by Rachid Bouchareb
Beyond fear and suspicion
Politics and movies: this combination has been quite a common sight at the Berlinale over the past few years with Dieter Kosslick as the festival’s director. Rachid Bouchareb’s latest feature London River, running in competition at the Berlin Film Festival 2009, gives a very minimalist answer as to how an artist can deal with political turmoil.
His film tells a story not about but behind the terrorist attacks in London in July 2005. A mother and a father both come to London looking for their children. And they couldn’t be any more different than Bouchareb’s two main characters. There is Elisabeth Sommers, a stocky, likeable widow, who lives and works in Guernsey as a farmer, and Ousmane, a slender African with long grey dreadlocks, working in France as a forester. Yet while Bouchareb relies on their differences to propel the forthcoming of the story, he also establishes the similarities between the two figures from the beginning onwards, showing them both as devout religious persons, Elisabeth attending a protestant mass, Ousmane saying his Muslim prayers at work in the forest in the opening shot.
And they have something else in common, too, apart from religion and their love of nature: both know very few about their children’s’ lives. Ousmane has left his son Ali at the age of six, when he went to France for work. All he has is a photograph, given to him by an Imam from London, whose mosque Ali went to regularly. And Elisabeth hasn’t seen her daughter in two years either, doesn’t know much about her life in the capital. The rest of the story is quickly told: the parents meet accidentally in London, and it turns out that their children where having a relationship. An idea that is hard to embrace especially for Elisabeth. Muslims, Arabs, terrorists: to her, they are all the same. When she encounters Ousmane for the first time, she is so shocked she refuses to shake his hand. And the thought of her daughter Jane taking Arabic lessons together with Ali gives her the shudders.
While the storyline is constructed relying on pretty implausible circumstances, and the characters could be emerging straight from a goodwill movie about intercultural communication, the actors, Bouchareb’s minimalist, unpretentious narrative structure, and the calm, observing camera work save the movie from falling straight into stereotypes. One of the strongest scenes happens in a hospital’s morgue, where people are called in small groups to identify bodies that might be those of relatives. Far from being voyeuristic, the camera just looks at the waiting room, showing people coming in and out of the door, their faces blank from the horror they encountered inside.
London River is not about dramatizing the attacks, it’s about the impact they had on everyday lives of people. It’s not about big emotions, but the pain, the traumas, the blanks they have left. And to show the fear of loss, the hole that suddenly opened up inside them, Bouchareb found the right actors.
Brenda Blethyn, playing Elisabeth, manages to evoke the spectators’ sympathy, although she is - coming from the countryside and not knowing big city life - quite narrow-minded and full of prejudices against foreigners. Not wanting to believe her daughter might have died in the attacks, she fervently cares for her animals and lettuces before finally deciding to go to London. There, she continues to live in a state of denial, not wanting to see the truth about her daughter’s life with Ousmane’s son.
Equally brilliant, Sotigui Kouyaté as Ousmane, who was awarded with the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the Berlin Film Festival for his performance. The Malian actor fully embodies the film’s minimalism, reducing his face expression to a minimum. He’s just there, calm and quiet. Quiet out of fear that his son, whom he doesn’t know, is actually one of the culprits.
It’s the lack of politicisation as well as the abdication of heavy, pathetic dialogue that mark the strength of this movie, as this turns it into more than just a goodwill movie, but a story about the lack of contact between parents and their children. The weighty sentences, Sotigui Kouyaté saved them for his speech at the Berlinale award ceremony, praising the powers of cinema for the understanding of different cultures.
Sarah Mersch | 59. Berlin Film Festival
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