It was called “the war to end all wars.” In “They Shall Not Grow Old,” director Peter Jackson lays out how soldiers experienced World War I, and this documentary plays at the M.V. Film Center this weekend. And starting this weekend, “Capernaum” is a powerful, Oscar-nominated fiction film narrating the story of a 12-year-old Lebanese boy.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” was not available for previewing, and the following commentary is based on research about the film. In it, Jackson, the New Zealand–born Oscar winner best known for his Hobbit films, has combined multiple innovative techniques to depict 1914–18 WWI. He restored 100 hours of black-and-white footage of British veterans that was filmed on location. The early 13-per-second format has been transferred to a slower, modern 24-per seconds, and Jackson added dramatic sound effects including combat, cannons, and mine explosions. Forensic lip readers deciphered what some of the soldiers were saying, while other commentary comes from audio interviews. Commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, Jackson used materials from its archives as well as from the BBC. He grew up listening to his father’s stories about his British grandfather’s memories of fighting in the war. Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem, “For the Fallen,” provides the language for film’s title.
After an introduction featuring Jackson, “They Shall Not Grow Old” begins with newly minted soldiers preparing for invasion of the Western Front in Belgium. Some enlisted as young as 15. The black-and-white footage shifts into a burst of color as the soldiers, anonymous because there are so many of them, fight in the trenches. In time they talk about their less-than-welcoming return at the end of the war. There are moments of laughter, tales of brothel visits as well as of disease, starvation, and responses of enjoyment or desensitization. Unlike traditional narratives, the film does not offer dates or locations, relying instead on the words of the soldiers themselves. It will be a film that should inspire viewers to fill in those gaps by reading about this horrific war.
A film nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards, “Capernum” is set in the slums of Beirut. The word “capernaum” is also a euphemism for chaos, after an ancient fishing village on the Sea of Galilee condemned to hell by Jesus. A product of this grim place is Zain (Zain el Rafeea), and the film opens with shots of him in his underwear being examined by a doctor to determine his age, which, based on the loss of his baby teeth, is 12. His parents have never bothered to file a birth certificate. Jailed five years for knifing a “sonofabitch,” he appears in court to sue his parents to stop having children. The viewer next meets Ethiopian refugee Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who has been arrested as an illegal. None of the actors are professionals.
As the world of these two central characters unfolds, the viewer learns how they have connected, and what unfortunate events happen to them. Zain’s 11-year-old sister Sahar (Haita “Cedra” Izzam) is his favorite among the many siblings in his family, and he tries to protect her from the attentions of the landlord’s son. When she reaches puberty and begins menstruating, Zain helps her hide the fact from her parents, knowing they will try to sell her into marriage. Once that happens, Zain runs away. Riding on a bus next to a man dressed as Captain Cockroach, he decides to follow him into the amusement park where he works. That is where he meets Rahil, who takes him under her wing. They work out an arrangement in which Zain cares for Rahil’s son Yonas (actually a girl, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), a putative 18 months old, while she works.
A particularly captivating set of shots in the film depicts Zain pulling Yonas along in a cooking pot on a stolen skateboard (he claims to be selling pots and pans). By then Rahil has gone AWOL, and Zain has been left to his own resources. The mutual affection of these two children proves one of the film’s most redemptive themes among the many scenes of overwhelming bleakness, and Zain proves a person of remarkable ingenuity.
Lebanese-born Nadine Labaki, the only female director among the Oscar-nominated films, captures Beirut’s underworld with insight but not a drop of sentimentality. In one early set of overhead shots, she illustrates how the rooftops of this slum are held down by discarded tires. She makes Zain the center of the story, and despite the desolate world he lives in, he is a survivor. “Capernaum” won the 2018 Cannes Jury prize, and despite not getting the Oscar last weekend, it remains a deeply moving and insightful film.
Information and tickets for “They Shall Not Grow Old” and “Capernaum” are available online at mvfilmsociety.com.