"Go in Peace Jamil": With Peace, and with a Sword By Neil Young

in 31st Goteborg International Film Festival

by Neil Young

A startlingly bold and invigoratingly different kind of Danish film, Go in Peace Jamil (Ma salama, Jamil) is director/co-writer Omar Shargawi’s pummeling intense study of masculinity, family, revenge and violence among Copenhagen’s Muslim community. We begin, with bullish, thirtyish Jamil (Dar Salim) preparing to commit an unspecified violent act. The mood is so ominous that we brace ourselves for some kind of terrorist atrocity — but it turns out that Jamil is in fact engaged in inter-ethnic strife between Sunni and Shia, a long running battle which has already claimed the life of his mother. Jamil finds himself torn between the need to avenge his mother’s death, and to make a better world for his young son, Adam (Elias Samir Al-Sobehi). The killing of his best friend Omar (Omar Shargawi), however, takes the internecine conflict to a new height — with dire consequences for all concerned…

The 33-year-old son of a Palestinian father and a Danish mother, Shargawi makes an auspicious big-screen debut here — he’s previously worked mainly as a (self-taught) stills photographer, while also popping up as a supporting player in TV dramas. This is a project which he has been developing since 2003, and was originally intended to be a short. “I was born and raised in safe, secure Denmark myself”, Shargawi told Alen Meskovic (of the Danish publication “Film”) in May last year, “but I have a lot of friends who lived through the war in Lebanon in the 1980s. They lost loved ones in the war and it’s still fresh with them. From the sidelines, I always wondered about the smoldering hatred between Shias and Sunnis. The issue has so much currency today because of the war in Iraq, but it didn’t when I started making the film. At the time, I was simply trying to get a grip on it: They are all Muslims like me, yet there is conflict. In many ways, making the film was a search for an answer. All the same, this conflict is only the backdrop for the film’s story. I have no theological ambitions.”

This isn’t a solo effort, however. On Go in Peace Jamil Shargawi shares a scriptwriting credit with 65-year-old Mogens Rukov — the eminence not-so-grise of Denmark’s remarkable cinematic resurgence over the past decade. Founder of the Danish National Film School’s Screenwriting department in 1988 and now Head of Screenwriting and Dramaturgy, Rukov co-wrote internationally acclaimed titles such as Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (Festen,1998), Per Fly’s Inheritance (Arven, 2003) and Christoffer Boe’s Reconstruction (2003) — films which helped make familiar faces out of performers including Ulrich Thomsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Nicolas Bro and Paprika Steen. Perhaps too familiar, in fact — and the total absence of any of the usual Danish stars is just one of the reasons why Jamil feels like such a refreshing change.

Indeed, the film is very careful to avoid geographical signifiers of any kind: one must have eagle eyes to spot a Caucasian face anywhere in the picture’s 90 minutes; there’s no mention of Copenhagen, Denmark or even Europe; Arabic is the predominant language (though it’s clearly no accident that the youngest participant, Adam, mainly speaks — and is spoken to — in Danish). Director Shargawi’s preference for very close close-ups, meanwhile, places the emphasis on the characters rather than their general environment. Even more so than, say, the Italian-Americans of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) — a film to which Go in Peace Jamil bears more than a passing resemblance — these men (and they are nearly all men) live within a kind of cultural bubble: they aren’t shown interacting with any outsiders at all. Indeed, the early sections might as well be taking place in Lebanon, Syria or Iraq — it comes as a bit of a surprise when, twenty minutes or so into the picture, the protagonists runs into what’s visibly a European city.

“We’ll fill the streets with their blood”, cries one of them — and one could argue that the ironically-titled Go in Peace Jamil doesn’t exactly paint a flattering picture of Muslim immigrants in present-day Denmark. This is, of course, the country which became such a focus for hot potato religious and political issues in 2005 after the newspaper “Jyllands-Posten” published a series of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. Most of the individuals we see are motivated by what’s referred to at one point as “mortal hate”: knife wielding, clannish, hot tempered, reactionary, and consumed with their blood-feuds. But Shargawi is carefully even-handed in his approach, taking the time to show the positive sides of Muslim life: the strong bonds within family members and between friends (“brothers”); respect for community elders; and, via the increasingly tortured figure of Jamil, a desire to move forward, away from bloodshed, via clemency and reconciliation. “My past is eating me up from within!” he cries at one particularly freight juncture, as his faith, his identity and his self image all come under harrowing intense pressure.

This is an authentic, insiders’ take on the immigrant experience — something of a pity, then, that the plot should skirt melodrama, predictability and heavy-handedness at several key stages as the grim cycle of vengeance unfolds. In addition, Shargawi’s focus is so intense that it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of the relationships between the characters and the specifics of their discord. The emotional impact of the climactic scene is undercut, meanwhile, by a slight vagueness about exactly what has happened and why.

But there are compensations aplenty in this film of impressively grim, gripping force — a somewhat blunt instrument at times, but one which hits very hard and leaves a lasting mark. Cinematographer Aske Foss gets up close and very personal throughout, producing slick images full of moodily saturated colors — while no fewer than three credited editors (Anders Refn — father of the Pusher Trilogy’s Nicolas Winding Refn — plus Per Sandholt and Henrik Thiesen) keep proceedings cracking along with the urgency of a Hollywood thriller. Indeed, broodingly charismatic newcomer Salim (who looks rather like a combination of Vin Diesel and LL Cool J) could easily pursue a career in the more kinetic and commercial avenues of current world cinema. Shargawi, likewise, now has numerous options. While it may be premature to label him Danish “cousin” of Paul Greengrass, there aren’t many film makers who are able to tackle such tricky social issues with this kind of confident, accessible brio. It’ll be fascinating to see where he goes from here.