‘Carpharnaum’ by Nadine Labaki, movie review

As part of the Sydney Lebanese Film Festival, this week I watched Nadine Labaki’s newest film, Carpharnaum. The movie tackles many subjects including child neglect, child brides and Lebanon’s ongoing shame of slavery in the disguise of “maids”.

Zain is a child, it is not even clear how old he is, because he has never been registered as a citizen, but his parents think he is about 12. He doesn’t go to school because he is working for the landlord which is housing his family in a slum. His sister is married off as a child to the much older landlord and he runs away and meets Rahil, an Ethiopian worker who has no legal status in Lebanon.

The movie in many ways is predictable. The situation of Ethiopian and other foreign women being used in many Lebanese households as maids has been the subject of criticism from many human rights organisations. These women have very little rights and can only hope they will have good ‘masters’. When they are badly treated, there is very little recourse and they are pressed between the poverty they have come from and the poverty they have come to.

Set against this is Lebanon’s own poverty. A cycle of poverty perhaps stretching back generations and with parents who don’t have enough money to clothe, feed and house their children. Children who will grow up to be in no better circumstance than that of their parents.

This is not a problem peculiar to Lebanon, even in the most developed nations in the world, child neglect exists.

The film tells stories from many sides and it is clear it wants to leave the viewer to their own judgements. At times, one can’t help but feel that it is also making its own judgements. The shortcomings of government and the privileged in the solution seems to be silent. Rahil, who is also raising a young child evokes a sense of compassion from the viewer because as a mother she is doing everything she can to raise her child. Zain’s mother is portrayed as harsh and uncaring, but we get the message that she is a victim of her circumstances herself. There emerges a moral judgment regarding those who can’t look after their children. Modern society looks with scorn at those who may feel that no matter the circumstances, bringing a child into the world is a gift from God. Of course, it may seem insane, selfish and naive to believe those words that many of us heard from our grandparents that ‘each child is a blessing from God’ and ‘with them come their own treasure’. It would be easier to think the solution to child neglect is to sterilise parents in poverty so that they don’t bring any more children into the world.

We should all hope more for humanity than that. God has not made the gift of children only for the rich. He did not make us so that we can live for ourselves alone. We have a collective responsibility as the people of God to support all parents to raise children. We should all be advocating that each child, even if they are not our own, has the right to adequate housing, food, healthcare and education. The children and parents of poverty should not be exempt from that.

I despair that some in the audience would be left with the impression that they are not part of the solution. One could easily distance themselves rather than look inside themselves about what we need to do as a society to solve this issue. Certainly, that seemed the conclusion of the privileged judge presiding at the trial – parents like this should not bring these children into society. The call that these parents should not have more children, makes the solution lay squarely on them and allows us to wipe our hands of any responsibility. It is not a solution at all.

I can see why this movie received a 15-minute standing ovation at Cannes. It really is a must see and in all that despair we can only hope that hearts and minds will be opened to see that these people are our neighbours and we are all part of the solution.

In Christ
Theresa Simon