Tug Of War: The Elegance Of Style
in 33rd Carthage Film Festival
Amil Shivji’s Tug of War (Vuta N’kuvuteor, 2021) did not only win the hearts of the FIPRESCI jury at the 2022 Carthage Film Festival (JCC). Screening in the official feature competition, the movie received three awards in total, including the FIPRESCI prize as well as the prestigious Tanit d’Or Golden Tanit (Best Feature Film Award) and the Award for Best Cinematography. Judging from its title, one would expect a movie about war and violence, but what a joy to discover a story of struggle, gentleness and magical humanity.
The action takes place in the 1950s in Tanzania, precisely in Zanzibar, then still under British colonial rule. The film centres on the question of war from an unexpected narrative angle. It’s like a serenade between Dange (Gudrun Columbus Mwanyika) and Jasmine (Ikhlas Gafur Vora), woven into the delicate political context of the country’s history. Dange is a gentle and rebellious communist fighter, he dreams of freedom and equality. He meets Jasmine, a Zanzibari Indian woman, who got married by force and decides to flee the marital home, thirsty for love and freedom.
At the beginning, the link between the two characters is unclear, but soon we discover that the film plays with the ambiguity of their relationship. The beautiful energy between the two actors charms us with its sober tenderness and its noble, human and legitimate cause; in short, one is nothing without the other. The film never exposes this marginal couple in a seductive way. Between the two characters, everything is about details and subtlety. They both lose themselves for the sake of the other, out of love. The camera is fixed on their gaze, their closeness and even their breathing; it captures their soul.
The film does not expose a war of great violence either, most of the time it is of a noble silence. The plot is built around on various narrative angles, on historical facts and, eventually, a beautiful story reveals its full meaning. Amil Shivji opts for an aesthetic bias even more unexpected than the story itself, but equally moving. Curiously, the dark side, often illuminated by the color red, the color of revolt, dominates the shots, illuminates the heroes of the film and gives them all their credibility and all the accuracy of their fighting.
At the same time, Tug of War is a film with an exceptional sound aesthetic, full of musical surprises. We discover the Zanzibari singer Siti Amina, who plays Mwajuma, a bewitching voice that she uses in her own way to fight against segregation. At one point, she utters a line that sums up her character, ‘I will sing so that all Zanzibar can hear me.’ However, the entire soundtrack is a marvel, composed by the talented Amine Bouhafa, who does not hesitate to take the risk of opting for an unexpected musical choice that perfectly serves a narrative enclosing the Indian, black and Arab communities. Against all expectations, this also includes the divine voice of the iconic Lebanese singer Sabah as well as the Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez, aka the “brown nightingale”.
Tug of War is a film of remarkable scriptwriting accuracy – poetic and mature in equal measure. For me, it is a real philosophical reflection that is invoking sensualism. Each shot, each sound is a sensation linked and associated with other shots and sounds, reminding us of the elegance of the style and the subtle emotion of the Hong Kong film In the Mood for Love (Fa yeung nin wah, 2000) by Wong Kar-Wai.
Edited by Pamela Jahn
© FIPRESCI 2022