Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Mar 09, 2013 4:29 pm 
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ABDELHAMID NAOUARA IN DIE WELT

Coming of age in the Arab Spring

Die Welt ("The World") wittily and pointedly begins on what's been called a Tarantinoesque note when its good looking young protagonist Abdullah's directly addresses to the camera at length -- he is, like Tarantino, a clerk in a video story -- on how the "Transformers" series, some of whose sequences he damningly summarizes, is a pure expression of western imperialism. He strongly recommends the customer choose Syriana instead. But the customer still asks for "Transformers" -- an early hint of the film's cynical, ironic vision. This is a film that's rough and unwieldy at times, but it does what it sets out to do with boldness and invention in defining a young Arab of today in a world of no future, despite the Arab Spring.

In this first feature Dutch-Tunisian filmmaker Alex Pitstra adopts a smart, partly humorous, sometimes simply documentary or anthropological approach in examining the dreams and disappointments of its young Tunisian male protagonist before, during, and just after the 2011"Jasmin" uprising that drove out the dictatorial Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. As a festival blurb puts it, Pitstra uses "an arsenal of cinematic techniques to explore a life he imagines he could have lived." Though the whole film is set in Tunisia, Pitstra was raised by his Dutch mother in Holland and took his mother's name. He did not meet his father till he was 25;. The film is a fantasy about how his life might have been if he'd grown up in Tunisia instead, like his father. Only in this version, he doesn't get to Holland.

Everything is pushing the 23-year-old Abdallah (Abdelhamid Naouara, heading a cast of non-pros) to quite his video shop job and escape illegally to Europe; actually. Circumstances push him further in that direction. He takes a break from the store, and when he returns, his job is gone. What follows is even less satisfactory. The film's hip touches includes its ironic parts signaled by inter-titles, some actual home footage of the director's family as flashbacks to Abdullah's youth, shots of an authentic traditional family to introduce a family wedding, and the bold casting of the writer-director's real father Mohsen Ben Hassen as Abdullah's dad. Though a non-pro like the rest, Hassen is a trilingual charmer and a natural on screen. As a dad, however, he is relentlessly unsympathetic, never helping or encouraging Abdullah or even letting him watch what he wants to on TV.

Along the way Die Welt lightly sketeches in political details of Tunisia i with background sounds of Arabic news broadcasts about attempts at an election, hinting that the Jasmine revolution will bring about nothing new with the departure of the dictatorship -- no decrease of unemployment, reduction of poverty, or greater sense of freedom. The transition from the family oligarchy is stagnated in a state of painful purgatory that leaves the country's future completely uncertain. An exchange among men in a barbershop shows it's up in the air whether the new society will be under religious or secular rule, but the biggest vote has been received by the religious party, El Nahda.

In a pivotal (if slightly vague) sequence, Abdullah has a night with a visiting Dutch lady when his father invites her and her friend to their a family wedding at a hotel. This one night stand plants a recurrent dream of the western life as he imagines it -- brand new house by the sea, fridge stocked with soft drinks, blond girlfriend. It's presumably these fantasies, along with his uneasy job situation, lack of support from his father, and post-revolutionary disillusion that lead Abdullah to turn up where people he knows arrange to smuggle men out of Tunisia and across the Mediterranean to Italy. One of the film's best segments, headed "Die Welt," is a musical journey by night accompanied by a requiem mass and an onboard singer who heralds their destination, "Lampedusa" -- though the actual finale is as bitter and downbeat as anything that came before.

Throughout Die Welt maintains a mostly documentary-style hand-held camera look provided by Pitstra's fellow Dutch director and co-writer Thijs Gloger, sometimes alternating the bleaker urban visuals with softer, dreamier sequences of the European seaside to focus on the more beautiful world Abdullah aspires to. The film combines a great variety of kinds of scene and image, which makes it seem a grab-bag at times, but condenses a great deal of cultural data and experience into its short running time.

Stephen Dalton of The Hollywood Reporter describes Die Welt as "an absorbing debut that ultimately feels a little too slight to fully explore its rich jumble of themes. Even so, it pulls off a crucial trick for a first-time feature by leaving you wanting more." Obviously the blend of American and European hipness with an awareness of the Arab emigré experience and intimate access to lower middle class Tunisian locals is a fresh one. One hopes to see ore of Pitstra's dry, vivid emgré vision.

Die Welt, 80 mins., debuted at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. It was screened for this review as part of the joint Museum of Modern Art and Film Society of Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films, which runs this year from March 20 to 31, 2013.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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