Syrian refugee boy is stand-out star of Cannes film festival

CANNES: A 13-year-old Syrian refugee boy became the star of the Cannes film festival on Friday for his breathtaking performance in a Lebanese film many see as the likely winner of the Palme d’Or top prize. Zain al Rafeea, who has been working as a delivery boy in Beirut until recently — and who has only just learned to write his name — turns in a performance in “Capernaum” that critics said would melt the hardest of hearts.
“I and the total stranger sitting next to me were sniffling and sharing a packet of tissues” by the end, said the Hollywood Reporter’s Leslie Felperin.
And young Zain — who is small for his age — endeared himself still further by falling asleep at the press conference on Friday afternoon, having stayed up late for the gala premiere the night before.
He said he now wants to be an actor and had been “spoiled” by the crew on the shoot. Director Nadine Labaki took six months to make the odyssey through lives of the poorest of the poor in the slums of the Lebanese capital using amateur actors.
Zain plays a boy of the same name who runs away from home after his desperate mother and father sell his 11-year-old sister into marriage for a few chickens.
Zain then takes his parents to court for having brought him into the world.
Labaki discovered the girl who plays his sister, Cedra Izam, selling chewing gum in the streets.
But it was Zain’s on-screen rapport with an unbearably cute baby Boluwatife Treasure Bankole — whose real-life Kenyan and Nigerian parents were rounded up during the shoot —that created the most cinematic magic.
In an astonishing sequence at the heart of the film, the boy is left to look after the breast-fed baby in a shanty town after its mother is picked up and imprisoned by the police.
In real life, the casting director stepped in to look after the infant in the absence of its parents.
“Capernaum” turns on the characters’ lack of papers, with Zain’s parents too poor to have registered his birth.
“Cinema is one of the most powerful weapons we have to draw attention to problems, it is one of our responsibilities as artists,” actor-director Labaki said. — AFP