia-France-Bel-UAE-Switz 2015)

The band in rehearsal

This Tunisian film is very good and I am surprised that it has not received UK distribution, only a festival screening. It’s interesting to see this film as part of an African film festival. Tunisia is part of the Maghreb and ‘North African Cinema’ but the links between North African and Sub-Saharan African cinemas is not as strong as they were in the 1970s-1990s as far as I can see. There is a strong link here, however, as the writer-director of the film Leyla Bouzid is the daughter of the writer and director Nouri Bouzid, one of the group of Tunisian filmmakers in the 1980s-90s making films which regularly featured in the Carthage Film Festival when the festival operated in tandem with Ouagadougou’s Pan-African festival.

Leyla Bouzid made this, her début feature, aged 29 just a few years after the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ which ended 23 years of increasingly repressive government by President Ben Ali. In the Press Notes for the film, Leyla Bouzid says that she wanted to make a film to remind everyone of how the repression under Ben Ali worked. She suggests that though many documentaries were made during the revolutionary period, there weren’t any fictions. She wanted to make a film about how people lived during the time leading up to January 2011 so she set her film in the summer of 2010.

Borhène and Baya

Farah (Baya Medhaffar) is an 18 year-old from a middle-class Tunisian family. She has just matriculated from high school with outstanding results and her parents are expecting her to study medicine. But Farah is young, lively and a talented singer. She is more interested in music than medicine and she is the singer in a band led by Borhène (Montassar Ayari), her boyfriend. The band plays ‘political’ material in popular music styles and Farah visits bars where she is soon tempted to sing impromptu. This is a dangerous activity which she keeps from her parents, helped by the family maid Ahlem. But eventually her mother Hayet (Ghalia Benali) works out what is happening, fires the maid and terrifies Farah into promising to stop singing. But she can’t. She refuses to obey her mother and continues her work with the band. Meanwhile, her father is working as a manager at a phosphate mine in Gafsa in the South West of the country.

Baya and her mother, Hayet

I don’t want to spoil the narrative but singing is a dangerous business and the inevitable is likely to happen. There are elements of romance and ‘coming-of-age’ issues in the story and some generic ideas from music films, but at the centre is the struggle between mother and daughter. Why does Hayet fight so hard to stop her daughter singing? As a young female director, Leyla Bouzid, took the brave decision to shoot on the streets of Tunis in some of the roughest areas and in bars populated almost entirely by men. In one scene Hayet has to enter one such bar looking for Farah and Bouzid tells us how tense the atmosphere became and how the ‘extras’, who were genuine clients of the bar, stared in almost obscene ways at the actress as she had to repeat the scene. The film was shot by Sébastien Goepfert who had worked on a film for Leyla’s father and this was a film co-produced with four different national partners. Many of the Heads of Department in the crew were Europeans and for the crucial role of the music composer for the film Leyla Bouzid chose Khyam Allami, an Iraqi musician who is part of a band featuring members from across the Arab world. The music throughout the film is very good with Borhène playing what I took to be an oud with an electric pick-up alongside drums, guitar and synthesiser. Overall the approach to the music reminded me of the Egyptian film Microphone (2010).  Perhaps the most daring casting decision Bouzid took was to pair Baya Medhaffar with Ghalia Benali. Baya was chosen after a long search but Ghalia is a well-known singer of contemporary Arab music. Fortunately the two women hit it off quickly and worked very well together.

Baya visits parts of the city where it can be dangerous for young women

The fear of police surveillance is very real in the film and I should warn you that there is one very distressing (but necessary) sequence. The film is successful in demonstrating just how the police worked in Tunisia under Ben Ali. I hope that things have improved since 2011. I thought this was an excellent film in every way and I would certainly recommend it. Although it has not been released in the UK, it is available on a Region Free DVD from Trigon Films in Switzerland. It has been released in the US and is available on DVD and online. Thanks to Africa in Motion Film Festival for making this available.

