In October I had a post on a couple of films from the Middle East with women at the center of the story, Nadine Labaki’s droll comedy-fable ‘Where Do We Go Now?’, and Iranian director Mohammed Rasoulof’s ‘Good Bye’. Since then I’ve seen another three films from the Middle East-North Africa with different aspects of the status of women as the theme. The highest profile one, ‘La Source des femmes’ (English title: The Source), by Romanian-French director Radu Mihaileanu, premiered at Cannes, where it received either a rapturous reception or a mixed one (reports differed). Mihaileanu is best known for his ‘Live and Become‘ and ‘The Concert‘, both of which were loved by just about everyone I know who saw them (I thought both were good enough though not flawless—and particularly the former, which had problems in its second half).
This one is set in a remote mountain village in an unnamed MENA country but that is rather obviously Morocco (it was shot in a Berber village in the High Atlas), and inspired by an apparently true story from Turkey. The women in the village do all the backbreaking, heavy labor—notably hauling water in buckets from the spring up the mountain—while the men sit around, play cards, and don’t do a damned thing all day long. They used to be warriors in generations past but that’s all in the past and there’s no work for them nowadays. As hauling the water causes the women to fall down, injure themselves, and have miscarriages, they get fed up and demand that the men do something about it, like put pressure on the public authorities to install a pipeline to transport the water to the village (suggesting that the men do the water hauling was apparently too revolutionary an idea for the women). As the men are lazy f—offs and seem not to mind their womenfolk breaking their backs, the women caucus in the public bath and vote to go nuclear, to not have sex with their husbands until they act. They stage a sex strike (a “no-nookie regime” as one reviewer put it). The men get all up in arms and go crazy but the women’s solidarity, though tried at various moments and with the usual backbiting, proves unbreakable. And of course they win in the end.
That’s the movie. It’s feel good and with heavy doses of bons sentiments, no question about it. French reviews were mixed. US critics at Cannes were not overly impressed themselves, though saw some commercial potential for the pic outside the production countries. Hollywood Reporter thus called it a “[l]ively and saccharine Maghreb dramedy,” and a “certifiably crowd-pleasing slice of world cinema…boast[ing] an Arthouse for Beginners appeal that could reach broad audiences beyond Europe.” But though the pic had positive facets—technically and in terms of cast—there was “an unwieldy, bordering-on-kitsch side to Mihaileanu’s storytelling…[that] tends to walk the line between a soap opera and an advertisement for Royal Air Morocco.” Variety‘s critic was a bit tougher on Mihaileanu’s “formula of equal parts schmaltz and stereotype,” asserting that “this overwrought fable proves a difficult concoction to swallow,” though “the colorful, lushly designed Arabic-lingo pic might seduce undiscriminating audiences and ride the coattails of current interest in the North African revolutions…”
Not stellar recommendations for the movie, though I have to say that while disagreeing with none of the above critiques, I found it entertaining and not all bad. Above all, I loved the cast, which was All-Star for this kind of film, with three top under-30 beurette actress: Leïla Bekhti—sublime as always—, Hafsia Herzi—typically excellent—, and Sabrina Ouazani; the Algerian actress Biyouna; and Israeli-Palestinian stars Hiam Abbass—toward whom I am very partial—and heartthrob Saleh Bakri. All had to learn Moroccan dialectal Arabic for the film, which was quite an accomplishment (particularly as Mihaileanu doesn’t speak a word of it himself). It was also beautifully shot; technically very good. So unless one has a low tolerance for one-dimensional schmaltz and bons sentiments, it’s a film that may be seen.
I should mention a polemic provoked indirectly by the film, notably between me and a Franco-Moroccan friend. The day after it came out France 2′s news magazine show ‘Envoyé spécial’ had a half hour report on the making of ‘La Source des femmes’, focusing specifically on the villagers—mostly illiterate and almost all poor—, who served as the extras in the film (the report may be seen here). They were interviewed on what they thought of the experience, as well as the theme of the film (which was unclear to many) and if such a sex strike would be possible in their village (answer from the women: interesting idea but would never happen). They were simple people and the whole thing had been a little over their heads. The reporter accompanied the lucky ten villagers selected to go to the Cannes festival for the film’s premiere. So one saw the excited villagers take the one-hour van ride along bumpy mountain tracks to Marrakesh—where some had never been—to buy clothes for the event (and blue jeans for the girls, who had never worn them before), board a plane for the first time in their lives and for the undreamed of trip to France, stroll along the Promenade de la Croisette with all the tourists and glitterati, walk the red carpet at the Palais des Festivals, do a traditional dance and decked out in traditional Berber costumes (from another region; no one in their village had ever dressed that way, so one said), and receive a standing ovation from the audience at the film’s debut. Forty-eight hours later they were back in their dirt poor village.
