Set in Beirut, Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum is a heart-wrenching tale about a young child who sues his parents for bringing him into such a cruel world.
Cinematographer Christopher Aoun joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about his work on Capernaum ahead of the film’s UK release (22 February).
Q: I believe you were born in Beirut at a time of instability and war. How did these early years shape you as a filmmaker and inform the type of films you want to make?
A: What I miss most about Beirut is the high level of emotionality that life has always had over there. Many aspects of life feel more intense and magical over there than in Germany – where I am now living.
The war was over when I was little and I grew up at a time when Beirut was being rebuilt. The older generations wanted to forget the war memories, so there was a gap in our history books. The years between 1970 and 1990 didn’t exist in any book, and talking about that time was taboo.
There was still big economic-political instability which – this might sound weird – created a very beautiful energy between people. There is some kind of will and power that everyone had – and still has – to change things, some kind of will to shout out loud.
My father used to work in Russia, France and the United States as a photographer. He would come back with film rolls that we would develop together at home and discover a world so much different to the walls we were in. This image is somehow what’s driving me today, fleeing a reality or being with people to make them see and feel something different.
Q: How did your move to Munich and time studying in Germany effect your style and approach to work?
A: I landed in the core of Bavaria, a place where everyone has a good job and where everything is planned way in advance. I wasn’t at all like that – I love surprises. I learned a lot about structure, organisation and took so much of the culture that I feel like I have two personalities and cultural backgrounds in me. I love this combination – ‘structured chaos’ might be a good term.
I plan a film thoroughly, but the best moment is destroying almost everything I’ve been preparing when I am on set. To me, this destruction is the best part, it brings a new energy and inspiration that takes my work to a different level.
Q: You returned to Beirut to work on ‘Capernaum’. What does it mean to you to return there and make films?
A: I started going back to Beirut four years ago because I felt there was something missing in my work in Germany. I had an urge to rediscover my home country with fresh eyes. I loved what I found there – chaos. But this time I could see a beauty in it, as well as infinite stories and ideas that I hadn’t found in Germany.
With new colours and new light combinations, Beirut felt like a wild creature with a warm heart. Every time I go back the city has changed again.
Q: What interested you about this story?
A: That is a good question. The moment I had finished reading the script, I was with my husband – who later became the editor of Capernaum – in Stockholm for a film festival. I turned to him crying having read the last page and told him that if there was a script I would have dreamed to shoot someday in my career, it would have been this one.
I just fell in love with the characters. I could feel them already.
Q: Can you tell us about your collaboration with Nadine Labaki and the visual style you wanted to create in ‘Capernaum’?
A: We hadn’t worked together before, but we both felt like we had known each other for a long time. We have kind of a similar way of thinking and we quickly reached a point where we didn’t need to talk anymore to know what the other one was wanting or thinking or feeling.
We wanted to create a film that goes beyond fiction, a film that is true to its characters and has a very emotional camera work, fragile like its main character.
We had a lot of references that we liked and talked about, but we decided not to got that path. We wanted to find our own language based on the actors, so we casted them and then started imaging their worlds, their colours. We found the characters that were even better than our imagination, they were so inspiring and touching. All I wanted was to give those people value and to show their beauty.
Q: I believe you worked with many non-professional actors on the film. Does that effect your approach, especially if the actors are not as ‘camera aware’ as more experienced actors?
A: Totally. We didn’t want them to feel like they were on a set or had to follow marks. We wanted them to be in their world, to direct us. To do that, we decided to light areas where they could move freely without any restriction.
I decided to work with gaffer Frida Marzouk, who had worked before on films that were kind of similar with their naturalistic approach, such as Blue Is The Warmest Colour and Una Noche. We decided to never light from the inside, but still not to compromise with the quality of lighting, so we ordered sets of K-flectors from Austria that helped us light meticulously and get anywhere we wanted without having fixtures or cables.
We would have big fixtures outside the defined spaces that would hit the reflectors that were hidden, that would again hit other reflectors and so on. Using that technique, I managed to get a total freedom while shooting, and the actors could move anywhere they wanted.
The second most important thing was time. We needed a lot of time and we had to observe a lot. To give our actors time to forget they were on a set and to feel that having a camera in front of you is nothing special. Working with the baby was an especially patient game. Together with my crew, who did a great job, the camera was there all of the time with the actors, living with them and being a part of them.
Q: What do you love about being a cinematographer?
A: I love the openness of people, their willingness to share stories and to let people into their lives in such an intimate way. My will is to share experiences and stories. It feels like flying through time and space, and having many lives. I learn a lot about humans in this job – and I love that too.
Q: Do you see yourself directing in the future?
A: I would love to direct one film in my life. I have an idea that has been haunting me for the last few years, but it needs time. That is the only time I’d like to direct because I love being a cinematographer.
Q: Are there any upcoming projects you can tell us about? What is in your future?
A: I just started shooting a new film with director Anne Zohra Berrached, which takes place between the years 1996 and 2002 in the different cities of Germany, Miami and Beirut. It is a love story between a Turkish-German woman and a terrorist. The camera follows her through that relationship.