Cinema Verite

“Did you steal him, or are you using him to beg?” Who is “you” and who is “him” you should want to know. Also, who is asking the question? In a moment…

“Why are you so much lighter skinned than your brother?” The questioned individual replies, “His mother drank lots of coffee when she was pregnant” It’s the same “you” as in the above, and the little brother in question is the same “him” as above. But the question, however, is not asked by the same person up there in the first sentence of this entry.

The first questioner is a very young girl–possibly about the same age as the young boy she is inquiring about. The young boy, scrawny, maybe 12 years old, is seemingly unfazed by what is being asked. The young girl is only a momentary presence within the young boy’s life but she is asking a question that is not all that outrageous, and the young boy knows it. Why? In a moment…

The “Why are you so much lighter skinned…?” is asked by an adult, someone who is a very fleeting presence for the boy who is simply trying to survive–along with his “little brother,” who is not much more than a year old.

The boy has run away from his parents. Why? He has many reasons for such a drastic decision, but the tipping point was when his parents sold off his younger sister, only 11 years old, for marriage. So, by the time he is asked about stealing the semi-toddler, possibly to use him to beg for money or food, he has already been living on street smarts, gumption and guile, and takes no offense from the question. And why should he?, as the young girl is something of a street urchin too, working at surviving, but apparently on her own.

How did this young boy become what would seem to be the guardian of his real little–one year-old?–“brother”? The tike’s mother has been taken by authorities for being an undocumented person from Ethiopia, herself struggling to survive and care for her child. She has taken in the runaway, whom she meets as he is asking for any job at a seedy amusement park–in Beirut, Lebanon. She has been hiding her child, and when she’s suddenly taken while away from the the boy and the child, the boy takes it upon himself to look after his “brother”.

Preposterous, you assume? Well, not so fast. The young girl mentioned above is Syrian. In Beirut. Is it that hard to image an Ethiopian mother can end up working in another country, without “papers”? With a one year-old son. Is it absurd to think a young boy, a runaway who enters into a flimsy “quid pro quo” with her so they all might have a better life could, not knowing what has happened to the mother, and having been alive long enough in a rough and tumble, gritty and seemingly callous, cruel world, want to take charge of Little Brother, not trusting the adults that made this world he sees before his eyes?

This narrative is by way of the movie Capernaun. Film critics have likened it to everything from Dicken’s “haves and have nots” stories, to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thief, to a fairly recent film entitled The Florida Project. Rightfully so. In any of the those three comparisons is a distinct narrative thread of children, very young children, having been brought into a world that all too soon bears down upon them, at best teaching skin-toughening, harsh lessons on the vagaries of life, and at worst killing them.

Art imitating life? Well, I doubt that Dickens, De Sica or Sean Baker (Florida Project) created their stories from pure imagination. Lebanon. Syria. Ethiopia. That’s three places where maybe life isn’t all candy colored and easy to survive, especially if not of the manner born. What about Yemen right now? Take a close look at that waking nightmare. Then imagine being a child witnessing it first hand. Or…

Somalia. Nigeria. Central African Republic. Venezuela. Afghanistan. South Sudan. Democratic Republic of Congo. Those are the currently ranked worst human catastrophies. Capernaun isn’t a documentary about the rubble and ruin that surrounds the lives of its characters in Lebanon, but it is based on the reality that informs it. Most of the performers are non-professional, people whom the filmmakers took from the real mean streets and gave them a means of telling their story. It looks and feels like a documentary, no doubt.

The intense focus on such young children being caught up in real world chaos, (Chaos is one definition of movie’s title) begs the question: why so much suffering? Hard to imagine the children of the world are the cause. Certainly, some kids do really bad things, but then we get to nurture and nature cause/effects. Hey, there’s 7.3 billion of us humans on Earth now, so sure maybe there is an inevitable bad seed here and there. But that wouldn’t play out if the parents were in charge, capable and caring enough to reign-in the feral child that might lurk within all of us, possibly part of of our collective DNA. If unchecked, those bad seeds grow to be bad and big. Some of them become dictators. Autocrats. Presidents! Who the fuck is in charge in all those African countries? Or Yemem. Or Afghanistan. Or…

…right in your neighborhood. Around my slice of the world in Chicagoland, just a few hours ago, a 5 year-old boy’s body was found after several days of searching. I didn’t voice my opinion to anyone, but I’ve been around long enough to know how the narrative of this missing boy would almost certainly play out and it now officially has: the parents have been charged with his murder.

That’s worse than what happens to our young boy in Capernaun (though I’m not going to reveal exactly the outcome should you not have seen this great bit of filmmaking). What did the missing boy who was found dead today do to deserve that fate? What did the parents of his parents possibly do to turn them into child murderers? And so on and so on.

This is one sicko world when seen from a good distance, let alone from up close and all too personal. Why is this so? How do so many rotten assholes get to be in charge? Of anything?! Where there is poverty and desperation somewhere, no doubt radiating out from a modest distance from that same somewhere, houses those who are wealthy and quite secure.

Power corrupts. Absolutely. Know the history of the world. As far back as you can read about humans being in the picture, born innocent, but not always staying that way, eh? Or just keep up with the reports from the front lines in those impoverished, war torn countries. Good people risk their lives to document the carnage, the cruelty, the dispassionate means of someone controlling and conquering as much as possible, as though they alone are entitled to what simple comforts and security life may offer one and all. It’s the 21st century and Maslow’s Pyramid is likely quite crowded with people on the ground floor of that theory of human motivation. But like all pyramids, there is only the tiniest of fractions of space available at the top compared to its bottom. According to Maslow, we are all capable of reaching its pinnacle, labeled self actualization. That doesn’t seem to be playing out so well though, ya think? Well one person’s self actualization may be another person’s ground floor, as in just managing to live from day do day, getting “food, water, warmth, rest”. Hey, don’t take Maslow seriously. It’s a pyramid! If he really thought we all could, through grit and determination, psychologically driven, reach the top, he’d have made it a flat, very very wide and not too tall metaphorical structure.

Back to that little girl from sentence one up there. She tells her similarly struggling, grubby looking fellow pre-teen bottom-feeder that going to Sweden would be the best place of all. Why?

“Kids there, they die only from natural causes”, she assserts. Crazy, eh? Well, maybe. As some philosopher once said “We are poor indeed if we are only sane”.

About jharrin4

mass communication/speech instructor at College of DuPage and Triton College in suburban Chicago. Army veteran of the Viet Nam era.
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1 Response to Cinema Verite

  1. Stories of children bereft of childhood due to abandonment or other tragic circumstances are so heartbreaking that they tend to be tuned out — your blog post centered on the film Capernaun is a much needed corrective of that tendency. This is a must read!


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