Melodrama and social critique in Tunis

CAIRO: One of the features of independent film production in the MENA region is serious filmmakers’ flirtation with genre.It’s not a new development. Released over 20 years ago, Ziad Doueiri’s “West Beyrouth” was a coming-of-age tale refracted through a civil war prism. This approach - placing time-tested human stories (or narrative tropes) in local settings rather than allowing location to dictate plot - has since been deployed in scriptwriting labs and adopted by this region’s younger filmmakers.

One recent, and successful, application of genre in MENA cinema is “A Son,” the feature film debut of writer-director Mehdi Barsaoui.

“A Son” is the story of the Ben Youssef family - Fares and Meriem (Sami Bouajila and Najla Ben Abdallah), a successful middle class couple, and their 10-year-old boy Aziz.

The film opens outside Tunis in 2011, where the Ben Youssefs are spending a day at the seaside with friends. Husband and wife are pursuing separate careers and conversation alludes to an impending promotion for Meriem that will see the family relocate overseas.

Fares has some business to do in the south of the country and he talks Meriem into coming along with Aziz. The exposition lingers over the family on the highway, happily singing along to the boy’s favorite pop tune.

It’s obvious, even if you’ve walked into the film blind, that some disaster must befall Fares, Meriem and Aziz. It falls upon them on a lonely stretch of rural highway, where radical Islamist militants ambush a truck loaded with members of the Tunisian security forces.

The family escapes the scene but Aziz takes a bullet in the abdomen. The parents rush to the nearest hospital where the bleeding is staunched.

When Aziz’s condition declines drastically, they learn that the doctor had amputated 80 percent of his liver. Dr. Dhaoui (Noomen Hamda), the small-town medic trying to save Aziz, tells the parents that, because organ donation is frowned upon in this region, chances that they’ll find an outside donor in time are slim to none. One of the parents will have to sacrifice a part of his or her liver to save their son.

During tests for donor compatibility, we learn that Meriem’s blood type makes her ineligible as a donor. The uncomfortable Dr. Dhaoui must then inform her that Fares cannot be the boy’s father, which means he can’t donate either.

The mother is dumfounded to learn that Aziz’s father is anyone but Fares (Shit happens) and she must wrestle with all that while informing her husband her past infidelity and finding another donor.

While the mother tries to locate the disappeared Sami, her former (all but forgotten) lover, the father is approached by a kindly gent in the hospital waiting room. He wants to help, he says and, if Fares is able to part with a mere 15,000 dinars, he can guarantee a healthy and compatible organ for Aziz.

Fares is stridently against the idea on principal, though he’s softened by the organ entrepreneur’s story of having lost his own son - thanks to the Tunisian legal system’s views on organ donation. He also assures Fares that, regrettably, fresh organs are served up daily from the killing fields of Libya’s civil war.

As Meriem is unable to locate Sami, desperation pushes Fares to contact the entrepreneur. Barsaoui then spins a subplot sketching the corrupt world of organ trafficking in conflict zones. When the Libyan revolution arrives at the Tunisian border, and the guaranteed organ doesn’t arrive, Fares witnesses some facets of this economy personally.

Barsaoui thus manages to wed a commercially viable drama of past sexual indiscretion and emotional turmoil among the bourgeoisie with a doc-informed plot segue that grounds the film in contemporary political critique.

“A Son” had its world premiere in the Venice Film Festival’s Orizzonti [Horizons] section - devoted to first - and second-time filmmakers - where Bouajila won the competition’s best actor award.

The film had its regional debut at Carthage, where it emerged unencumbered by prizes. At CIFF, where it screened in the Horizons of Arab Cinema competition, it took three awards - the Best Arab Film, the Salah Abu Sheif Special Jury Prize, and the United Nations Population Fund Award.

“A Son” is melodrama, if a carefully crafted one. The audience is inclined to forgive the plot’s implausible facets by the incessant crisis driving the story - and Barsaui’s skillful direction of traumatic hospital situations. The film also benefits from strong performances by both principal actors.

Most important is Barsaoui’s decision to keep the most TV-dramatic sequences off-frame. While Fares is learning about Meriem’s infidelity, for instance, the camera is focused on the doctor’s closed door.

Combined, these strengths do give Barsaoui’s cinematic cocktail a certain luster.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 07, 2019, on page 8.




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