Fault Lines

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie on “Contemporary Arab Cinema” at BAM

Sofia Djama, Les Bienheureux (The Blessed), 2017, color, sound, 102 minutes.

HALFWAY THROUGH director Sofia Djama’s accomplished feature-film debut, Les Bienheureux (The Blessed), about the intertwined lives of five characters struggling with the past and the future in present-day Algiers, a pudgy teenager with obnoxious hair pushes his sister aside at her bedroom door. They’ve been fighting about their dad, a man both demanding and catatonically depressed, and about who is responsible for the housework. Their mother is dead, and the whole family is clearly bereft. The sister, Ferial, has a sharp tongue and an outsize attitude. She isn’t taking any of her brother’s crap. Despite a cute set of chubby cheeks, she is both hauntingly beautiful and bound for trouble. As he leaves, her brother turns to her and snaps. “You’re good for nothing,” he says. “And cover your scar, it looks creepy.”

Djama’s film hinges upon this revelation. Until that point, who among the viewers had thought twice about Ferial’s scarves or even noticed the nasty gash across her neck? It is the first sign that the narrative tension Djama has been building in and through each character is about to explode. It is also the beginning of a subtle explanation—that someone slashed Ferial’s throat, that her mother survived something so awful that she killed herself afterward, that “the blessed” of the film’s title refers to those who lived through the violence that tore Algeria apart in the 1990s (after the ruling party canceled a round of elections which it almost certainly lost to an Islamist group), only to be left with a terrible burden. This burden includes trauma, of course, but also complicity in the creation of a police state as well as nihilism among the young who have almost no hope of getting out or finding a meaningful existence within what is, by almost any measure, a disastrous country.

Ferial’s friends are Redda, who seems to have adopted extreme religiosity as a rebellion against his republican parents, and Fahim, a perpetually stoned eighteen-year-old who doesn’t have much of a clue about anything. Redda, with his halal punk and his prayer rug, wants a chapter from the Quran tattooed onto his back (citing greater piety—no one will do it, which enrages him even more). Fahim wants nothing, or maybe everything, but at least for his flirting with Ferial to be requited. His parents, however, are catastrophically split between wanting him to stay in Algiers forever (his father, a once distinguished doctor, who now administers clandestine abortions to raise money for a new clinic) and wanting him to get the hell out, to Europe (his mother, a professor at a university usually closed due to strike, who bears considerable resentment against her husband for making her stay in the country, and for what?). By the end of the film, their marriage has broken, Ferial’s scar is exposed (and she, ashamed), two characters have been arrested, and one has most likely been killed.

Sofia Djama, Les Bienheureux (The Blessed), 2017, color, sound, 102 minutes.

The Blessed is the last film in a lineup on contemporary cinema from the Arab world, screening for six days and nights at BAMcinématek in New York. The series, organized by the Lebanese-born, Dubai-based producer Lina Matta, ticks all the boxes of the region’s by-now familiar sorrows—political failure, sexual frustration, religious repression, economic incompetence, autocracy, claustrophobia, poverty, cultural decline, horrors committed in the name of Islam, betrayal, nosy friends and neighbors, high-handed ideologues, spies, refugees, and, of course, suicide bombers. And yet the films also come in curious pairs, which bring both artistic complexity and comic relief to the proceedings.

There are two films about stubborn musicians: Claire Belhassine’s The Man Behind the Microphone, a portrait of the Tunisian singer Hédi Jouini, and Les Petits Chats, Sherif Nakhla’s affectionate documentary about an aging Egyptian cover band. There are also two films about the drama of imminent birth––harrowing in the case of Muayad Alayan’s stylish and engrossing The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, a fable of adultery across the Israeli-Palestinian fault line that escalates to full-on espionage, and funny in Khaled Diab’s Induced Labor, an Egyptian comedy about a couple storming the US embassy in Cairo to secure American passports for their soon-to-be-born twins. There are three films about women facing sexual and political violence on their own, and two novel approaches to Lebanon’s current political mess. Notably missing from the series, however, is an entire generation of fiercely interesting young filmmakers from Syria, many of whom began as activists and citizen journalists and have since become artists and directors in their necessary positions of exile, such as Ghiath Ayoub; Saeed Al Battal, whose film Still Recording won a critic’s prize in Venice last month; and Sara Fattahi, who has now made two outstanding films, Coma and Chaos, that delve into the experiences of women during and after (or outside of) a gruesome war.

Merzak Allouache, Investigating Paradise, 2016 DCP, black-and-white, sound, 135 minutes.

If one were to scramble the schedule and make bookends of The Blessed and Merzak Allouache’s Investigating Paradise, then the exposure of Algerian cinema would admirably make up for the absence of the Syrian films—and the study of old, persistent, and important war wounds would also prove instructive. Investigating Paradise follows two reporters as they travel around Algeria interviewing people about their images of the afterlife. More specifically, the film, which is effectively a black-and-white narrative feature masquerading as an experimental documentary, focuses on Nedjma, a journalist with messy hair, an expressive face, tomboyish demeanor, and eyebrows that betray her every wonder and doubt, as well as empathy. She takes a YouTube video of a Saudi sheikh—delivering a ludicrous, nearly pornographic sermon on the seventy-two houris, their skin as soft as Nivea and Vaseline, who will be made available in heaven to every man—and shows it to, well, everyone: former Salafists, boxing coaches, democratic activists, feminists, psychiatrists, singers, actors, painters, sheikhs both popular and remote, young men on the streets and in internet cafés, old men in markets (few women who are strangers agree to speak to her), and many, many writers.

The cast of Investigating Paradise is itself an essential crash course in Algerian artistic, cultural, and political thought over the past few decades, and some of the most memorable moments come from the observations of the writers Kamel Daoud, Sara Haidar, and Boualem Sansal, and from the arguments of the feminists Aouïcha Bekhti and Samia Zennadi (who will be familiar as a resilient publisher in Naeem Mohaiemen’s Two Meetings and a Funeral). Among other things, they reflect on the causes and consequences of their war-torn decade and on the ways in which it was actually globalization that brought religious extremism to Algeria, where it came to be expressed in a particular form of violence that has now likewise been exported back around the world.

“Algeria lived through ten years of terrorism,” notes Haidar. “In the natural order of things, we deserve an atheist population . . . Even ISIS in Syria doesn’t compare to the violence and cruelty of terrorism in Algeria.” And yet, she says with some bafflement, the population today is even more religious and intolerant than ever. Although it is in many ways a sustained refutation of Wahhabism and a plea for a more substantive spirituality, Investigating Paradise also serves as a kind of index for The Blessed. It runs through much of the same history, the problems of the past and the future, and turns its attention, for reprieve, to the landscape, whether to the Bay of Algiers or the dunes outside of Timimoun. Investigating Paradise provides a key to the kinds of critical reflection that might offer a way out, whether mental or physical, for a girl like Ferial in The Blessed. For viewers in a Brooklyn cinema, it’s an occasion to think about the scars on her body, her city, and her country—and, perhaps, to compare them to our own.

“Contemporary Arab Cinema” runs from September 29 to October 4 at BAMcinématek in New York.