Tuesday, 4 January 2011

What kind of epitaph is this?

There are over 30 films about 9/11. Now here’s one about 7/7 — made by an Arab, in French

Jeff Dawson

Published: 4 July 2010, Sunday Times

Two countries separated by a common language. In response to the war on terror, America yields up the film World Trade Center, an action spectacular with Nicolas Cage as a heroically buff New York cop; Britain makes Four Lions, a bargain-basement satirical comedy about a bunch of inept jihadists.

To be fair, the British film industry doesn’t have the financial muscle to mount anything of comparable shock and awe — certainly nothing to rival the 30 or more Hollywood flicks that have sprung from the rubble of the Twin Towers in the past eight years. Tellingly, most of them — for want of better terms, “war films” or “conspiracy thrillers” such as The Hurt Locker, Green Zone, Syriana, The Kingdom and Body of Lies — have confined their action to the Middle East. Bringing it home remains a risky business. Even the 2006 film United 93, a straight-bat American movie about the passenger rebellion that downed one of the 9/11 flights, was filmed at the safe remove of Pinewood.

This week, timed for the fifth anniversary, comes the first film about the London Tube bombings of July 7, 2005. Entitled London River, it chooses not to portray events specifically, but to use them as a backdrop. “You couldn’t really do better than the news,” shrugs its director, Rachid Bouchareb, who works television footage into the proceedings. “It’s not something you can really redo.”

Unlike, say, Shoot on Sight, a Bollywood-funded fictionalised thriller based on the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes two weeks later, here the drama is a realistically human one. It unfolds over the ensuing 48 hours or so, as two anxious parents head for the capital in search of missing adult children, their whereabouts unknown since that fateful morning. Elizabeth is a Guernsey widow who can’t raise her daughter on her mobile; Ousmane is a Malian working in France, alerted by the more spiritual notion that something might have happened to his estranged son.

The notable thing is not that 7/7 has been dealt with in dramatic form, but that it is the French who have made the film. Set within the community of North African Arabs in Finsbury Park, London River has been shot almost entirely in French, with all but a few exterior scenes filmed in a studio on the Côte d’Azur. “Cinema is a melange, it doesn’t have a definitive nationality,” says Bouchareb, a French-Algerian who got a best foreign film Oscar nomination for Indigènes (Days of Glory), about an Algerian regiment serving during the second world war. “After 9/11, after Madrid, I wanted to make this film, especially coming from Algeria, which had difficult years of terrorism in the 1990s. I wanted to address, as well, the status of being a Muslim in France.”

I was intrigued by Rachid, and I realised straightaway, as soon as he told me what his plan was, it wasn’t going to be anything sensationalist

A low-budget affair, filmed over a tight 15 days, it stars Brenda Blethyn and Sotigui Kouyate, seen pinning up notices on lampposts, checking hospital lists and enduring the proverbial emotional rollercoaster of raised expectations, dashed hopes and back again. When they discover that their lives are interconnected (it’s not a spoiler to say that their children are in a relationship), their quest becomes a joint one.

“When my agent called me, I thought, ‘I don’t want to do something about the London bombings,’” Blethyn says. “I mean, it’s recent history. It was too tragic an event to mess about with. But I was intrigued by Rachid, and I realised straightaway, as soon as he told me what his plan was, it wasn’t going to be anything sensationalist.”

The film delights in playing on the differences between this odd couple — “Opposite ends, whichever way you look at it: religion, lifestyle, race, colour, tall/short, thin/fat,” she laughs — while they strive to span the big old prejudicial “London River” that flows between them.

Kouyate, a lofty, stick-thin man of few words, and a favourite of the theatre director Peter Brook, was a hit with festival audiences, scooping the prestigious Silver Bear award at Berlin for his performance here. Sadly, he died in April, aged 73. “Unfortunately, it was his destiny, and we have to move on,” Bouchareb says. “For me, he was a man who was Africa. He had une force tranquille.” Focus, instead, will fall on Blethyn, at her angstful best, who pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of doing it all en français, thrown into the deep end with a three-week crash course at the French Institute in Manchester, slotted around theatre engagements. “I had schoolgirl French, ‘La plume de ma tante’ and things like that, but because he wanted us to improvise, I needed to speak it a bit better,” she says. “But I haven’t spoken a word since we finished filming, so I’ve forgotten it all.”

Inevitably, the film has divided critics, torn between praising its gritty realism (likened by some to Ken Loach) and bemoaning its didacticism. Elizabeth, who lost her husband, pointedly, in the Falklands conflict, and is seen at the outset listening to a church sermon about “love thy neighbour”, is such a Little Englander that her first encounter with an Arab man would have instilled less terror had she been ambushed by the bogeyman himself. “She’s in a place she doesn’t understand,” Blethyn says, defending her character. “She’s in a state of shock that her daughter’s not living in a leafy suburb. She doesn’t know why she’s not answering her calls. It’s now been a couple of days, so she’s in a state of confusion.”

Certainly, too, the Muslim burghers of London N4 are, to a man, so utterly peaceable and decent, so very tolerant — “We don’t do politics,” assures a local imam; “Here we pray to God” — you’d be forgiven for thinking this wasn’t the Finsbury Park that was home to the (since reconstituted) notorious mosque frequented by Abu Hamza, the shoe bomber Richard Reid and the 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, a former hotbed of Islamic radicalism and street protests. Would it not have been more honest, or plain interesting, to have portrayed just a smidgen of discontent, to juxtapose it with the moderate mainstream, if only to demonstrate the diversity that exists within the Muslim community, too?

“I didn’t want to show any things we know already through the media. I didn’t want to make a portrait of defiance, but rather of hope,” responds Bouchareb, whose most recent film, Hors la loi (Outside the Law), about three Algerian brothers caught up in the struggle for independence, provoked a mass demonstration at Cannes. “The film is about a majority of people, and we say that these are the ones who carry hope. These are the people the film is looking at — the average Muslim, the average Christian, not at the extremities or the fringes.”

Bouchareb is actually enormously complimentary about British liberalism. “There’s a tradition of free speech and democracy, much more than in France,” he says — the very reason, of course, that the extremists flocked here.

Bouchareb’s handling of 7/7 is sensitive, but with the events of that day so far in the background, so downplayed, why did he use them as a plot device at all? “The original idea was to have a Muslim man and a Christian woman, and work out a scenario. They needed to have the same preoccupation to have a relationship. I think the film forces these two people to be together in an environment where nothing would drive them apart, in the sense that they would be prepared to do anything to get over their differences.”

Could they have been united using another incident — a car crash, some other disaster, maybe? No, Bouchareb insists. “I really need to anchor my stories in reality.”

London River opens on Friday

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