Monday, January 19, 2009

NYJFF: The Wedding Song

He was one of the Third Reich’s most vicious propagandists, inflaming Arab anti-Semitism, inciting attacks on Mid East Jewry, and even recruiting thousands of volunteers for special Islamic Waffen-SS units. Yet the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem’s activities during World War II and the Arabic collaboration he inspired have been largely forgotten in recent years. Against this dramatic historical backdrop, life becomes quite precarious for Tunisia’s Jewish citizens in Karin Albou’s The Wedding Song (French trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.

Two young women, the Jewish Myriam and Muslim Nour, are interested in love, not war. However, war finds them regardless in 1942 Tunisia, thanks to periodic Allied bombings. Unfortunately, in the short run, these make life more difficult for the Jews of Tunis. As part of its strategy to secure Arabic support, the occupying National Socialists demand reparation payments from Tunisian Jews, which Myriam’s mother cannot afford.

In a twist of fate, the war becomes the catalyst for each woman’s very different marriage. Despite her protests, Myriam’s mother arranges her marriage to Raoul, a wealthy doctor many years her senior, in exchange for the money demanded of them by the National Socialists. Conversely, Nour is happily betrothed to her cousin Khaled, but her father has withheld his final consent until her unemployed fiancé gets a job. This he achieves with the German occupying forces, assisting with the round-ups of Tunisian Jews.

As would be expected, the circumstances of the occupation put a strain on the young women’s friendship. Ripe for anti-Semitic propaganda, the Islamist Khaled forbids Nour from seeing Myriam. Of course, as the one who taught Nour to read Arabic, Khaled might also consider Myriam a dangerous influence on his prospective wife, possibly encouraging her to think for herself.

Given its traditional Tunisian settings, the sexual frankness of Song is quite surprising. Albou’s camera inspects every inch of her lead actresses’ bodies, to the extent that one might legitimately fear for the safety of Olympe Borval, the actress playing Nour. At times, the film seems excessively graphic, as when we see the rather invasive preparations Myriad undergoes for her wedding night. However, Albou’s direction can be quite sensitive, capturing some remarkable performances, particularly from Lizzie Brochere as Myriam. Her perspective on the German forces is also quite effective. Seen as boots on the floor or shadowy figures in the street, her camera refrains from direct eye contact, and thereby never humanizes them in any sense.

Song is an intimately human film, focusing squarely on the personal dramas of Myriam and Nour rather than the wider issues of war and ideology. Still, its depiction of occupied Tunis convincingly evokes the confusion and desperation of the time. Even though it concludes a bit abruptly, Song is finely crafted film that completely immerses viewers in a very specific time, place, and culture. Definitely recommended, it screens at the NY Jewish Film Festival this Thursday (1/22) and Saturday (1/24), with director Albou in attendance.