Here is a US trailer:

LFF 2019 #5: The Perfect Candidate (Saudi Arabia-Germany 2019)

Maryam, the doctor wearing a niqab at work at the beginning of the narrative

The third cinema film by writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour is a return to the successful mix of elements in her first feature, Wadjda in 2012. (She also directed a Netflix film Nappily Ever After, a romantic comedy, in 2018.) This new film returns her to a narrative about a woman in contemporary Saudi Arabia (KSA) following the difficult development process of her second feature Mary Shelley in 2018. I found this new film engaging and enjoyable but it raises several questions (as did Wadjda). A number of cultural/social changes have taken place in the KSA in the last few years and the film enters into a discourse about what women might be able to achieve in various ways. I was surprised by some of the narrative developments and I did wonder to what extent the events were fantasy/wish fulfilment. As I left at the end of the screening a young woman ran past me and several others shouting at the top of her voice and accusing the audience of laughing at the central character, saying it wasn’t funny and that the character would have been stoned to death in the real world. Each of us on the stairs were stunned by this and puzzled. None of us thought the film was necessarily a comedy, but certainly there are moments of humour in what is a rich and detailed script. However, this rather violent reaction does point to a genuine scepticism about how we should read the film. I have also seen reviews that describe the film as a comedy.

The sisters working on the electoral campaign

The narrative involves a family. The father, a distinguished musician and singer is still grieving for his recently deceased wife and is perhaps less concerned about what his three daughters are getting up to than other Saudi patriarchs. I presume that the youngest daughter, Sara, is still at school or college. Her two older sisters have different ideas and different jobs. Selma is an organiser of weddings – a big deal for wealthy families in KSA – and Maryam has trained as a doctor and is now working in a small local hospital on the edge of the town outside Riyadh. Maryam is ambitious for her own career but events will push her in unexpected directions as she becomes the central focus of the narrative. It’s worth noting, however, that her father has his own narrative which involves getting his band of traditional popular musicians back on the road. Such music has been repressed by the authorities for many years but now a new ‘National Band’ is to be set up by the state. Through a complicated series of events Maryam almost accidentally becomes a candidate for the local council and she then targets the need to build a proper road to her hospital as the basis for her campaign.

Maryam has the courage to speak at her first campaign event – to an audience of women and therefore can appear ‘unveiled’

My first thought about the film was that it drew on similar events to those in films like Rana’s Wedding (Palestine-Neth-UAE 2002), At Five in the Afternoon (Iran-France 2003) and Permission (Iran 2018). In each of these films, a young woman is attempting to achieve something important but is blocked at crucial moments by a system that forces her to get permission, usually from a male authority figure, or to go through bureaucratic processes that are more difficult for women, especially when they are veiled. This new film presents us with a political candidate completely covered by a burqa as in At Five in the Afternoon. Each of these films also  eventually involves the woman in personal dramas which are used to critique more general social issues. My second point thought has been that Haifaa Al Mansour finds herself in a similar situation to Gurinder Chadha in the UK in that she is approaching issues about her own culture through forms of popular entertainment that may involve familiar ‘feelgood’ elements. It’s significant that both women have American partners (who are also co-writers) and have made films in the US. They have both then faced quite polarised responses by critics and by social commentators and general cinema audiences. The Perfect Candidate was reviewed after its Venice appearance by Jay Weissberg of Variety as a totally formulaic film in which plot points are signalled well in advance and which the characters themselves carry the plotline because the film is otherwise visually bland. Other reviews praise the film for its message of female empowerment. It is worth noting, however, that the film is sanctioned by the Saudi Film Council and that it is officially the Saudi entry for the Foreign Language Oscar competition. So it is clearly not seen as ‘radical’ – or at least not ‘dangerously’ so. But these kinds of judgements can backfire. Without spoiling the narrative I can note that our female protagonist both ‘loses’ and ‘wins’. Audiences take what they want from films. If young women in Saudi Arabia (and other countries) get to see the film and are inspired to attempt some form of social rebellion, no matter how small-scale and limited, the film will have had an effect.

Maryam’s father has his own story on the road with his fellow band members

The plot may be formulaic and the narrative an over optimistic fantasy but the script manages to tie the father’s narrative to that of his daughter. Again this made me think of Gurinder Chadha’s films in which in similar communities of strong women in patriarchal societies, it is the father’s support which confirms the possibility of change. The performances in the film are generally very good including Mila Al Zahrani as Maryam and Khalid Abdulraheem as her father. As in Wadjda, the director is relying on established TV actors with little opportunity to play in films. Selma, the videographer is played by a well-known Saudi ‘social media influencer’ Dhay (Dae Al Hilali). The film also features a female wedding singer played by Khadeeja Mua’th, a major star in Saudi Arabia who made me think of an African-American soul singer. There are 10 million foreigners in Saudi Arabia, most of whom are migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt and elsewhere in Asia. I don’t think this population was represented in the film, though there are characters who might be of African origin. When I told a friend I’d seen a film made in Saudi Arabia he said he thought it was a disgusting regime and he wouldn’t watch a Saudi film. I can understand this reaction but I think films always tell us something about the societies they depict and The Perfect Candidate has prompted me to research the country a little more. At the moment, I don’t think the film has been picked up for UK distribution. Here’s the international trailer.

