A Lebanese intellectual has suggested that if civil conflict cannot be resolved politically, then reconciliation has to take place culturally. This is an interesting proposition, even to the most sceptical student of Lebanese politics. One such effort at reconciliation within the film genre was demonstrated in two Franco-Algerian productions screened at the Beirut Film Festival this year: Abdel-Karim Bahloul’s La Nuit du Destin and Mahmoud Zemmouri’s 100% Arabica.
Though they deal with many of the same themes as self-consciously “artistic” films, neither of these pieces is highbrow in conception or execution. They were intended for a popular audience, a Francophone one, which makes them more interesting than their non-commercial counterparts. Nuit is a detective story set against the background of the Franco-Maghrebi community, while Arabica is a celluloid cross between a comic book and a music video.
The plot of Nuit revolves around the murder of a prominent French industrialist, witnessed by an aged Franco-Algerian, Mr Slimani. Slimani doesn’t come forward to testify, even after he discovers the identity of the murderer on television. Slimani is torn between the merits of civic responsibility and the safety of anonymity within his community. The lynchpin of the conflict is thus the central issue of the ex-pat community: individual inclusion versus group exclusivity.
The relationship between Europeans and Maghrebis is also treated in Arabica in this case the common interests of the town mayor and the local imam. The mayor wants to control the raucous immigrant quarter; the imam wants to draw the locals back to the mosque.
Secularism is represented here by Rai music, specifically Rachid (Khaled) and his newly arrived rival, Cheb Krimo (Cheb Mami). In Arabica there are two levels of inclusion: political, based on social control (bad) and cultural (good). Zemmouri is interested in the factors unifying the immigrant community (west Africans as well as Maghrebis): economic marginalisation and the cultural response to it. This cultural response Rai is itself a force of inclusion since Arabs, Africans and Europeans are all shown to enjoy it. This point also finds its way into Nuit as well.
One of the most striking differences between Nuit and Arabica is their treatment of the French police. In Arabica the police, like all the characters, are caricatures. One scene shows them barrelling into the immigrant quarter, guns drawn, only to have their dramatic exit denied when their car refuses to start. Nuit’s treatment of the police is more nuanced, as its main character is a policeman. Ignorant of Arabic and Islam, inspector Leclerc is typical of the clichéd image of the French policeman. Bahloul gives him a more sympathetic side though, as he rather naïvely undertakes some research on Islam to crack the case.
Leclerc’s other humanising feature is his attraction to Noria, a beautiful Franco-Algerian woman whom he tries to enlist as a translator. His pursuit of Noria reveals Leclerc’s fondness for Rai music. One night, at a loss as to how to proceed with either the case or Noria, he goes into a Maghrebi restaurant to listen to a Ramadan Rai performance. When the police show up to shut the place down, Leclerc intervenes. The cops leave, though it is obvious that this is a favour to Leclerc, not the Muslims. There is also a love-interest element in Arabica, between the manager of Khaled’s band and the sister of one of the conservative thugs from the mosque.
The other point of contrast between the two films is their treatment of Islam. Though creeping secularism is evident in both, the reaction of the films’ respective “imams” is very different. In Arabica the bewilderment of imam Slimane and his sidekick Majid at declining mosque attendance has more to do with issues of control than commitment to the faith. When attendance reaches ridiculously low levels, we see the two shed their ‘abiyaat and go to the mayor for financial support to destroy Khaled’s band. When Majid finds his sister fraternising with Khaled’s band manager, he resorts to trying to break them up with a baseball bat. Institutional Islam is portrayed as not only irrelevant but hostile to the lives of the average immigrant.
In Nuit the imam is a voice of moderation, using Islamic terms to encourage his congregation to live up to their civic responsibilities. This perspective is echoed by Slimani’s son Alilou, a non-observant journalist. At one point, though, Alilou is termed “a spy” by one of the members of the mosque. This bigoted image of Islam reverberates later in the film, when Noria is confronted for being inappropriately dressed on the mosque’s grounds and when Alilou feels compelled to conceal his drinking in a restaurant.
But generally Nuit’s rendering of Islam is more sympathetic, even melancholic. Increasing secularism among the young is depicted as dividing the Maghreb. All that remains of their common culture is a popular mythology derived from the koran.
As is so often the case with popular cinema, each of these films leaves us with a smile. But there is an undercurrent of ambivalence as well. Nuit ends with the victory of civic responsibility and cultural reconciliation. Thanks to Mr Slimani, the criminal is brought to justice and Leclerc is shown walking happily with Noria: presumably any cop who’ll go through the trouble to write her a note in Arabic can’t be such a pig after all. The case may be solved but the dissolution of the Maghrebi community’s cultural bonds remains a riddle. In the end, “cultural reconciliation” here looks a lot like French assimilation.
At the end of Arabica, the rivalry between the two Rai singers is reconciled by simply having Cheb Mami join Khaled’s band, Raporiental. The efforts of the religious thugs, Slimane and Majid, to break up Raporiental’s concert with baseball bats is overcome by the concert-goers’ sheer numbers. The vindictive Majid gets a good thrashing and Slimane escapes by driving off in a pork delivery van. The violence and spiritual bankruptcy of the thugs is comically revealed and defeated. What remains is multi-cultural diversity unified by the vibrancy of Rai and by the French language, which all the characters speak when they’re not singing. The basic issue of the economic marginality afflicting the community is left at the doorstep of the caricatured French establishment.
Ultimately the message of both these films seems to be that the only cultural response to the difficult position of the Maghrebis is tolerance. In their own way, Zemmouri and Bahloul recommend that the French European and Maghrebi simply carry on living together and the sheer weight of the mix will overcome the difficulties. No one would question the wisdom of this (or that Europeans enjoy Rai and couscous as much as Maghrebis) but neither film really addresses the issue of Islam. Neither acknowledges the possibility that institutional Islam can be a positive, constructive force among Muslims, whether in a minority or majority position. Whether the pious Muslims are caricatured or not, the marginal place of Islam in these films betrays the film-makers’ secular perspective.
One comes away from this exercise in cultural reconciliation longing to hear the “other side” of the secular-Muslim dialogue and wondering if the other side has actually spoken yet.
Anyone longing to see these films will have to go hungry. Not surprisingly, given Lebanon’s large Francophone Arab population, both 100% Arabica and La Nuit du Destin were very well received in Beirut during the film festival. Mysteriously, however, neither of them has been picked up by local cinemas for general release.