The regional film festivals’ fight over the limited pool of Arab films has intensified with every passing year—a fight not only to justify their existence but to matter.
The cultural, political and economic changes spurred by the Arab Spring have caused this pool to shrink even further this year, and thus Morocco, the sole functioning Arab cinema, becomes the predominant representative of Arab cinema with five entries, three of which featured inside the Narrative Feature Competition at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. The notable absence of Lebanese filmmakers, who dominated the awards at both Abu Dhabi and Dubai with the likes of “Here Comes the Rain,” “Ok, Enough, Goodbye” and “Stray Bullet,” left critics scratching their heads. The acclaimed Syrian short documentaries which premiered last month in Venice were also left out by Abu Dhabi.
The pretentious cliché
One of the most prominent names included in the Moroccan selection is Faouzi Bensaïdi, co-writer of André Téchiné’s “Loin” and director of the highly acclaimed “A Thousand Month” and “WWW – What a Wonderful World.” The inventiveness, urgency and artistry strong exhibited in his previous works are nowhere to be seen in his latest feature “Death for Sale,” a cliché-ridden tale of marginalized lives in the port city of Tétouan.
The film centers on three young friends: Malik (Fehd Benchemsi), Allal (Fouad Labiad) and Soufiane (Mouhcine Malzi), all involved in petty crime that pays for their beer. Their valueless, untroubled world is disrupted when Malik falls in love for an enigmatic prostitute (Imane Elmechrafi) who starts to create a rift between them. Things take a stranger turn when Malik’s sister accidently dies, pushing him to cut already-loose ties with his family. Meanwhile, Soufiane is drawn to religious extremism.
Bensaïdi is one of Morocco’s premier art-house filmmakers, celebrated for his beautifully composed frames and subversion of genre. “Death for Sale” retains the aesthetic quality of his previous work; content-wise though, the film is a recycled tin of themes and topics done to death.
This is another mundane tale of disaffected, sex-starved lost youth in search for purpose in a lawless society concealing countless contradictions. The three protagonists are the product of this baffling place, born to dysfunctional families and thrust into a world they refuse to engage with.
Every imaginable cinematic platitude in the book is here: The seemingly misunderstood prostitute does not turn out to be who she pretends she is; Soufiane, out of nowhere, finds God and decides to enforce his ‘will’; and Malik is transformed by a corrupt police officer into an informant.
The initial moments of mystical beauty are soon crushed under the weight of the sluggish narrative and the tremendously trite, heavy-handed dialogue. Bensaïdi’s obsession with the look of his frames diverts him from developing his stereotypical, unsympathetic characters. I tend to avoid using the often misused term ‘pretentious,’ but when the sole function of a film’s images are brining attention to themselves, there’s no other word to accurately describe it.
But the end of the film, the traces of authenticity and ingenuity disappear, replaced with piles of ridiculousness of Sobky’s ilk.
Vastly superior in every respect is Hisham Lasri’s impressive debut feature “The End,” a historical fiction set on the eve of Hassan II’s death in Casablanca. Like the three friends of “Death for Sale,” M’key, the lead character, is an estranged teen caught up in the bedlam and paranoia of the Hassan’s last days.
The orphaned M’key finds a surrogate father in Daoud, the sadistic police commissioner widely dubbed as the “the system’s pit-bull.” Daoud, as Lasri reveals later, harbors a dark secret related to Rita, M’key’s object of affection who’s chained from head to bottom by her gangster brothers (as a mean to protect her virginity).
Shot in black and white by Belgian DOP Maxime Alexandre (“Haute tension,” “The Hills Have Eyes”), “The End” looks and feels like an apocalyptic thriller, derived by a foreboding unseen force. The surrealistic monochrome visual structure blends elements of Japanese anime with pop art — imagine Tetsuya Nakashima without the colors — an unusual approach (especially for the formally conservative Arab films) that heightens the ambiance of absurdity and uncertainty.
The film’s politics are daring yet never blatant or puerile, exploring an ailing, senseless police state that the former monarch produced. Lasri resorts to clever symbolism, the most palpable of which is Rita’s virginity, the individual free will kept in check by the big brother who knows best.
The highly original concept and audacious politics are laudable, yet the film remains somewhat uninvolving. Like Bensaïdi’s film, the figurative characters are undeveloped, coming off as puppets unable to react to the widespread chaos. Structurally, they fit with both the look and narrative of the film, but they end up keeping the viewers at a distance from this world. You’re always intrigued by what you see on screen, yet you’re not fully immersed in, incapable of experiencing the characters’ fear, pain, loss and, ultimately, relief.
The best entry of the Moroccan selection is another debut feature: Leila Kilani’s gripping, unsettling drama “Sur La Planche” (One the Edge). Set in Tangiers, the film centers on two young working class Casablancan women: the moody, strong-headed tomboy Badia (Soufia Issami), and the easygoing, quiet Imane (Mouna Bahmad). Both friends peel shrimps at a large plant at day. At night, they nick whatever their hands can get from the ‘clients’ they pick up.