I thought it was a fine reportage and didn’t have a problem with it, but it outraged my friend (I had already seen the film, she hadn’t). We had a rapid-fire exchange of text messages right after the report, followed by a phone conversation, during which she expressed her indignation at what she saw as the shameless exploitation—during the film’s shooting and at Cannes—of the bemused, economically impoverished villagers, and who were treated at Cannes like exotic primitives at a colonial exposition from a century ago. She wondered how much monetary compensation they had received for their participation in the film, if they had been reimbursed for the clothes they bought in Marrakesh (a huge expense for them), and if they and the village would at all benefit from any of the film’s box office receipts. Based on comments on a web site that immediately posted the ‘Envoyé spécial’ report, my friend was not alone in her à chaud sentiments. After the lightening trip to Cannes the villagers, not knowing how film festivals work, were surprised and disappointed that the film did not win any prizes, and indeed wanted to know what the financial payoff would be for them and the village. My friend was so indignant that she fired off that night an email to Mihaileanu, expressing her mauvaise humeur and informing him that she would refuse to see the film. Her message was polite but firm in its arguments. Mihaileanu, who was in Morocco at that moment, replied to her immediately, in a message that was respectful and almost contrite in tone. Taking her objections to heart he tried to address them—e.g. that 48-hour trips to Cannes are the norm for everyone whose expenses are paid by the festival—, expressed regret at her decision to boycott the film and hoped she would reconsider, and said that he would be returning to the village to project the film, and where he would apologize to the villagers—and to my friend as well—if they felt he had not shown them sufficient consideration.
Well, it was quite a response from Mihaileanu. And to his credit. I thought my friend made valid points (particularly on the song-and-dance skit at Cannes)—and which I conceded to her—but didn’t change my overall view. Mihaileanu had a good story and for a mass appeal, feel good film and wanted to make it as authentic as possible. Having Moroccan darija as the film’s language was an audacious and smart choice (cf. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s calamitous ‘Black Gold‘). As for what the villager figurants were paid for their participation, I would need to know what the going rate is for this kind of thing, in Third World countries and the West, before passing judgment. The Cannes trip: I thought it was nice. Better a 48-hour trip to France—the trip of a lifetime for the villagers—than no trip at all. As for an eventual responsibility of the film’s director and producers toward the village as a whole, to transfer some of the box office receipts to help it out materially, I would say that the lack of water, electricity, and other infrastructure there is a matter for the Moroccan state, not a film production company. If there are regions of Morocco that are impoverished, with no schools or infrastructure and where the population ekes out a subsistence living, this is a political issue for the Moroccans to deal with, particularly in view of the extreme inequalities of wealth in that country, the opulence displayed by its elite (take a spin around the Anfa district of Casablanca if you want to see it up close; if you can’t do that, see this movie), and the massive corruption at the summit of the state. It’s really not the responsibility of Radu Mihaileanu, and whose eventual charitable action wouldn’t change a thing.
Theater helmer Georges Hachem makes his film debut with “Stray Bullet,” the literate, deeply felt story of a woman attempting to take control of her life. Set in 1976 during Lebanon’s civil war, this absorbing chamber piece avoids feeling stagebound thanks to considered lensing and editing that are beautifully modulated to evoke time, place and psyche. Star Nadine Labaki (“Caramel”) should provide initial enticement for international buyers who’ll then be wooed by the pic’s force, notwithstanding a few overdrawn moments. Regional arthouse play is likely to make a mark, while fest exposure could lure Euro satcasters.
The film takes place in a Christian area near Beirut and among middle class Maronites, but where women are still bound by tradition and constrained in their choices. One of the female characters moonlights in a militia, where she murders in cold blood. Her discourse around the dinner table on the sectarian conflict is chilling. And no doubt realistic for that time.
The other movie seen: ‘Ephemeral Marriage’, by France-based Iranian director Reza Serkanian, which focuses on the Iranian Shi’ite practice of temporary marriage, that enables couples to licitly “do it” and with no strings attached. Great deal, maybe for women, definitely for men. The protag is a widowed woman in her 40s. I think it’s set in Mashhad but am not sure. Reviews in France were good on the whole. It so far seems not to have been seen by an American critic. It won’t be coming to your local multiplex, that’s for sure.