ART FORUM: Fault Lines
September 29, 2018 Kaelen Wilson-Goldie on “Contemporary Arab Cinema” at BAM
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 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 her of brother’s crap. Despite a cute set of chubby cheeks, she is also 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.”
Until that point, who among viewers had thought twice about Ferial’s scarves or even noticed the nasty gash across her neck? Djama’s film hinges on this revelation. It is the first sign that the narrative tension she’s been building in and through every character is about to explode. It is also the beginning of a subtle explanation—that someone once 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 cancelled a round of elections that 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, and 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.