Stranger than fiction

Nahed Nasr , Tuesday 18 Jan 2022

Al-Ahram Weekly celebrates three inspiring Arab films of 2021.

Life Suits Me Well
Life Suits Me Well

Real memories can be stranger – more powerful, but also more unbelievable – than anything made up. In 2021 three Arab debuts that expertly mix cinematic imagination into true events, giving them deeper and wider relevance, bear testimony to the fact. Sometimes featuring a stand-in for the auteur, Life Suits Me Well by Moroccan filmmaker Al Hadi Ulad Mohand, Soula by Algerian filmmaker Salah Issaad and Farha by Jordanian filmmaker Darin J. Sallam

In Mohand’s film the teenage hero, Ismail (Sayed El Alami) doesn’t say much, but the effects of the transformation undergone by his quiet family, living in a small coastal town in Morocco in the mid-1990s, can be seen clearly on his face. The family consists of the father Fouad (Samir Guesmi), who gives up his teaching job to work for the post office following the onset of a mysterious illness no one can recognise, the mother (Lubna Azabal), and three children.

“It’s me at his age,” Mohand says of Ismail. “I was too young to understand what it meant for someone like my father in his fifties to have Alzheimer’s. I thought Alzheimer’s was something that hit very old people before they died. I was completely helpless and probably useless. But this is the cruel phase of my life, and it was never erased. Perhaps I started writing the movie in my head at that age without realising it.”

Even before you know that a good part of Life Suits Me Well is autobiographical, you can’t help being overwhelmed by what is going on on screen. Yet, more than the severity of the sudden illness, the dramatic transformation in the father’s personality it causes, and its devastating effects on everyone in the family, it is the immense energy of love that overwhelms everyone and flows out of the screen.

“Love saved us,” Mohand says, “and that is exactly what I wanted to say.” The more intense the crisis gets the stronger the bonds of love. Love cannot stop the relentless attack of disease but it does allow each member of the family to rediscover themself and their relation to the others, their importance to each other and in the world. “This is not a movie about illness and loss, but about how love can save us.”

The young director, who studied filmmaking in France, wrote the film over many years, at first unconsciously, making a series of short films before embarking on it. The result is a remarkably subtle script with scenes that come across as whole, vivid memories.

“The idea of the film had been in my mind for years,” Mohand says, “perhaps it was what motivated me to study cinema in the first place. But it wasn’t until I saw Breaking the Waves (1996) by the brilliant Danish director Lars von Trier that I knew exactly how to tell the story.”

Each in its way, Mohand’s film and Breaking the Waves, in which the heroine naively gives her life to save the man she loves, both films attempt to answer the question of how to convey the overwhelming energy of love through a movie?

Authenticity makes Life Suits Me Well a unique and immersive piece of poetry. Part of its originality results from the director’s ability to transform real-life images into powerful narrative. On Mohand’s phone there is a picture of him helping his father shave, which becomes a scene in the film.

A César-winning French-Moroccan actor, director and writer, Samir Guesmi told me the question of the director’s filmography didn’t really come up when he accepted the debut filmmaker’s offer of the lead role.

“The script was great and very subtle,” he says. “The cast was great. But I never asked myself why say yes, it was like intuition. Everything touched me intelligently and intimately. I don’t even know how I played the character. My feelings were leading me, smoothly and spontaneously. Whenever I thought about the true fate of this father who was waiting for the end at every moment, I felt the enormity of it. Fouad’s character shook me on paper because the real father was always on my mind.”

Life Suits Me Well had its world premiere at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, and its Arab premiere at the Red Sea International Film Festival in 2021. It received the prize for the best film in post-production at CineGouna Platform of El Gouna Film Festival 2020.

 

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You may be surprised by the credits of this film. “This movie is inspired by the life of Soula Bahri” is followed by “Starring Soula Bahri”. A fictional account of a single mother’s overnight journey across Algeria, Soula is an account, in the form of a road movie, of the woman’s rejection by her family and society in the name of honour. Trying to make it through the night with her baby, she is caught up in a spiral of violence and propelled towards her destiny. After he settled on her story for his debut, the young filmmaker Salah Essaad – whom I have known for years – says he auditioned numerous actors for the role, but found no one better than Soula Bahri herself.

“I was inspired by her real character, as well as by her story. It was amazing to me the reconciliation with which she deals with the world despite its cruelty. It was hard to imagine anyone else presenting the character with as much understanding and empathy,” Essaad says. “The film is mostly about what happened to her in reality. But it also includes fragments of tales of other women who went through similar circumstances.” It goes beyond the individual story of a young woman in an Algerian town, he explains. It’s a movie about prejudice, lack of empathy, and gratuitous cruelty. “Maybe when people get closer to Soula’s world, and to her suffering, they will reconsider many things. Soula was a great help to me in writing the script and in dealing with the actors, most of whom were facing the camera for the first time.”

Bahri, for her part, had a simple answer to why she would want to reenact such painful real-life events. “Is reality harsher or its re-enactment? I wanted people to see what happened, and to think about it so that they might understand it. That was my only motive,” she said, holding her little baby girl, who came along to the screening.

Soula had its world premiere at the Red Sea International Film festival in 2021.

 

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