A couple of weeks ago I had a post on the fine Egyptian film ‘Cairo 678’, which focused on sexual harassment in Egypt and the desperation of the women subjected to it, who want nothing more than to navigate freely in public space and live their lives normally. On the subject of living normally, I saw not too long ago Algerian director Merzak Allouache’s latest film, ‘Normal!’, which has precisely this as its subject. It’s a quirky film, definitely not for le grand public—or even for most cinephiles—but is worth seeing if one is interested in the younger generation in the Arab world today, and particularly in Algeria. The pic is set in 2011 and with the Arab uprisings underway, and focuses on a young film maker who brings together the cast of a film he had shot two years earlier—on the problems of youthful artistic creation in the face of state censorship—but hadn’t completed, so they could view the rushes and talk about how to finish it. The film is basically the cast—late 20s-early 30s—talking: about the film, the frustrations of the younger generation, and the thirst to simply live normally, which is almost impossible in Algeria and for all sorts of reasons, but primarily due to the twisted, tortured gender relations of Algerian culture (though it was not precisely put in these terms in the film). But though the youthful film crew craves to live normally, they also get caught up in their own contradictions in regard to gender issues, thereby reinforcing the ambient abnormality. Again, I won’t recommend the film to everyone but I found it interesting. The film web site with trailer is here. As it surely won’t be coming to your neighborhood theater or videothèque, it will have to be seen via streaming.
Another film seen in recent months on Maghrebi youth—from an altogether different social class—who seek to live normally—or simply to live—was the Moroccan ‘Sur la planche’ (rendered in English as ‘On the Plank’, or ‘On the Edge’), by director Leila Kilani. The film, set in Tangier, is of four women in their 20s—two of whom are migrants from elsewhere in Morocco—who work in factories in town, two peeling shrimp—dirty jobs at the bottom of the status ladder—and the two locals in the much higher status Free Zone, where working conditions adhere to European norms. The migrant women engage in petty theft and occasional prostitution after hours to make ends meet and try to pull the higher status women into one of their illegal moneymaking schemes, while using them as ins to gain access to the Free Zone and its coveted jobs. It’s a good film about ambitious young, lower class urban women in Morocco trying to move up. The actresses, all non-professionals, are first-rate. Reviews are here, here, and here (scroll down), a trailer here, and a podcast interview (en français) with the director here.
To the seeking-to-live-normally-in-the-Middle-East genre may be added Iranian-American director Maryam Keshavarz’s ‘Circumstance’ (in France: ‘En secret’), which I saw not too long ago. Set in Tehran the pic is about a teenage girl from the haute bourgeoisie who frequents wild North Tehran parties—with loud music, alcohol, drugs, and sex—, has a lesbian relationship with her best friend, all while trying to deal with her older brother—a recovering drug addict to whom she is very close—who finds religion and becomes an Islamist. She wants to live a normal life, as do most young people in Iran, but her brother doesn’t want her to. It’s not too bad of a film. It opened last year in the US to mostly good reviews. French reviews were likewise. Watching the party scenes I could not believe that the film was actually made in Iran, even clandestinely or using ruses (as was Bahman Ghobadi’s ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’). In the scene where the characters are looking out over Tehran from a hill, I was quite sure that it was in fact Beirut where it was shot, and it was indeed.
Finally, I will mention the documentary ‘Tahrir: Liberation Square’ by Italian film maker Stefano Savona, which opened in France in January to stellar reviews. The director spent those heady days in January-February 2011 in Tahrir Square with a group of liberal activists, whom he filmed throughout. They were in the vanguard of a movement to make Egypt a normal country. They’re not in much of a vanguard today, hélas…