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French Version

A European film that speaks an Arabic dialect or two

'Ma Salama Jamil' marks a promising yet contentious debut for Denmark's Omar Shargawi

It's rare to find European films that speak Arabic. Co-productions with filmmakers from the Middle East and North Africa that are set in the region have Arabic-speaking characters, but films on the experience of Europe's Arab and Muslim immigrants generally tell their stories in the language of their target audiences.

"Ma Salama Jamil" ("Go With Peace Jamil"), the debut film of Denmark's Omar Shargawi that had its world premiere at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam last week, is unique in that about 99 percent of its dialogue is in Arabic. Its notoriety was compounded when it won one of the festival's three Tiger Awards - the highest prize in a competition devoted to first and second films. The prize, worth 15,000 euros ($22,000) and guaranteed broadcast by the Dutch public broadcaster VPRO, promises to open many doors for the film.

A gangster movie set in Copenhagen's Arab community, the film begins when Jamil (Dar Salim) murders the son of a small-time mafia boss named Mahmoud (Khalid Alssubeihi), then follows the escalating violence that ensues.

Jamil isn't proud of his handiwork and he knows there will be retribution but, like another young Dane before him, he's uncertain what to do. He tries to convince his wife Yasmina (Amira Helene Larsen) to pack up their young son Adam and return to Lebanon with him, but she refuses, saying she has no confidence he'll ever change his ways.

Mahmoud, meanwhile, has dispatched his thugs, who are led by the venomous young Salah (Salah al-Koussa) to capture Jamil but they botch the job and kill his best friend Omar (played by the director).

Jamil's clean escape is now impossible. Both his friends and Omar's widow (also a mother) expect Jamil to avenge his friend's murder. The only voice of restraint is that of Jamil's father (Munir Shargawi).

Abu Jamil intervenes with Mahmoud in an effort to prevent his son's murder. Speaking with reasoned gravitas, he argues that the cycle of violence must be staunched because it will only destroy everyone concerned. Mahmoud agrees that the cycle must end, but says the only thing that will end it is Jamil's death.

Abu Jamil reminds him that they are both Muslims and that the Koran explicitly forbids murder. "God made man," he says, "and any man who destroys God's creation will be punished with eternal damnation."

Later, when he realizes that his son intends to avenge Omar's murder, Abu Jamil dissuades him by preparing him a meal of pork sausage.

"You know I can't eat that," says Jamil, looking faintly disgusted. "It's pork."

"So what?" he replies. "Eat it. It's good."

"Pork is haram."

"Pork is haram?" he says. "What about the murder you committed? Isn't that haram? And the crimes you commit to make a living, aren't they haram? The way you allow men to gawk at your wife, is that not haram?"

The audience learns Jamil's mother was murdered when he was a child. Social pressure ensured that the crime festered within him because his father did nothing to avenge the death himself. "How could I avenge your mother?" Abu Jamil asks. "Who would have raised you once they murdered me?"

The Islamic cast of Abu Jamil's arguments will doubly disorient European audiences.

On one hand, appeals to Denmark's secular justice system are as absent from "Jamil" as non-Arab Danes: It's genre convention these days for the cops to be missing from much of the action but the Danish language itself is also in short supply, used only when parents talk to their young children.

On the other hand, since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, and the so-called war on terror that followed, moderate representations of Islam have been eclipsed by those that envision the religion as the wellspring of a totalizing, ultimately fascist, ideology. Shargawi's film is daring because its form and content are primarily pitched to an Arabic-speaking immigrant community whose day-to-day reality is not, at least not yet, one of integrated, color-blind secularism.

Many Arab and Muslim Europeans will likely be wrong-footed by this film as well. Indeed, the assimilated secularists who tend to belong to Europe's cultural elite - and take pains to distance themselves from the news media equation of "Arab" and "violence" - may be horrified to see Shargawi's depiction of Arab immigrant experience as pinioned between bloody gangland vendetta and traditional Koranic injunction.

Skeptical audience members, Arab and non-Arab, may accuse Shargawi of opportunism in his script. Though all characters are Muslim, the discourse of violence coursing through the story is sectarian. Jamil's family and most of his friends are Sunni, while Mahmoud and most of his thugs are Shiite. The fact that the lines aren't hard and fast - Omar's mother is Shiite and one of Mahmoud's retainers, "The Egyptian," is Sunni - but this is the divide that animates these young men's inchoate rage.

"I was skeptical of this Sunni-Shia thing when I first read the script," remarked the film's star, Dar Salim, on the sidelines of the festival. "It wasn't part of my experience. But Omar showed me a different side of Copenhagen and that convinced me this is a real problem that has to be talked about."

Shargawi himself denies he's been opportunistic in this film, saying he began work on the script before the outbreak of violence between Sunnis and Shiites following Washington's overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

The Rotterdam festival's jury explained that it awarded "Jamil" for its strong acting and direction and success in finding a form to express the film's content. A key element in this is the film's dogme sensibility. The form, which is usually associated with the work of Lars von Trier, abjures cinematic niceties like beautiful framing, lighting and editing in favor of the raw image and storytelling. The name comes from a manifesto written in 1995 by von Trier and fellow director Thomas Vinterberg, called "Dogme 95," which outlined "a vow of chastity" composed of 10 rules for the movement's future filmmaking.

Shargawi's co-writer Mogens Rukov is a dogme veteran - having penned the form's first effort, Vinterberg's film "The Celebration (Festen)," from 1998. The camera work of cinematographer Aske Foss favors hand-held shots and close-ups, taking a dermatologist's interest in the tense, sweating, sometimes bloody faces of the film's male cast.

So narrow is the focus of the camerawork in "Jamil," particularly the exteriors, that the film is at once claustrophobic and oddly placeless. It's conceivable that even Copenhagen residents won't have enough cues to recognize the city whose neighborhoods provide the locations, while native-speakers of Arabic may be bemused to hear Abu Jamil speak to his son in Palestinian dialect, while Jamil replies to him in Iraqi.

Though there is strong writing here, there are weaknesses as well. It's fiendishly difficult to reconcile subtlety with political agenda and sometimes the characters make arguments about the primordial hatred between Sunnis and Shiites that wouldn't really be spoken unless an audience was listening in.

At times, the depiction of the Arab community borders on cliche - there is no pressing reason for Jamil's wife to be a belly dancer in an Arab nightclub, for instance. The characters constantly waver back and forth between their rage and humanity, believable enough in itself, though their changes of heart, particularly those occurring toward the end of the film, seem abrupt.

Shargawi is mining a vein of popular cinema convention that will likely appeal to commercial audiences as much as festivals like Rotterdam. But the film raises a number of concerns as well. The story, as Shargawi explains while trying to prize a cigarette from its package, is about the need for dialogue over the irrational hatreds and violence threatening the Arab immigrant community.

It's a laudable message, but one cannot but be concerned about the possible impact of a bloody Arab gangster film at a time when European populism seems inclined to be ever more bigoted. What happens, you wonder, if bigoted politicians use work like Shargawi's to justify restrictive immigration or monitoring policies?

Shargawi's chin falls to his chest and his cigarette pack is flung across the table. "If that happens," he says, pulling the palm of his hand over his shaven head, "then the film has failed."

For the present, though, it has succeeded.

Marseille,02 18 2008
The Daily Star
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