A middling contender for the festival’s top prize makes you wonder if quality is the only criterion.
You can understand why some films of iffy quality find a place at a festival. Like the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, which I missed due to a late flight into Berlin. But everyone said it was nothing special – at least, nothing special enough to open such a major international event. But not every film can be about pushing the boundaries of cinematic art, like Lav Diaz’s 8-hour-2 minute-drama, A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery. A festival needs stars and glamour too, which is why big, splashy Hollywood releases with big, splashy names have to be accommodated. (Gone are the days when arthouse greats like Bergman, Godard and Fellini were enough to qualify as big, splashy names.) But what explains the inclusion – in competition, which means it’s a contender for the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear – of the Arabic drama Inhebbek Hedi, directed by Mohamed Ben Attia?
This is the story of a young Tunisian named Hedi (Majd Mastoura), who works as a sales agent for Peugeot. The first scene shows him stuck in traffic, knotting his tie in his car (translation: he’s suffocating), as a single piano key is struck repeatedly on the soundtrack (translation: something ominous is about to happen). It isn’t a good sign when we begin with clichés – and they keep piling up. Hedi is entering into an arranged marriage with Khedija (Omnia Ben Ghali), who’s so demure she’ll only meet him in his car, and even after three years of knowing him, she shrinks back when he attempts to kiss her. Is it any surprise that he’s drawn to the free-spirited Rym (Rym Ben Messaoud), who entertains tourists with Hawaiian dances and has a tattoo and wears off-shoulder dresses accessorized with a very visible bra strap? To make things clearer, Rym, unlike Khedija, lives by the sea – she’s locked in neither by land, nor by the customs and traditions of the land.
There are hints that Inhebbek Hedi isn’t just a love triangle, that something larger is at play. The country is in a crisis. Sales are decreasing. (Hedi’s boss won’t give him time off for the wedding.) Rym wants to move to France. Hedi’s brother Ahmed (Hakim Boumsaoudi) is in France too, working as an engineer. But even there, life is tough for immigrants. The festival brochure tries to sell the film this way: “An ostensibly personal story broadens into a panorama of a society in upheaval, an allegory about breaking away from traditions. And a film about happiness and pain of freedom.” But all of this is utterly familiar to anyone who watches Hollywood films. Or even the recent Indian multiplex films, many of which are about people trapped between the opposing pulls of tradition and freedom.
At many points, I felt I was watching an Indian film. “He’ll always be my little boy,” coos Hedi’s mother. Later, when she learns he may not be marrying Khedija, she wails, “After all we have done for you…” There’s talk of dowry and the unwillingness to settle down someplace too far away from one’s parents, and Ahmed – the film’s most interesting character – is like many NRIs who cannot (or will not) return home and yet want to control what’s happening at home. He’s keen on the Hedi- Khedija wedding because he wants to get into business with her father. He finds Hedi a better job because he feels that will enable him to take better care of their mother, who expects Hedi to stay with her even after marriage. (As a concession, she has made modifications to the house, so he’ll have his own entrance.)
Hedi is a… nice film, and at times an affecting film, but is “nice” a criterion to compete for one of the world’s most prestigious film awards? With the racism row heating up, thanks to the Oscars, it’s impossible not to wonder if films like Hedi are selected simply so that the competition lineup has some diversity. Hedi, undoubtedly, is a window to another world, one where women wear head scarves and yet smoke cigarettes, where the sounds of ululating at rituals commingle with the sounds of premarital lovemaking. But can this alone be enough? Then again, without this diversity, I suppose festival organisers will throw themselves open to questions about racism, especially with the refugee crisis in Europe. Still, at the end, even if I didn’t feel my mind had expanded, I found that my heart had swelled a bit – for we’ve all been through some version of Hedi’s dilemma. As much as we want to break free, some ties are too strong. The opening image couldn’t be more appropriate.
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