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Cannes sensation puts child poverty in the spotlight

Composer Khaled Mouzanar, from left, director Nadine Labaki, actors Zain Al Rafeea, and Yordanos Shiferaw pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film "Capharnaum" at the 71st international film festival, Cannes, southern France, on May 17, 2018. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

CANNES, France (AP) -- A Lebanese film about a 12-year-old boy who sues his parents has put child poverty in the spotlight at the Cannes Film Festival.

Nadine Labaki's "Capernaum" premiered Thursday night at the Cannes Film Festival where the neo-realistic drama about street kids in Lebanon received a rousing standing ovation. "Capernaum" was made largely with non-professional actors living in circumstances not unlike those in the film. It centers on the 12-year-old Zein (played by Zain Alrafeea) who takes his parents to court "for giving me life" in a world of pain and suffering.

"I've been spending the past few years going to detention centers, going to prisons for minors, and it's always the same theme that keeps coming up," Labaki said in an interview. "Why do you bring me into this world if you're not going to love me, if you're not going to nurture me, if you're going to let me suffer so much, if you're going to leave me to fate to raise me?"

"It always comes up," she adds. "It's the why that breaks your heart."

"Capernaum" is the third feature for the director-actress, whose feature debut "Caramel" played in Cannes' Directors' Fortnight in 2007. After the lengthy standing ovation at its premiere, some analysts judged it one of the leading contenders for Cannes' top prize. Film critic Neil Young, who annually compiles odds for the Palme, put "Capernaum" as the front-runner.

If Labaki's film were to win it would be only the second film directed by a woman to win the award in Cannes' 71 year history. But the Palme d'Or, which will be announced Saturday, is famously difficult to predict. It will be decided by a nine-person jury led by Cate Blanchett.

Much discussed at this year's festival has been gender equality at the film festival and Cannes' past rate of selecting female filmmakers to its competition lineup. Labaki, among the Arab world's biggest box office draws, says her career in moviemaking has only been positive, and that progress is happing quickly.

"I've never experienced not being able to make a film because I'm a woman. I've always been able to make what I want. That's my own experience," said Labaki. "I see that there's a healing process happing and soon this will not be something we're talking about. I think this is going to happen very soon."

Sony Pictures Classics, which has shepherded dozens of films to the Academy Awards, acquired "Capernaum" ahead of its premiere. The specialty distributor declared: "Nadine Labaki's moment as writer-director is here and now."

Alrafeea traveled to Cannes with the filmmakers for the premiere. Labaki said his family came to Lebanon from Syria about six years ago, and while he shares some of his character's circumstances, he also has a loving family. Labaki called him "a magical boy who changed all of us."

"It's been a life-changing adventure," said Labaki, whose husband Khaled Mouzanar produced the film and composed the score. "It's about love. It's about being loved."

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