A friend of mine who I took on a service learning trip last summer for my foundation, Worldwide Orphans, texted me a while ago and told me that I had to see a film called Capernaum. He didn’t give me any details other than that he was moved deeply and that he felt that I must see it as soon as possible because it had so much to do with my work with orphans and vulnerable children and he wanted to bring the film to the attention of the world!

I quickly found the film playing in New York City at a couple of theaters with limited show times. My calendar has been packed with work and travel including a recent trip to Haiti with service learners including the man who recommended the film. WWO has been working in Haiti since the earthquake of January 2010 and I have often thought that Haiti was our most challenging country over the last 22 years since our founding in 1997.

My earliest trips abroad to orphanages were in Romania and Russia and still remain, for me, the bleakest and most disturbing. Visiting orphanages in Haiti when I first started going to Haiti following the earthquake harkened back to my early observations of institutions in Eastern Europe – filled with orphans who were living like animals in cribs that were in fact cages and the kids were starving and had no stimulation and human connection. It is so hard for me to go back to those images, but Capernaum hurled me right back to those early years.

Capernaum was a brutal emotional experience for me. I was exhausted after the film. It is a little over 2 hours long, but there is little time to wander or drift. The film felt authentic and punishing like a documentary, but the fictionalized story line about an abused 12-year-old boy, Zain, and his extremely poor family in Beirut, is filled with powerfully tender and sympathetic performances accompanied by cruelty and barbarity. It is a feature film for sure.

I had not read the Times review and interview with the screenwriter and director, Nadine Labaki, so that I could have my own pure impressions while watching the film. I have since read the article and this has helped me to understand the film on a different level. I will not reveal any postscripts that might spoil the viewing of this brilliant film. It serves its purpose for sure. It is hard to imagine that children could live under such circumstances anywhere in the world. It is unjust and obscene and it must be stopped! Everyone must see this film and rise up to protest and end violence against children. This film should definitely help the cause of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16.2, which is leading the charge to end violence against children by 2030.

My work with children in my capacity as a camp counselor, teacher, coach, pediatrician, and global health specialist for decades has trained me to understand child abuse….and I am the parent of two young men who were adopted from Vietnam and Ethiopia who started their lives as orphans. I understand abandonment and its long term effects on young children.

 I have evaluated American kids abused by their parents and been intimately involved with legal cases during my years as a medical student, hospital doctor, and office practice pediatrician where children were neglected, beaten physically, and sexually abused.  I have worked in the emergency rooms of many hospitals where children were brought into the ER beaten to death by a family member/parent. 

Capernaum (named after an ancient city in Israel) has come to mean “chaos” and is a graphically accurate view of all that I have professionally experienced around child abuse. The dramatization of Zain’s abuse and his sister’s abuse elegantly brings a well-kept secret into the open…. about how children living in poverty in countries all over the world are in jeopardy of facing atrocities that are unimaginable. The film does an excellent job of following Zain who decides to escape from his family and ends up living in the streets of Beirut, caring for a baby boy born to a woman trafficked from Ethiopia. Rampant trafficking of children and adults in this film is hard to conceptualize. The collusion and corruption of the Lebanese government was depicted and is an accurate depiction of governmental participation in child abuse all over the world in most countries.

Zain’s triumphant spirit at the end of the film is exquisitely and emphatically shocking and yet, believable. He sues his parents in court for their abuse of himself and his sister, Zahar. I was cheering for Zain and admired his courage. The use of the media is clever and plausible. The court scenes are effective and riveting.

I was drained and was physically shaken by the film. I cried with joy when Zain was in the court testifying against his parents. I sat with my arms hugging myself at the end of the film likely because the film brought back too many memories from my personal and professional life. I was glad to have seen it and eager for others to see it as well. It made me want to work harder to protect children. We must end violence against children now!

Please read the New York Times review and interview with Director, Nadine Labaki, so that you can find out more about her journey to make this film and the final story about Zain and his real life family.  I don’t think that reading the review before you see the film will ruin the experience.

-Dr. Jane, April 4, 2019

PS. Thanks to Joel Lubin for supporting WWO and discovering Capernaum so that others can help us end the outrageous treatment of children around the world.

Jane Aronson