Desperation & Heartbreak Of An Abused & Neglected Boy
Finding A Voice

Zain is the face of desperation. The poster child for what neglect, abuse, poverty, and heartbreak can do. We watch Nadine Labaki’s film Capernaum – as despair, longing, anguish, the deepest of grief, emotional torture; and finally frustration and rage take over Zain’s otherwise stunning features. But, even more to the point, Zain is the poster boy for all the feelings his parents are incapable of feeling. He carries them all. Sees reality where they can’t. Speaks out for his own heartbreak. And for the heartbreak of every neglected and abused child whose parents have shut down their hearts.

A Desperate Boy All Alone

Nadine Labaki shows us, loudly and clearly, just what such parents can do – in all the disturbing, agonizing, and captivating images of Capernaum. We see Zain, left alone to fend for himself,  unable to become the “respected man” (not to mention loved child) he was hoping to be. Wondering why he was even brought into this world.

Capernaum begins in a courtroom. Zain (Zain al-Rafeea) sues his parents for the crime of giving him life. Yet, is that the real crime? Or is it the crime of giving life to a child they can’t, don’t, and aren’t willing to take care of? Depriving him of the basic requirements a child needs and deserves, to grow: love, an identity, help, and respect.

Zain, at only 12, looks as if he’s 6. He’s malnourished and neglected. And, now he’s in jail for 5 years for a violent crime. A crime that has its links to his parent’s negligence; a crime that is born out of Zain’s rage (“for stabbing a sonofabitch,” in Zain’s words). But ironically, a crime due to his own capacity to love – when his parents cannot.

Why we see Zain in a courtroom – that’s the backstory as well as the theme of Capernaum. Why – is Zain’s grief and his trauma, and the quite understandable motivation for his crime.  Did Zain have a choice? He didn’t. And that’s why he’s suing his parents, who without care or love, robbed him of the sister he loved the most. 

A Voice For Abuse & Loss

Not only did these negligent parents take his sister Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzamaway) from him, but they robbed him of his life. They use him as a slave. They make him work, work, work; take care of his younger siblings; get Tramadol with fake prescriptions, lie for them, put himself in danger, so they can “survive.”

Survival is the name of the game for Zain’s parents, Selim (Fadi Yousef) and Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad), with no capacity for concern about what their means of “survival” does to their kids. An older son, Ibraham is already in jail (now selling shots of Tramadol for his mother, soaked into clothes), also doing the dirty work of his parents.

These children, passive recipients of their parent’s own history of neglect, desperation, hatred, and abuse, have no voice in the matter and no chance. But, then again, we have Zain. And he  – a not only street-wise but smart and observant boy – won’t have it anymore. He wants a life.  He won’t be silent. Especially in the face of a terrible loss.

Zain’s Grief & Heartbreak

Sahar, beautiful and closest in age to Zain (one year younger at 11), is Zain’s love. He knows she’s vulnerable, and he’s the one that teaches her about her period, shows her how to use pads, and to hide them from their parents. If they know, they’ll get rid of her; give her to Assaad (Nour El Husseini), the young man at the grocery.

And, Zain’s right. He’s wise. He knows Assaad isn’t “nice” as the naive Sahar thinks  he is (because he gives her sweets.) He knows Assaad is “a pig.” He knows his parents care only about themselves and what is easiest for them. They have no love for their children. And, we watch Zain’s worried face. As he tries to protect the sister he loves.

But, he can’t. His parents will and do “sell” Sahar to marry Assaad for “chickens and rent.” We watch as their mother forces Sahar onto a motorcycle to go with Assaad, Sahar shrieking, begging them not to send her away. We see Zain screaming and fighting his parents, running after her. 

Zain, panicked, tries to save Sahar. His mother yells: “Let her go.” Zain in deep fear and grief, screams: “Sahar, Sahar, Sahar.” So upset, angry, and frustrated, he kicks the wall, yells at his mother: “You happy now?” His mother yells back: “I’ll show you, you little piece of crap.” This is how Zain is treated every day of his life. Zain runs.

In court, his father Selim justifies his actions; marrying off an 11-year-old: “To get her out of her misery. She’s dead with us, your honor. She hardly eats, drinks, or showers. At least she’ll have a real bed. And food.” We remember the panicked screams of Sahar and Zain. We witness parents who have no heart. 

Parents Who Have No Heart

Does it matter that these parents grew up in abusive and desperate circumstances too? No, not really. Sure, it might help us understand what brought them to this point. But it doesn’t excuse them. Sure, they’ve been treated as “insects.” Yet, they reproduce without thought, use their children, and don’t care enough to give them a better life.

