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ALEXA XT and ALEXA Mini behind award-winning, Oscar hopeful Lebanese film “Capernaum”

Since it’s Jury Prize win at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2018, “Capernaum” has been impressing critics and audiences alike. Recently it has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy Awards and BAFTA.

Following a 15-minute standing ovation after its premiere in Cannes, “Capernaum” has been getting noticed. The Lebanese drama, written and directed by Nadine Labaki and shot by Christopher Aoun BVK, was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it ended up winning the Jury Prize. Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes early 2019, “Capernaum” has also made the nomination list for the Oscars this February. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) also just released their list of nominees for 2019 and “Capernaum” is in the running for Best Foreign Film.

This shortlist of accolades should come as no surprise; the film combines a compelling narrative with tremendous performances and visually stunning imagery. It examines the harsh realities of poverty through the eyes of a child. A brutal tale, with timely relevance, humor, and warmth. Even though the film is set in the poorest slums of Beirut, it’s title “Capernaum” (or “Capharnaüm”) comes from an ancient city where Jesus is said to have performed various miracles. Today, however, the word is used colloquially, albeit very rarely, to describe something terribly disorderly.

ARRI was able to speak with up-and-coming cinematographer Aoun about his experiences on the film and the ARRI camera equipment he chose to use. “We shot over 6 months—90 days of shooting—with a 50-person crew and non-professional performers,” Aoun recalled. “We filmed mainly in Beirut and its suburbs and the film was almost completely shot handheld, except for the court scenes, the opening scenes, the drone shots and few Steadicam shots.” 

It was clear from our conversation that Aoun and Labaki worked quite closely not only during the shooting on the picture but also in its development stages. “While preparing the film, both the director and I had the feeling that most fiction films feel very ‘limited,’ in the sense that we felt the borders outside of the frame, the mise en scene, the acting, lighting.... We wanted to get away from that and place our film inside a real, authentic world in which our heroes live while the story develops. We knew we needed to get away from classical film set structures in order to make this film possible, we had to find a way of integrating our characters in our world and let them evolve as authentically and close to the script as possible ” mentioned Aoun.

The team went to great lengths to find actors who could portray the reality of this world as honestly as possible. Mostly non-professional actors were chosen who were found working and living on the streets. Child actor Zain Al Rafeea, who plays Zain in the film, is a Syrian refugee and once worked as a delivery boy in the streets of Beirut. Call it a blessing or a challenge, the production team’s choice of actors impacted the way they shot. Aoun mentioned: “We were working with kids who had never acted before—who had also never been in a movie theatre. Therefore, I decided to always light big spaces so I could move freely once the camera rolls, almost as if I were shooting a documentary. I didn't want the light to be an obstacle or a reason to stop shooting. I didn't want to feel like we were on a set, I wanted to give those kids all the space they needed. Nadine wanted to be able to dive into their emotions and film them in their natural environment, not on a film set.”

In describing the film’s narrative, Aoun explained, “‘Capernaum’ tells the story of Zain, a 12 year-old boy who is suing his parents for giving him life and bringing him into this world.” The film opens with a court sequence, where Zain is on trial for attacking a man on the street. Once he accuses his parents of extreme negligence, the script quickly flashes back to a sequence of events that lead our main character to his current predicament. Born into an unloving, abusive home, Zain decides to run away from home once his older sister and sole confidant is sold into childhood marriage. Soon he ends up befriending an illegal Ethiopian refugee and her toddler who he agrees to look after while the mother is at work. Aoun recalled, “First thing we decided to go for was to shoot the film chronologically and have the court scenes come at the end. This way, the performers had the chance to live long enough in their roles to be able to improvise and talk for their characters as if they were them.”

Filming in extreme climates can also prove to be challenging for crew and equipment. Aoun recalls: “We started shooting in August, which was very hot and humid and finished shooting in February. Throughout the 6 months of shooting, we encountered some really harsh situations but learned to adapt and use those mishappenings and to even integrate them into our film. For example, we arrived on set one day in the early morning to find that it has been flooded, so we used the flooding and the actors played the scene while trying to get the water out of their apartment and dry everything. It turned out to be a great scene.” Artistic ambitions can also prove  difficult to achieve. The camerawork in “Capernaum” involved a good deal of handheld shots. “Part of the concept was to show Zain as an adult, as a giant sometimes, but then show those kids again from our adult perspective, small and fragile. So most of the time, Marco Mueller (B-cam) and I had to observe, walk, and run with the camera almost touching the floor,” remembered Aoun. These sequences where the camera hovers around Zain’s height, allowed for a sense of individual reality without the reliance on POV shots.

When asked about the biggest challenges Aoun faced on set, he mentioned: “Nadine (Labaki) and I wanted to shoot in the spaces we found the most inspiring and just follow our gut feeling. I wanted to go for little, tiny spaces and be creative in how to move and light inside of those spaces, so in the end, we really went for locations that were really small; spaces you normally wouldn't even consider.” Lighting these areas put the team to the test. Aoun remembered, in order to be able to work with these tight spaces, “we came up with the idea, together with gaffer Frida Marzouk, to create what we called ‘trees of light,’ which were C-stands with extensions K-flectors / CRLS systems on them. We would hide them in tiny spots but have 5-10 mirrors on each tree. For me, the biggest challenge was creating those spaces. Because we didn't want to rehearse beforehand, we really had to think of lighting each and every little space, corner, wall … we never knew how our kids would interact and improvise ... and I have never seen kids with so much imagination and confidence.”

As far as the equipment used to shoot “Capernaum,” Aoun chose to work with ALEXA XT and ALAXA Mini. “I have been working with ALEXA cameras since 2012. I enjoy working with the ALEXA a lot,” commented Aoun. Looking back at his work on “Capernaum” and the equipment, Aoun declared: “I've had many bad experiences with other cameras letting me down or freezing while shooting documentaries mostly. In my case, shooting ‘Capernaum’ with a different camera and taking it through all the conditions we had, would not have been possible.” 

To learn more about Christopher Aoun’s work, see: https://www.christopheraoun.com

Photos: Fares Sokhn (1, 5, 6), Christopher Aoun (2), Marco Mueller (3, 4, 7)