Sand Storm (Sufat Chol Israel-Germany-France, 2016)


There’s a problem for a westerner watching unrestrained patriarchy in action in other cultures; in the instance of this film, Bedouin. For the feminists amongst us it will stimulate ire at the ridiculous and repressive behaviour of men. The problem is that leads us to judge other cultures and whilst judging is fine the question whether the judgement is based on full evidence. It’s too easy to assume ‘west is best’, though as that falsity becomes clearer by the year, it is a barrier that gets easier to overcome.

That said, I do trust the writer-director of Sand Storm, Elite Zexer, as she obviously went to great lengths to ensure the authenticity of her portrayal of Bedouin society. She even made a short film on the ‘topic’ and showed it to Bedouins first. I also like the fact that this portrayal of Arab life was Israel’s official entry to the Oscars in 2017 by virtue of the fact that it won the best film at the Ophirs. The linked article is worth reading for a description of the ‘culture war’ the film stimulated at the award ceremony.

Sand Storm, aside from its milieux, is a fairly standard melodrama of a vital young woman being forced into a marriage. Layla (Lamis Amar, an Israeli because Zexer had trouble sourcing Bedouin actors) appears to be the ‘apple of her dad’s’ eye and it is a shock to her when he claims he has no choice but to follow tradition. Layla’s mother (Ruba Blal), also a victim of patriarchy as her husband is taking a second wife at the film’s start, is first shown to support the tradition as she takes her frustration out on Layla. It is one of the strengths of the film that the mother’s transition to resistance is gradual; there’s no epiphany that leads to a dramatic stand. Indeed the film is not only realist in its handheld camera and location shooting as it, in its conclusion, makes clear that though change has to come, it will not come quickly. Layla’s younger sister, Tasnim, watches events carefully and has enough about her for us to hope that she will not be trapped like her mother and elder sister. Hitham Omari, as the dad, brilliantly plays a weak man acting as if he is strong: like the women in the film, he’s trapped in his role.

The film did well at the Berlin Film Festival and at Sundance and is now available on Netflix in the UK.

Capernaum (Capharnaüm, Lebanon-France-US 2018)

2018 saw the release of six films of the highest quality which took many of the top prizes around the world at festivals and national awards. Cold War was followed into UK distribution by Shoplifters and then Roma. Burning appeared in early 2019 and now we have Capernaum. Happy as Lazzaro appears next month. What a year 2018 was! And there are others to come which I haven’t seen yet. We might struggle to find such quality across this year’s output.

Capernaum (the title translates as ‘chaos) is one of the most controversial of the six films. While many audiences and critics have raved about the film, there are some who have accused Lebanese writer-director-actor Nadine Labaki and her musician-producer partner Khaled Mouzanar of various kinds of offences. The most widely expressed of these centres on the concept of ‘poverty porn’, something previously visited upon Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire (UK-US-India 2009). I struggle to understand exactly what ‘poverty porn’ might be but first here’s a brief outline of Capernaum and its production.

The power of the film lies in the extraordinary performance by Zain Al Rafeea

Lebanon is a country which has suffered more than most because of its own internal divisions, partly derived from its colonial past, and its proximity to the wholescale disruption of people’s lives in Palestine and Syria and the subsequent migrations of refugees to Lebanon. At the same time, Beirut has maintained its position as a major economic and cultural centre for the entire region. Nadine Labaki has attempted to bring together several social issues as the basis for her story about Zain, a 12 year-old Lebanese boy who leaves his family and for a brief period lives with a migrant worker and her infant child. The story engages with the ‘street culture’ of Beirut, the refugee camps, the difficulty of achieving resident status and the ways in which so many people can easily become ‘invisible’ because of their lack of official recognition. Thus the ‘chaos’ of life in Beirut. Labaki’s strategy is to create a narrative which at one level appears to explore this world using the techniques of neo-realism, but also with some of the more expressionist devices of contemporary cinema such as the drone shots which show the extent of of cheap housing and shacks. The narrative structure uses a series of flashbacks from a central court case in which the young boy sues his parents for bringing him into this world of chaos.

