Monday, September 23, 2013

Running To A Standstill

Abdelhamid Nawara in Die Welt

Die Welt (2013, directed by Alex Pitstra) starts out with an absolutely savage critique of American cultural imperialism. In this scene, a man asks the clerk at a Tunisian DVD shop to sell him a copy of Transformers 2 only to receive a tirade about the meaning of the images in that film, about how they disrespect both the customer and Arabs in general, about how the forces of the Middle East aren't up to the challenge of evil robots, but the Americans are. This scene is hilarious, pointed, and absolutely futile, even for Abdallah, the clerk, who the film follows through pre- and post-revolution Tunisia chasing dreams of escape. It's the film in microcosm.

Die Welt has four acts. They're titled, Kubrick-style: "Imperialism," "Casanovas," "Revolution," "Die Welt." In the first section of the film, we see just how deeply colonized Tunisia is by American and European culture. Corporate branding is everywhere, from Coca-Cola to Facebook. When Abdallah's sister suggests he get a Facebook account, he snaps, "Will Facebook get me a job?" It won't, of course. In the second section Abdallah goes on a trip to Tunis with his family and meets and has an affair with a Dutch woman. Abdallah has a stable family, and in this section, we get a long glimpse not only at his father and sister, but at his cousins and uncles. There's a long catalog of his relatives in a sequence at a wedding where Abdallah's father introduces the entire family to a pair of Dutch tourists. The tourists represent a better life to Abdallah and his cousins, who fantasize about marrying a European. Abdallah's fantasy sees him in a stylish modernist home with the woman with whom he has a dalliance, but it doesn't stray so far outside of his own experiences. There's a goat in his back yard in his daydreams. This is pretty funny. In the third section, Abdallah loses his job while the Jasmine Revolution provides background noise. He takes whatever other work he can get, including selling concessions at a vast open-air car market where the customers haggle over the latest automobiles from Europe. In the fourth section, Abdallah decides to follow his dream of the Dutch woman and illegally emigrate to Italy. To this end, he takes his father's car north and deals to be taken across the short stretch of sea. This doesn't go to plan.

Die Welt

This, obviously, is a film about culture clash. Or, perhaps less obviously, it's a film about cultural dialogue. Abdallah's tirade at the beginning of the film is hilarious because it's accurate--Transformers and, really, any American explode-y blockbuster really are instruments of cultural imperialism. That his customer is ultimately unimpressed, that he has an appetite for imperialist product, is where the dialogue comes in. Branding is everywhere in this movie: on soft drinks, on beer, on t-shirts--Abdallah's sister wears an "I (Heart) Tunis" t-shirt. Tunisia one of the Northern African countries nearest to Europe and it appears that it has never quite shaken off the conquest of Carthage. Cartago delenda est. Europe and Italy are still ascendant there, in spite of the protests of Abdallah's father, who claims that Europe is finished when talking to the Dutch girls.

Cinematically, this is a restless movie, shot mostly with hand-held cameras in an international indie style. There's a palpable sense of place in this film, whether at the resort in Tunis, on the streets of Souss, or at the big honking car market. This is a movie that's not sightseeing, but rather inhabiting its real estate. Director Alex Pitstra's is Dutch, but his father is Tunisian and this film is quasi-autobiographical, with the director perhaps imagining what his shadow family in Tunisia might be like. To this end, there are snippets of his own family's home movies occasionally dropped throughout. The end of the movie, with Abdallah intent on his own European half-family as a goal, could be seen as the director trying to reconcile his own two-sided heritage.

The very end of the movie, with Abdullah's failed attempt to emigrate set against the news of the revolution, seems overtly political. It's the myth of Sisyphus in parallel: the Tunisians have pushed the rock up the hill so many times only to have it roll back down over them that I suppose they can be cynical about the new boss. Same as the old boss, probably.

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