By Mónica Delgado
Nadine Labaki’s Capharnaüm and Sergei Dvortesevoy’s Aika, both in the Official Competition in Cannes, are Siamese films, both recurring to miserabilism and misery-porn, linked with contempt to their characters, something essential for their vision of drama. There’s no commotion or empathy for the spectator outside of cruelty or misery as an elements of melodrama for these directors: they will make you cry portraying beaten children, babies sold to mafias, or young girls raped and pregnant. The misery is seen as the only way to touch and achieve a response from the spectator which other mechanisms could never achieve.
Libanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki’s Capharnaüm, places all the evils of the world in a marginalized neighborhood of Lebanon, where young girls are sold to procurers disguised as wives, where four year old kids are sellers of juice and where malnutrition makes look an infant like a twelve-year old. Zaín (played by a Syrian refugee) denounces his parents in a judicial court. The charges: bringing him into a world of misery. With this start, and using flashbacks as an element, Labaki accumulates different situations that put Zaín through all human corruption: he’s humiliated and beaten by his parents, condemned to work in the street, smokes and by medicines with forged prescriptions to sell them as drugs, flees from home and looks for work in the peripheries of Beirut, where he is still exploited. The peak of his bad luck appears when he meets an Ethiopian woman who entrusts him with a baby, to then disappear. All these misfortunes only describe a part of the vexations and emotional tortures that little Zaín suffers in the film, narrated with a style without personality, where Labaki’s eye seems eager to capture the most infamous moments.
The intention of Capharnaüm is the social warning, to condemn the proliferation of migrants and refugees which live in miserable conditions, capable to sell and kill their own children. “I don’t want my mother to bring more children to the world” yells Zaín to the judge, a phrase that turns in the moral summa of the film: reproduction changes the face of Lebanon, and Europe, and that is to blame. The growth of a cursed lineage.
In the other side, Aika, from Kazakhstan’s filmmaker Sergei Dvortsevoy, poses a similar lecture. A Euro-Asian woman, poor and alone, abandons her newborn child in the hospital to continue working peeling chickens in a clandestine way, to then suffer the calvary of a vaginal infection, mastitis and other consequences of an unwanted pregnancy. Here, the guilt of being a migrant, illegal and alone in a hostile world takes on another dimension. Dvortsevoy, in the same fashion as Labaki, places the despise of Russian people in Moscow in its lead character’s shoulders. A city of cold winter, allied with indifference, lack of work and miserable life in a ghetto of illegal refugees. All the evils in the world again seem to confabulate to attack this poor woman that even looks selfish in her desperation to get money in any way possible, to pay a debt. Here, the miserabilism is not in slums but the frozen streets of a Moscow preparing for the World Cup.
In a manifesto, Carlos Mayolo and Luis Ospina pointed out, that in Colombian cinema, misery “was being presented as another spectacle, where the spectators could wash their bad conscience, be touched and calm themselves”, in a place where the human being becomes an object. And, almost forty years later from that claim, these phrases take a scary validity in the other side of the continent, not only because Cannes has become the first consumer of misery as a spectacle, but also because it has become the main player of a philosophy of validating films sustained in the exposition of vibrant social topics: war, massacres, refugees. When more cruelty, misery, illegal immigrants, beaten children, babies eating in the ground are shown, the film is more important because its topic is current, urgent and necessary. And making these kind of films visible in the program reflects this need to ease consciences, especially among red carpets and glamour.