Yordanos Shiferaw as Rahil

Nadine Labaki’s previous films as director are Caramel (2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (2011). The first is a form of realist melodrama centring on the lives of women from different backgrounds who meet at a local beauty shop. The second is an unusual form of musical comedy which explores questions about civil war via the idea of women in an isolated village attempting to defuse hostilities by manipulating the sexual desires of the men. Capernaum is in some way an amalgam of the styles of the first two films, bringing together a realist style with the narrative device of a courtroom in which the trial becomes an indictment of a whole structure of government policies in Beirut. This is something used in a slightly different way in a film like Bamako (Mali-France 2006). Nadine Labaki also starred in her first two films as a director (she also works as an actor in both French and Lebanese cinema) but in Capernaum she plays the role of the Zain’s counsel in court, an important, but secondary role. Although the trial seems an unlikely event, Labaki consulted retired judges to ensure that the scenes have some credibility. Many of the actors in the film are non-professionals, often with ‘real-life’ experience of the kinds of roles they play.

Only a vocal minority of commentators are against this film which scores a very high 8.4 on IMDb. But it is worth looking at the negative reviews to try to understand the issues a little more clearly. The Slumdog Millionaire comparison is interesting because some of the critics refer to Capernaum as ‘Oscar bait’ and accuse it of ‘manipulation’. (The film was distributed in the US by Sony Classics in the US, giving it a higher profile than Labaki’s earlier films.) At the same time there are charges from some critics that the film is ‘without cinematic merit’ while for others its use of hand-held camera and drone shots (and its flashback structure) are cinematic devices which ‘get in the way’ of presenting the real conditions faced by the thousands living in cheap housing or on the streets in Beirut. The charge is that Labaki is a relatively wealthy woman exploiting her non-professional actors in order to make American audiences cry – and presumably to make themselves feel better. One commentator calls Labaki a ‘Western woman’. But not everybody who is educated, talented and speaks French and/or English is ‘Western’. It seems that Nadine Labaki had to help some of her non-professional actors in ‘real life’ because of their precarious positions. ‘Zain’ is played by Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon and ‘Rahil’, the woman he meets and befriends is played by Yordanos Shiferaw, an Eritrean refugee in Ethiopia who became an illegal migrant worker in Lebanon. Both Zain and Yordanos were helped in different ways. The parents of the little girl who plays Rahil’s son were also arrested during the shoot and the crew had to intervene. Even so the mother and child were deported back to Kenya and the father to Nigeria. This information is taken from the film’s Press Pack.

Zain’s lawyer in the court case is played by Nadine Labaki herself

But what about ‘poverty porn’? Describing something as ‘porn’ suggests that it is produced in order to ‘arouse’ audiences/readers, to stimulate an excessive interest in something. In the case of ‘gastro-porn’ or ‘gardening porn’ it’s used as a criticism of middle class readers who revel in the expensive beauty of these objects of consumption. But how does this work with images of poverty? Their status as pornographic images can derive only from the perceived exploitation of the actors or the behaviour of those who watch/read the imagery. However, unlike haute cuisine or beautiful gardens, images of poverty are also concerned with exposing and circulating ways of living/surviving that are often excluded from cinema screens. There is always a case for showing not excluding. The argument must be about how they are shown, but also about the need to show them in such a way to attract audiences who might not otherwise be aware of the issues.

If I think about my own reaction to the film, I don’t think I was ‘shocked’ or that I felt ‘manipulated’ by the film. Many scenes are certainly difficult to watch and I was emotionally engaged but I’ve seen similar films before. Once or twice I was struck by similarities with Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988) and, more oddly, I thought about Battle of Algiers (Algeria-France 1966) – I think it was the prison scenes. I was very impressed by the performances of the non-professionals. Zain in particular is a very distinctive young boy, small for his age but seemingly fearless. The fact that he is a very attractive and appealing child has perhaps fuelled some of the negative reviews. The German-Lebanese cinematographer Christopher Aoun is still in the early stages of his career but I thought his work was very effective. The music by Khaled Mouzanar worked for me and he and Nadine Labaki have produced a film with a universal story that is stunningly presented in the context of Beirut.

I don’t know Nadine Labaki personally and I can’t judge whether she has exploited her non-professional cast. All I can do is watch the film and read what she has said about its production. Her most vocal critics might have some local knowledge about life in Beirut but from my perspective this is a powerful film that deserves its large audience. The claims that it has no ‘cinematic merit’ just seem silly. In the wider context I hope that Capernaum makes audiences more aware of the refugee crisis in Lebanon and exerts pressure for changes in international policies affecting the region. It would be good if attention switched to a little further down the coast and focused on the major causes of the refugee crises in Lebanon over the past 70 years – the forced flight of Palestinians from their homelands and the proxy war that has just been fought in Syria. I’m also looking forward to whatever Nadine Labaki produces next.

Here’s the Canadian trailer: