Friday, March 23, 2018

Rape and its aftermath in the Arab world's said-to-be most democratic country: Kaouther Ben Hania's BEAUTY AND THE DOGS

The first thing TrustMovies did after viewing BEAUTY AND THE DOGS -- the Tunisian-set narrative film (based on a real incident) from filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania -- was to find out more about the tiny North African country of Tunisia, which is said by Wikipedia to be considered the only full democracy in the Arab world. How that "democracy" is seen by Ms Ben Hania (shown below), however, indicates that her country has a long way to go regarding the rights of women and the persistence of abuse by the police.

Beauty and the Dogs is also said to have been filmed in discrete sections, each of which was done in a single "take." While this is unusual, still, entire movies have actually been filmed in one take: Russian Ark and Valzer, to name two. This  decision and its execution does lend the film both immediacy and a kind of improvisational quality that adds to its veracity.

Regarding that veracity, however, some understanding of the history, culture and character of Tunisia might also help matters.

My spouse opined, during the course of the film, that this young woman, as well as the male friend who helps her, would have been long dead by now at the hands of the police (some of whom are shown above). That thought did crop up in my mind, too, but Tunisia is not Egypt nor Saudi Arabia. Democratic standards are at least higher there, and while the police can get away with a lot -- quite a lot, as you will come to observe --  there apparently is a limit.

The tale told here is one of a quite beautiful and bountiful 21-year-old student, Mariam (played by the impressive and talented newcomer, Mariam Al Ferjani (above and below), who has organized a dance party with the help of her friends, and hopes to have a good time and maybe meet a young man she sees hanging out around the dance floor (Ghanem Zrelli, below). She does meet this fellow, Youssef, but suddenly we're in scene number two, and the pair appear to be running for their lives. What has happened?

The answer to that sets the tone and provides remainder of this very dark and pretty ugly story, the various pieces of which fall into place, as we watch Mariam and Youssef try to negotiate the ordeal of post-rape procedure in Tunisia. This involves private vs public hospitals, the willingness (or not) of medical professionals to do their job, and most of all -- of course -- it involves the police who are, in this case, more than a little involved by being both the assailants and the supposed instruments for justice.

These guardians of society threaten, cajole, blackmail, lie, play the good-cop/bad-cop game, and oh, so much more  (my favorite is their don't-you-love-your-country scam), as they attempt to get our girl to drop the charges. Mariam's perseverance proves at times almost too much, and yet Ms All Ferjani's performance is so good -- so full of fear, anger, shock, energy and strength that she sometimes single-handedly carries you along. Tunisia is clearly still bound by its traditional Muslim past (Mariam's connection to her father runs strongly and consistently through the film), and the writer/director makes clear how much tradition matters and how her country is in a transitional phase.

I rather wish, however, that the filmmaker has not left out some really key scenes (the rape is one of these; another concerns what happened at a pivotal moment when Mariam needs to escape. Instead of learning how she managed to do this, we simply movie to the next discrete chapter, in which the threat has evidently evaporated.

Overall, though, Beatuy and the Dogs is a pretty riveting, stimulating movie. It should have you wishing Tunisia well in its continuing climb toward democracy -- even as so many western nations, including our own, seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

From Oscilloscope Films, in Arabic with English subtitles and running 100 minutes, the movie opens today, Friday, March 23, in Los Angeles (at the Landmark NuArt) and New York City (the Landmark 57th), and will then hit cities across the country over the weeks to come. Here in South Florida it will play the Bill Cosford Cinema in Miami, beginning April 13. To view all upcoming playdates, cities and theaters, click here and then scroll down. 

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