And, not only that. They abuse them. Can’t feel. Have no empathy. They resent their children’s existence – certainly, Zain’s father voices that numerous times during Capernaum. And, instead of understanding Zain’s agony and loss, they hit him and call him names: “Don’t play the big man with me, you little shit.” Over and over.

Zain feels the tears, the sorrow, the love, the longing, his parents cannot feel. He feels deep, deep grief and rage when his beloved Sahar dies. A daughter his mother cannot mourn. She gets pregnant again; saying “God takes something away and gives her a gift.” Replacing Sahar, as if any child can be replaced. Stabbing Zain in his heart.

No wonder Zain runs. If he stays, there is only abuse. Exploitation. Slavery to parents. Yet, he’s on his own now just as he is at home. With no one. No help. No one to care. Forging his way on the streets. Trying to survive. What else is there to do when there is no hope?  This is the plight of a neglected, abused, and lonely boy.

A Lonely & Hurt Boy Finds A Friend

Lost and alone, but away from the parents who’ve betrayed him, his sister, and other numerous children, Zain takes a bus away from where he lives. Following “Cockroach Man (Joseph Jimbazian),” as he gets off the bus, Zain ends up at an Amusement Park. All alone, in the dark, he amuses himself by exposing the breasts of a statue atop a ride.

He also amuses Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), a young Ethiopian woman, desperate too, working in a restaurant nearby. Rahil has a baby son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), who she loves but must hide. She feeds the hungry Zain bread, befriends him, helps him, and he helps her, more than he intended.

Rahil is also at the mercy of a world of poverty and struggle. But, she gives her son the love of a mother that Zain watches and has never seen. He longs to be like Yonas, no question. But, he also has the side benefit of Rahil’s love and care. While she works and feeds both Zain and her baby, Zain watches Yonas.

It’s a hard life and all too familiar.  Here he is again. A little boy himself, needing care, but caring for a baby as he did his younger siblings. Rahil has her own problems. She can’t get a work permit, and Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh) interested only in what he can gain for himself; preys on her desperation. Rahil knows she’s at risk for arrest.

Trying to get the money to pay Aspro (he’s asking way too much) for a fake work permit, she prostitutes herself; goes out at night. Her desperate way to make the money she needs.  She tries because she’s a good mother and loves her baby.

Good Mothers & Unloving Mothers

When Rahil doesn’t come home one night, good mother that she is – Zain can’t understand it. He knows she loves Yonas and he’s confused. What happened? He knows abandonment. But, how could a seemingly good mother abandon her own baby?  After a few days, he dresses Yonas. And takes him on a bus to look for Rahil.

Exposing the statue’s breasts is not the perverse activity it might look like. Zain has had no “good breast,” so to speak. His mother was the polar opposite of Rahil. His mother – hateful, resentful, and calling him names. Zain’s watched Rahil’s love for Yonas. Breastfeeding him. Kissing him and making him coo. It’s what Zain needed too.

Little does Zain know, as hard as he struggles to care for Yonas and himself, that Rahil has been arrested and thrown into jail. We watch the tears running down her face: “Forgive me, my baby. Forgive me.” Little does Zain know that Rahil is not another mother who can easily desert her child.

Zain ran away because of hate and lack of love. Watching Rahil’s love for Yonas, he knows more clearly what he didn’t have. And, it’s quite the feat that Zain, in spite of the neglect, abuse, and hatred of his parents is a kind boy; a caring boy; who knows what love is and is able to give it. We might wonder – how is that possible?

A Neglected Boy Who Still Can Love

Zain knows love from what he’s missed out on. From it being the opposite of abuse. He loves the baby Yonas, as he wished for love himself. Yonas is the little Zain; the baby he wanted to be. But, now Yonas too is without a mother; crying incessantly, tears streaming down his face, as Zain cries inside. As sorrowful as Zain is sorrowful.

Zain goes out, foraging, searching, for food that a one-year-old baby can eat. He knows what it’s like to be motherless. He tries to“mother” Yonas, caring for him in place of a mother he believes abandoned Yonas too.

It’s Zain and Yonas alone in the world. Zain says to Yonas: “Your mother is even worse than mine.” He steals a skateboard from a screaming boy; makes a stroller for Yonas; putting him in a large tub; pots “to sell” hanging off the sides. He tries to be resourceful.  Finally even lying, selling shots of  Tramadol as his mother taught him to.

Zain meets a Syrian girl, off to a better life in Sweden she tells him. “Helped” by a man named Aspro who “organizes the trip.” Zain wants help too. With the number she gives him, he goes to Aspro; a greedy man. Certainly not the man to turn to.

Aspro a man that preys on desperation; only out for himself,  not unlike Zain’s parents. He too thinks nothing of selling children for his own gain. Zain, suspicious of Aspro ’s offer of $500 and professed “concern” for Yonas; at first, turns away.

