BEIRUT: Among the pockmarks of our species’ plague year (now in sudden-death overtime, or something) has been more-or-less-free online diversion. The quality and seriousness of this entertainment have varied hugely. It’s ranged from international classics (some of those Tarkovsky universes you hoped would engulf you in a cinema one day, now stuttering from your laptop) to miniatures occasioned by this country’s recent, somehow unique, confluence of misfortunes.
The online cavalcade persisted into last month, with the YouTube launch of the hour-long “Alephia 2053.” This dystopian thriller is a Franco-Lebanese co-production conceived by Rabi’ Sweidan, team-scripted (with Bassem Breiche ceded principal credit), and helmed by Jorj Abou Mhayya.
Sweidan’s near-future is an animated one, conjured up by France’s Malil’Art, imagined in a style emulating retro-futurist anime of last century. (No individual artist is credited, so presumably that’s a team effort as well.)
“Alephia 2053” is a bit of a genre experiment. On one hand it relies on tropes common to police procedurals and melodramas – a dark family secret, betrayal, sweaty sex, intrigue – while draping these narrative devices in regional costume.
Its bi-generational tale is set amidst a totalitarian regime run by the ageing, eponymous, autocrat Aleph II, whose family has run the place for a century.
His predecessor, presumably Aleph I, had fattened himself selling the country’s prized natural resource (this being a hip dystopia, the resource is lithium, not oil). Rather than using the foreign exchange to improve citizens’ lives (a well-off few reside in chic “Upper Alephia,” while the downtrodden majority subsist in the water-scarce shanty “Lower Alephia”), Alef I and II used their rent capital to reinforce the state’s systems of surveillance (cameras hidden in statues’ eyeballs, drones flocking everywhere) and coercion (thuggish cops, old-school torture).
It wouldn’t be hard to imagine Amanda Seyfried and Justin Timberlake pouting and grimacing their way across such a landscape, but much of the narrative furniture of “Alephia 2053” has been assembled to resonate with folks familiar with the MENA region’s military and police states, and recent popular uprisings against some of them.
A political slogan spray-painted on a public monument in Lower Alephia compels the (inevitably) moustached Alef II (voiced by Khaled el Sayed) to intone some exposition to Ismail, the son he’s grooming to replace him.
He reminisces about how a popular slogan had once unified the country’s citizens against the family regime. Fortunately he’d been able to divide the people and crush all opposition – a recollection illustrated by images of barrel bombs dropping into a city’s residential neighbourhoods.
Aleph II’s right-hand man is Fares, a military officer who demonstrated his loyalty by betraying the idealistic young officers planning a “corrective movement” to root out regime corruption. Fares’ revolutionary comrades were either killed or hid themselves in apparent compliance to the status quo.
The film’s younger generation of characters tend to be either capable but misled, idealistic but powerless, or thuggish sycophants.
The film opens with a pair of powerless idealists – Mayyar Ali (a revolutionary tagger whose brother Kinan is in the resistance) and Layla (whose brother Majd is a state security gunman) – neither of whom survives the film’s first act.
Two more characters are capable but mislead. One is the protagonist, Layla’s brother Majd Darwish – a mukhabarat officer and son of Nizar Darwish, a charismatic revolutionary who had plotted the “corrective movement” and was murdered (along with the equally charismatic officer blamed for killing him). The other is Soumaya Hashem, Majd’s love interest and fellow state security enforcer, who happens to be Fares’ daughter.
Two more, relatively minor, characters stand in for the younger generation of thuggish sycophants. One is Fahmi, Majd and Soumaya’s scowling colleague; the other is Aleph II’s indolent son, Ismail.
If the web of historical-personal connections ensnarling these characters is more reminiscent of American soap opera than noir-aspiring sci-fi, that betrays the manner of “Alephia 2053” itself, which sounds far more like Ramadan musalsal than “Blade Runner.”
Somewhat offsetting the earnest melodrama is Malil’Art’s anime-inspired drawing, but “Alephia 2053” is yanked back toward soap opera by the film’s spoken language – Fusha, or Modern Standard Arabic.
Historically Fusha has been not uncommon in pan-Arab pictures, and has tended to be embraced by historical dramas, the advantage being that the dialect is assumed to be understood by most literate people across the MENA region.
The down side is that no one actually speaks that way today (or ever, arguably), making contemporary realism sound weirdly incongruous. Worse, the long-standing practice of having the weepy characters in Latin American soaps dubbed into Fusha has made them the subject of much light-hearted derision. Having characters in a futurist-dystopian tale express their megalomania, their post-assault anguish, their revolutionary fervour in Modern Standard is just as jarring, and amusing.
Somewhere in its promotional rollout, “Alephia 2053” is described as an entertainment devised with the small screen in mind. If that’s the case, then its compliance to musalsal convention – while hardly ground-breaking – might well win it a wider audience in 2021’s peculiar iteration of Islam’s blessed season of television-consumption.
Genre-lovers will likely find the film’s sombre appropriation of what used to be called “cyberpunk” convention to be at once oddly humourless and amusingly chaste. The movie does include a G-rated (possibly heavily edited) heterosexual love-making sequence. There’s no Fusha amidst the foreplay, but the coitus is light years away from “Heavy Metal,” 1981, parsecs shy of 2004’s “Team America.”
“Alephia 2053” can be viewed, free of charge, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IFUBbti4us&t=337s