Somewhere in Africa


With attempts at cross-cultural understanding in short supply, Anthology’s weeklong selection of films from cinematically underrepresented countries like Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, as well as works from the Arab enclaves of Europe, should be required viewing. Many of the offerings take the tense duality of Arab-African identity and the lure of Western ideals as themes, approaching them via a variety of genres. Mahmoud Zemmouri’s giddy 1997 comedy 100% Arabica (which received a brief local release in 2000) uses rap-tinged Rai and petty-crime antics to anchor a pleasantly simplistic tale of North Africans struggling for dignity in a Paris housing project. Abdelkrim Bahloul’s thriller Night of Destiny is a competent, quasi-Hitchcockian policier concerning the hunt for a murder witness among Paris’s Algerian community. Silimani (Gamil Ratib), a retiree and devout Muslim, flees to his homeland rather than risk reprisal for revealing what he’s seen; his son, Alilou (Boris Terral), is left to watch over the family and deal with a persistent detective (Philippe Volter). Nouri Bouzid’s Bezness, about a young Tunisian prostitute torn between his devotion to Islam and his attraction to the seeming moral freedom of Europe, covers similar territory in more personal and less melodramatic fashion.

Complementing the series for a week beginning April 17 is Nabil Ayouch’s 2000 Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, which has been copping awards on the festival circuit. This marks its New York theatrical premiere, and it’s high time. Like the trigger-happy City of God, Ali Zaoua focuses on a gang of street children and features a cast of largely nonprofessional actors (an exception, Saïd Taghmaoui from Three Kings and The Good Thief, plays the kids’ abusive mute ringleader). But where City settled for jumped-up nihilism, Ayouch’s film finds quiet hope among its down-and-out preadolescent glue-sniffers. Equal parts Los Olvidados, Pixote, and As I Lay Dying, Ali Zaoua chronicles the efforts of a trio of friends to give their murdered companion (the titular Ali) a decent burial. Ayouch captures the squalid Casablanca settings in breathtaking wide-screen, and his fluid, inquisitive camera subtly exposes the longing and desperation harbored by his characters—and, presumably, his actors. It’s an oblique, heartbreaking film that bravely, if precariously, gives lie to the gang’s rally cry that “life is a pile of shit.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 8, 2003

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