Those Who Prey On Desperation

So, Zain keeps trying to scavenge, sells Tramadol, does what he can not to abandon Yonas – who he now loves like a brother. But, finally, when he goes back to Rahil’s shack, finds the door locked, and his money gone; he’s too frustrated, angry, exhausted, hungry, dirty, desperate. And he can’t go on.  He goes to Aspro. His only choice.

Aspro lies to Zain and says he talked to Rahil; he has a good family to care for Yonas. He “loves Yonas,” he says. And, he’ll send the desperate Zain to Sweden, Turkey, the moon, wherever Zain wants to go if he’ll let him take Yonas now. Sobbing and in despair, Zain gives in.

He sends Zain to get cleaned up. Gives him only $100, not the $500 he promised. Lies and says not to worry about Yonas (who ends up trapped in a warehouse with others he’s bought and is sending away). He takes Yonas, kisses him, and kisses Zain as well. As if he’s a good man. Zain, kissing Yonas goodbye, looks absolutely devastated.

Has he failed Yonas? That’s what he must be thinking and feeling. He knows what it’s like to be failed. But, he’s just a kid (who’s had to feel all too grown-up). He’s deprived and exhausted, but crying for Yonas and for himself. Aspro tells him he must get his “papers” or ID card, which means he has to return home.

Grief That Leads To Rage & A Desperate Act

Home is not where Zain ever wanted to go again. When he does, he finds he has no “papers;” never did. And, he’s subjected to more hitting and verbal abuse. Tauntingly, his parents ask him which papers he wants.

His father yells: “We’re insects, my friend. We’re parasites. You either accept life without papers or you might as well jump out the window. Get the hell out of here before I kill you. Damn you. Tell whoever sent you here your father never gave you papers. Go back where you came from, you animal.”

 Even crueler, Selim asks Zain which papers he wants to see: “the eviction notice? Or… the papers from the hospital? It could break any man’s heart.”

Zain becoming desperate, cries over and over: “Who went to the hospital?” He knows it’s bad news. The bad news about Sahar. And, it is: “What did that motherfucker do to her?” “It’s over,” his mother says. “Sahar is gone.” Sahar died of a hemorrhage at the hospital door. The hospital refused to admit her. Because she had no papers.

Zain runs out of the house with a butcher knife: “I’ll show you who’ll be gone.” In grief and rage, he stabs Aassad and ends up in juvenile jail.

Zain Will Be More Than “An Insect”

In jail for a crime of desperation and grief, the heartbroken and angry Zain hears a TV program about child abuse. He, like all abused kids, are at risk of being forgotten, left to fend for themselves, and robbed of a voice. Zain, like the film Capernaum itself, will speak out. He calls into the show.

The TV announcer offers him a voice on air: “What do you want to say?” “I want all grown-ups to hear … I’m sick of those who can’t take care of their kids.” Zain gets an attorney. He’ll be heard. He has his day in court. He’ll be more than an insect. Speak for his sister who didn’t have a chance. Be the voice of all abused children.

He tells the Judge he’s suing his parents for being born and asks the Judge to stop them from having any more babies. The Judge recognizes the crime of giving an 11-year-old up for marriage. And, in the end, some hopeful things do happen.

The trafficking ring that Aspro is a part of is busted wide open. Thousands of prisoners discovered, trapped in a warehouse. Rahil sees Zain in jail, panicking about Yonas’ whereabouts. He is one of those imprisoned in the warehouse. And, Yonas and Rahil are happily united. Sometimes there is help for the downtrodden and abused.

Zain, who found his voice, gets an ID card at the end of Capernaum. Yes, he’s more than just “an insect,” unloved, stepped on, and forgotten. But, where will he go from here? Can he be “the good man, respected, I was hoping to be?” With Zain’s ability to love, his determination and smarts, we can only imagine. And, we can hope.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.


  1. Holly Prado Northup on April 8, 2019 at 6:23 pm

    Dear Sandra, I haven’t seen this film because as Harry described it to me, it’s too heartbreaking to bear! Thank you for describing it — and understanding the child’s feelings — so clearly. The redeeming factor is the ending, of course, when Zain gets an ID card. But, you’re right, what will happen now? How can he grow up in an environment as cruel as the one he’s already experienced? I hope there’s a sequel to this movie that follows Zain’s life and progress.

    • Dr. Sandra E. Cohen on April 8, 2019 at 7:14 pm

      Thanks so much for commenting, Holly. I so agree about Zain. His life couldn’t have been crueler. But, I think there is also hope in his resilience, determination, unusual wisdom and intelligence, and in his refusal to be the victim of abuse. I hope there’s a sequel too! In spite of the heartbreak, the film was beautifully done.

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