Already underway in Melbourne, the Arab Film Festival starts in Canberra on July 12th. Celebrating the cinema from the Arabic speaking world, the programme includes, features, shorts, animation and documentaries. Sarah Ward reviews two films playing at the festival.
The Rif Lover
Set in the titular mountainous region in modern-day Morocco, Narjiss Nejjar’s The Rif Lover (L’amante du rif) tells the tale of free-spirited, flirtatious Aya (Nadia Kounda, Rabat). A young woman in the flourishes of maturity, she dreams of another life, with her own at the mercy of the many men who dictate her choices. With her father supporting the family from Spain, Aya’s elder brothers (Death for Sale’s Fehd Benchemsi and Love in the Medina’s Omar Lotfi) are entrusted with her care, a responsibility they show little respect for. Instead, they offer her virginity to the local drug baron in an attempt to ingratiate themselves into his cannabis growing operations. Her reputation is not the only thing in ruins as word spreads, with the thoughtless act reverberating through her future.
Thus begins an exploration of societally-accepted oppression, as devastation and desperation characterise Aya’s torturous, terrifying plight. A romantic infatuation with the opera Carmen betrays much of the film’s tragedy, heightened by Cry No More writer/director Nejjar’s weaving of heartbreaking elements of Georges Bizet‘s classic with harrowing events drawn from her own family. Amidst such harsh, horrorific climes, much is asked of the cast of strong men and unseemly women, with each – lead actress Kounda and Nadia Niazi (The End) as her determined mother, in particular – proving up to the difficult task. Combined with vivid visuals marked by swirling cinematography, stunning colours and evident aesthetic symbolism, The Rif Lover imparts a strong feminist statement, one as bold as it is beautiful.
The Last Friday
Quiet, contemplative and keen on keeping to himself, Youssef (Ali Suliman, Body of Lies) is a taxi driver, but not by choice. A failed gambler and former car salesman, he traverses the streets purely for fiscal purposes, with even that failing to ease his constant struggles. Although always on the move by necessity, his world is moving on without him, as his ex-wife (Yasmine Al Masri, Caramel) and teenage son (Fadi Arida, in his first film role) start to fade from his life. Unexpected and distressing news from his doctor sparks him into action, in an effort to raise the funds needed for an operation. His isolation and unease becomes apparent as he attempts to get his affairs in order.
The debut feature from writer / director Yahya Alabdallah, The Last Friday (Al Juma Al Akheira) tells a universal story within its minimalistic confines, as Youssef is forced to take stock of his place in the world. Cautious yet compelling, the unembellished feature observes as its protagonist battles the forces of inertia, showing rather than telling his tale as he counts down to the end point of the feature’s title. As such, the empathetic tendencies of Suliman prove paramount in this regard, with the actor perfecting the ability to convey more with his demeanour than his voice through restrained efforts that encapsulate the reflective mood of the film. Although lagging in parts despite its brevity, the precision of The Last Friday rewards the patient, as intrigue abounds in every scene.