In an upscale party, they meet lower middle-class Asma and Nawal (Nouzha Akel and Sara Betioui), two pretty young laborers working in the Free Zone, a seemingly sophisticated space free of export taxes. The four organize multiple scams on their victims that grow more elaborate and dangerous. But, like everything in the film, things are not what they seem and Badia soon finds herself caught in trap with no escape.
Kilani, an award-winning documentary director, makes an effortless leap to narrative features with a film that represents an extension of her previous work. Shot with a hand-held camera, “On the Edge” looks and feels like a documentary. Kilani occasionally offers a voice-over courtesy of Badia ,but it functions as a stream of conscious rather than a direct commentary on the action.
The shrimp factory appears in brightly-lit wide shots conveying the inexpressive, dingy nature of the place, while Badia is shot mostly in close-ups, imbuing a sense of inescapable claustrophobia and inner confinement. Kilani’s Tangiers is poles apart from the pictographic, exotic dreamscape advertised in tour guides; this is a nightmarish dungeon with no exit.
The picture Kilani draws is bleak and daunting but not off-putting or sensationalistic. Like the great Belgian Dardenne brothers (whose style Kilani vividly mimics), her camera is always objective, capturing the unfolding events without exerting any judgments. Badia’s unsurpassable energy and rationalization reflects profound self-hatred and alienation. She pretends to be a textile worker, lies about her background and obsessively scrubs herself every day after she finishes work. Not only can’t she accept her position in this world, she struggles to accept herself.
“On the Edge” is an unflinching, unsentimental look at urbanized Morocco trying to find its place in the new globalized world. Kilani steers away from the conventional socially-oppressed-women-seeking-emancipation narrative that defined North-African films for decades, delivering a high-octane slice-of-life that takes a leaf out of Tahani Rached’s groundbreaking 2006 documentary “Those Girls.”
The Brando stereotype
The sole Tunisian contribution this year is “Always Brando,” Ridha Behi’s long-awaited chronicle of his unfinished project with American screen legend Marlon Brando.
Behi is one of the most celebrated Arab filmmakers; his 1979 classic “Soleil des hyènes” is among the greatest Arabic films of all time. A minimum level of artistry, craft and intellectualism is expected in his new work no matter how inferior it may be compared to his earlier masterpieces. None of this art, intelligence or sensibility is found in “Always Brando,” a gigantic disaster in all levels and easily the worst film screened in Abu Dhabi.
Prior to Brando’s death in 2004, Behi, a major admirer of the “Godfather” star’s contentious pro-Arab politics, approached him to make a film together, but the project was not realized. The film was supposed to be an anti-American parable centering on “two Brandos,” the first played by the real star and the second by Tunisian actor Anis Raache who bears a fair physical resemblance to him.
The current picture is divided into two intertwining parts: The first revolves around Anis, good-hearted owner of small-town coffee shop rented by an American film crew shooting a brainless picture about Atlantis. Lured by the Hollywood glamour, he’s tempted to leave his home, family and devoted fiancé Zina (Souhir Amara) behind and persue the American dream (which consists of starring in a film alongside Brando).
The second part is comprised of Behi’s aimless, didactic ruminations on Brando, cinema and the US. Both storylines have no convincing connection, and both lead nowhere.
Behi spends the larger duration of the film criticizing America’s foreign policy and Hollywood’s “humiliating” treatment of the Arabs (the film feels in parts like a shoddy chapter culled from Jack Sheheen’s book Reel Bad Arabs). The fictional storyline reinforces these ideas using the same exact techniques Behi condemns Hollywood of abusing.
The ignominious cast of featured American characters includes a gay American thespian forcing Anis to sleep with him, a photographer exploiting an unaware village girl for scandalous photos, a naked extra unembarrassed of appearing naked in front of her Arab co-stars, and a cruel director inattentive to the hazards the Arab extras are subjected to. In fact, there’s a not a single decent American character in the film. Behi disparages the American’s orientalist views of the Arab and Africans, yet he ends up following the same approach, splattering his story with nude images of African women.
Anis is ultimately punished for selling his soul for nothing more but a fantasy. His fiancé marries an older man in order to collect the money for his flight ticket. The film then takes an even stranger turn as it evolves into cautionary tale about illegal immigration. And just when you think it can’t get worse, it does.
“Always Brando” doesn’t live up to a kitschy third-rate Egyptian soap-opera; midway through, I started laughing uncontrollably at the absurdity on display. Its core message is: the Americans have exported us their culture in order to destroy us, so don’t believe everything the movies promotes. If you’re uninformed about the Tunisian helmer’s credentials, you’d never suspect this man could have directed a film before. On my way out, I bumped into a revered Egyptian critic and I told him that the film is the funniest comedy I’ve seen all year. “This is not a comedy,” he responded, “this is burlesque.”
The 5th Abu Dhabi Film Festival closes on Saturday, Oct. 22.
“The End” is a historical fiction set on the eve of Hassan II’s death in Casablanca.
Tunisia’s “Always Brando” is full of stereotypes.