This Algerian film is apparently the second feature film of the director, who studied in France. The story/screenplay written by Hakkar is simple: a poor Algerian agrarian family, who survives by growing and selling potatoes and vegetables, deals with grief following the untimely death of the eldest son in an accident. The filming appears simple too: no flashy editing distracts the viewer, camera angles are unobtrusive, and the viewer's sensibilities are soothed by the delightful strains of evocative oudh (a string instrument) music. The oudh player Faycal Salhi, who provided the music for the film, was present at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) 2008 to collect on behalf of the Algerian director, the deserving Special Jury Award. The movie had earlier won the top award at the Valencia film festival, the best actor award at the Osian (New Delhi) festival, three awards at the Locarno festival, the special jury prize at the Carthage festival, among other honors elsewhere.
Sociologically, the film criticizes the lack of electricity in some villages of the oil rich country and yet commends the quick remedial, intervention when lapses are brought to the notice of the Algerian government officials. The film is not about economic injustice or government apathy; even though these real issues are present in the backdrop. In the forefront of this wonderful film are issues that are more universal: strong family bonds between husband and wife, between father and children, dead and alive.
The first half of the film deals with the impact of untimely death of the farmer's eldest son in an accident while serving in the police force and the father’s journey to Batna to identify and collect the mortal remains. The second half deals with the husband’s quixotic but dogged plan to bring the shattered life of his wife to normalcy with the help of a video recording made by his son before his death.
The film underlines everything that is positive about the Muslim world in a charming way that is not didactic. Policemen, who have never met the farmer before, help the man by providing him with a hazard light free-of-cost as he travels in the night on a three-wheeled farm tractor without headlights to bring his son's body home. Taxi drivers go out of the way to help him locate addresses in the city. An official at the morgue, instead of taking the farmer to task for “stealing” his son's body circumventing official procedures, takes the trouble to catch up with him on the highway and hands him the signed legal papers approving the release of the dead body. A pharmacist is asked by the farmer for some medicine to cure his wife’s depression from the tragedy, and the well-meaning pharmacist who has heard of a cure (painting the walls of his house yellow) that shares that information with the farmer. Ordinary individuals, who could easily have been indifferent to a poor man, go out of the way to lend a helping hand to man coping with grief. Would such good deeds happen in real life, one could well ask. My answer would be that human bonding when we recognize another person’s grief or loss is quite extraordinary.
Hakkar’s film is one of the finest films to emerge from North Africa in recent years almost comparable to Mohamed Asli’s lovely Moroccan film In Casablanca, angels don’t fly, also on the Berber community made in 2004. Hakkar has not just proved his mettle as a director but also as an interesting screenplay writer, who is capable of merging tragedy with low-key visual humor that never goes overboard. Hakkar’s dignified performance in the main role seems contagious—every other character in the film rises above petty minds to lend him a helping hand. The film’s screenplay underlines the need for all of us to tackle grief with courage and adopt a positive outlook at life’s continuity in all weathers. It is a film that reiterates that one can attain the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow through dogged persistence in life, while being gentle and considerate to others.
P.S. In Casablanca, angels don't fly was reviewed earlier on this blog.