First Hit: This is an incredibly powerful film about the state of children and their survival in Beirut.
The tale told in this film holds up a mirror to share the reflection of what happens when ill-informed beliefs, the devastation of war, and the lack of order (chaos) creates a society not equipped to deal children born into it.
Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is twelve years old, but nobody knows because his parents, Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad – as the mother) and Selim (Fadi Yousef – as the father), failed to document and register Zain’s birth with the government, so he has no ID and is unknown to the government. Souad and Selim follow tradition and have lots of children, and as the oldest, Zain takes care of himself, brings home what money and food he can steal or hustle and is protective of his 11-year-old younger sister Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam).
He’s in court facing a judge while serving a 5-year jail sentence for stabbing a “son of a bitch.” Zain is now suing his parents. The judge asks, “Why are you attacking your parents in court?” He responds with “For giving me life.”
Hearing this from a twelve-year-old boy was heartbreaking. And from this opening moment, we delve back into how Zain ended up stabling someone and in court suing his parents for giving him life. Not only is he mistreated, the family lives in abject squalor.
We follow Zain as he tries to protect his sister Sahar when their parents attempt to sell/trade her to Assaad (Nour El Husseini), the family’s landlord for chickens. When Sahar has her period for the first time, Zain, helps her wash her pants, and folds up his own shirt to catch and absorb her menstruation. Zain doesn’t want his parents to know because then she’ll “be ripe” for sale.
Finally fed up Zain leaves his home and journeys out only to find Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) who is barely 17, has a baby named Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) and is illegally in Lebanon from Ethiopia. Being the incredibly responsible person he is, because she provides a place to sleep and food, he takes care of Yonas. When she gets caught by immigration and doesn’t return, what Zain does is beyond remarkable. His ability to survive, protect, and take care of this baby is impressive.
However, equally as powerful, is the way this film is shot. Extraordinary. The actors are not professional actors by trade. As in another of this year’s nominees, the film Roma, the roles are filled with everyday people. Screenwriter and Director Nadine Labaki elicited sublime performances from everyone, even the baby. Her camera angles were not looking down on the children but making their view of the world the primary focus. The sound, especially at the beginning, has a deep rumble as if bombs are still exploding in the far distant background. This noise added an edge to the film that haunted me. Lastly, the camera work, including the movement, was excellent.
Rafeea as the boy Zain was beyond amazing. The look in his eyes, the sad face, and his evident intensity to do what it takes to survive were ever present. Shiferaw as the Ethiopian mother of Yonas was divine. I loved how she was able to navigate and figure out how to survive while continually being aware she needed to get papers to stay in the country. Bankole, the baby - Yonas, was perfect. Haddad and Yousef as Zain’s mom and dad respectively, were powerful components of this film’s intensity. Izzam was sweet as the sister. Labaki wrote an extraordinary screenplay that highlighted the plight of children in this war-torn city. Her ability to envision and capture the deep mistrust children have of the world around them, and their ability to continue fighting was terrific.
Overall: If this film were up for the Best Picture award, it would be a great choice.