"Masquerades": The Dramatic Irony of Old Traditions By Hussein Bayoumy

in 5th Dubai International Film Festival

by Mohamed Hussein Bayoumi

Lyes Salem, the director of this film, was born in Algeria, in 1973. After establishing himself as a versatile and accomplished actor, with experience in classical and modern theatre, cinema and television, he turned to direction with his first short film Lhasa (1990). This was followed by the prize-winning short Jean Farès (2001). In this regard, Masquerades can be considered as his first feature film. However, when I was watching the film for the first time at the Cairo International Film Festival, it grabbed my complete attention. This feeling was assured when I was watching the film for the second time at the Dubai International Film Festival. One can add that the majority of any audience would become astonished by the film. Moreover, Masquerades (Mascarades) won the admiration of many film critics. Thus, it has gained prizes in more than three international film festivals.

The first conspicuous aspect one notices with Masquerades is its combination of art and entertainment. The main theme which is ‘the keeping of old traditions’, and the subthemes such as love, poverty, weddings, etc., is approached and treated on several levels, so it can be communicated with the public generally, not only by elites or intellectuals. Therein, the latter may read the field from different points of view. Masquerades is based on a compact text (screenplay), and we should take note that the director also played the role of protagonist and participated with others in writing the scenario.

The drama in Masquerades tends to depend not on comedy but on dramatic irony, i.e., the audience knows what the characters do not know, the pace proceeds rapidly and becomes exciting as a result of the paradox coming from a man under the influence of alcohol. There are no digressions, some scenes have connotations, and these are what have deeper meaning in the film’s structure. All the characters are rounded; even the antagonists and the village itself as a place has a special presence its own character. Although the fun occurs sometimes, this movie, in contrast to many Arabic movies, does not depend on farce or melodrama in the treatment of its subject, but that does not mean that the movie is very serious or rigid but, rather, that it is an innovation of new dramatic formulas, including jokes.

The events of the story take place in a village in the heart of the Algerian Aurès. The movie was filmed in a virtual place and some of the natives appear and participate in location scenes. Needless to say, this sort of filming adds more reality and more vitality to the image.

We can summarize the story of Masquerades in a few lines. A young woman called Rym lives with her small family, which consists of her brother Monir and his wife and their boy. Rym suffers from an abnormal disease ‘the sudden sleeping’, so she falls asleep anywhere. Although she loves Halifax, her brother friend, who has equal sentiment for her, no one in the village knows this matter. All the people see her as an undesirable girl. One night, her brother, under the influence of alcohol, announces that his sister will marry. A lie — that the future husband is rich and European and he will convert to Islam — turns to rumor and is spread all over the village and creates a situation to form a paradox and accelerate the climax.

Reflections and opinions of people change rapidly on the other side and their hypocrisy alters to a new form of dissimulation. Many of them have hopes and wishes for the new generation to achieve. Monir, meanwhile, falls in impasse and Halifax asks Monir to marry his sister. At first, Monir refuses and hits his friend who insults him by declaration that he and Rym exchanged deep sentiment some four years earlier. Finally, the lie is discovered, and Rym escapes from her family home to Halifax’s home. The religious man comes to complete the protocols of marriage and her brother Monir agrees to save face… to marry Rym and Halifax.

The rapid rhythm of the film is the suitable solution to the tension of paradox and dramatic irony. Here we can remember Woody Allen, but this does not mean that Lyes Salem is not a genuine filmmaker. Furthermore, he is also talented and peculiar, but while his semiotics is as authentic as his expression of his native culture, it may seem exotic from other cultural points of view.