An Autobiographical Journey of an Underprivileged yet Gifted Youth
by Ola Salwa
Many of the films presented at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival dealt with the subject of diversity, multiculturalism and tension that inevitably appears between people of different nationalities, religions, ethnic or social background. Especially young directors, whose first and second features were part of the Discovery Program, proved to have those issues close to their hearts and cameras. Writer-director Abd Al Malik is one of them with his absorbing coming-of-age film May Allah Bless France! (Qu’Allah Benisse La France!), based on his autobiographical novel. Akin to the agitation and unease that was created by Matthieu Kasovitz in La Haine and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, this newcomer establishes his own, distinctive voice and daring visual style.
Malik tells a story of youths living on the wrong side of tracks in the French city of Strasburg. Coming from underprivileged background and often born to immigrant families, they’re subjected to constant social bias and discrimination. Restless parties, drugs, acts of rapid violence are their daily routine, while rap music is the only healthy tool to vocalise their frustration and anger. An anger that is much more than the regular teenage sturm und drang, because it will not simply blow overwith age. In this bleak world the protagonist Regis shines like a gem. Uncommonly intelligent, sensitive and inquisitive, he is interested in literature and philosophy. His rap songs are more than just rants, they are a tool that Regis uses, to describe his inner world and show a glimpse of unattainable and unnamed human spirit. He’s a poet at heart and rapper by choice. These two driving forces — cerebral hunger and a need to express what he really feels about the world, are pulling Regis away from his modest starting point. While he loses his friends that succumb to drug abuse and AIDS or die by their own hand, the film’s protagonist progresses. An important turning point in his life is falling in love with a girl, who gives him a book on Sufism, a fraction of islam most open to dialogue. Soon he himself converts to islam and takes the name Abd Al Malik while he faces yet another bias — that every Muslim is a terrorist. May Allah Bless France! is in this regard a coming of age story and also a philosophical study of human beings. Apart from the omnipresent social context of the story, a very important theme of the film is the inner development of Regis/Abd Al Malik and the focus on the main character is never lost, whereas society tends to disregard the likes of Regis.
The director shows how the young man alters the narrative structure: as the film progresses Regis rap songs are replaced by his inner monologues, more cerebral than emotional, marking his personal growth.
In May Allah Bless France! Malik gives the basic outline of human needs — gaining knowledge, love and faith. However the French helmer is never didactic or instructive, nor does he push any kind of religious agenda. His approach to his personal story is conscientious and engaged yet he remains a bit distant, as if he was just bearing witness to someone else’s story. May Allah Bless France! also has very strong visual narrative: shot entirely in black and white it perfectly underlines the dramatic tension between Regis and the world. Malik experiments with editing and pacing to show the delicate shifts in the life of his main character and the world around him. May Allah Bless France! fulfills the motto of TIFF perfectly — it may transform the way people see the world.
Edited by Yael Shuv
© FIPRESCI 2014