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Film Review – Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets (2000)

I recently enjoyed watching the award-winning foreign film, Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets (2000), set in Casablanca, Morocco and directed by Nabil Ayouch, on Netflix.

I was initially disappointed to find that French subtitles were not available in the DVD I received so I viewed the subtitles in English. I had no complaints about the Arabic to English translation, even though generally speaking, I believe that for cultural reasons, Arabic to French translations of films more effectively convey meanings than do Arabic to English translations. French culture has been influenced by and is more akin than English culture to Arabic culture and moreover, French is commonly spoken in Morocco and Arabic more commonly spoken in France, where Ayouch was raised.

The film is not your usual children’s fantasy tale but rather a roller coaster of events of the deepest intensity that depict the lost innocence of homeless youth in Casablanca. It is fraught with contradictions in that it leaves you feeling depressed in one moment and smiling or even laughing for a short moment. Ali has chosen to run away and live like a pauper during his very short life while ironically, his mother lives in reasonably comfortable surroundings. She has done everything possible to make his life comfortable. Yet, the only problem is that she’s a prostitute.

As the title suggests, the film is about Ali Zaoua and his dreams of living a seafaring life where two suns set in different places. Early in the story, Ali receives a fatal blow to the head with a stone and his death shakes Kwita’s world. Nevertheless, Kwita becomes the new leader of the glue-sniffing, homeless trio of boys with men’s faces. The focus shifts to Kwita’s pursuit of Ali’s dreams, with the help of Omar and Boubker. It’s a story of loyalty. Kwita never abandons his devotion to Ali and declares that he will give Ali a burial suitable for the prince that he is. Omar and Bobker go along with the plan, regardless of the obstacles they encounter along the way.

Ali Zaoua is a story of defiance and triumph over adversity and oppression. Ali, Kwita, Omar and Boubker have extricated themselves from the control of Dib, the disgusting deaf-mute leader of the large pack of boys whom he has recruited and abuses sexually and otherwise, on a constant basis. Even though hatred, fear and despair can be felt as Dib’s minions show up repeatedly heralded by the pathetic mantra they repeat: “Life is a pile of shit,” Ali’s three survivors overcome and maintain their emancipation from Dib and his gang. They survive on the streets from day to day by begging, working, stealing and nurturing dreams and fantasies of their own. Most of all, they manage to hide and preserve Ali’s body, even though he has been dead for at least three days by the time they get help with their plans to bury him.

In the end, the compass given to Ali by Hamid, the compassionate boat captain, and subsequently, to Kwita by Ali represents a return to the right course as Hamid takes Ali’s body and allows the three boys to spend their first night on the deck of his boat. The boys are hopeful as they fantasize mostly about what Ali Zaoua must be doing. The story seems to have a happy ending when, witnessed by Dib and his gang, Hamid takes Ali’s mother along with all three boys out to sea to give Ali a proper burial.

Inch’Allah dimanche (Sunday God Willing) Yamina Benguigui, 2001

I recently enjoyed watching Inch’Allah dimanche, a French/Algerian film with English subtitles on Netflix. Even though there is some violence in the film, it is very easy to watch as the plot flows fairly smoothly. However, I wished the subtitles had been available in French and not just in English because I feel French subtitles better capture Arabic meanings than English ones.

Inch’Allah dimanche is the story of Zouina, a young Algerian wife, who, accompanied by her husband’s mother, Aicha, along with her three children, travels to France to be reunited with her husband, Ahmed who has been away from Algeria for quite some time. The departure from Algeria is heartrending and extremely traumatic for Zouina and her beloved mother who are both inconsolable as they separate.

Zouina’s form of dress gives one the impression that Algerian customs are relatively liberal in comparison with those of other Muslim countries where women are almost completely covered up in floor-length dresses, burqas, hijabs and niqabs. However, it soon becomes clear from the oppressive treatment she receives from her husband and mother-in-law that her feelings are not taken into consideration and there is not much difference. In fact, when Zouina, Aicha and the children finally arrive in France where the remainder of the film is set, Zouina’s husband never once shows her any sign of affection, apart from a cold, perfunctory hug when he picks up his family to take them to his apartment. If the viewer is looking for some show of tenderness between them, it never happens, which is surprising because Zouina is so attractive.

Throughout the film, Aicha’s words and behavior show how attitudes toward religion seem to play a vital role in family relationships among these Algerians. She constantly pronounces judgment on Zouina’s behavior and invokes Ahmed’s physical punishment upon her to “curse the devil.” At the boat, she shoves Zouina and upbraids her for showing emotion and for tearfully running toward her sobbing mother. As if her despair at having to leave her mother is something evil, Aicha asks Zouina if she has no shame or fear of God.

Zouina is able to enjoy very little interaction with the outside world, except to visit the grocery store and listen to game shows and talk shows on the radio when Aicha is not turning it off. However, determined to overcome the severe restraints on her life and freedom, she endures the constant verbal and physical abuse of her tyrannical mother-in-law and husband. “Damn you” are words he repeats to her upon her every infraction. She leaves viewers on the edge of their seats as she constantly risks further abuse by waiting until her husband and mother-in-law have left and constantly stealing out of her home with her children on Sundays to visit the outside world, knowing full well that such behavior is strictly prohibited.

The most pathetic part of the movie is when Zouina finally meets her fellow Algerian, Malika, whom she has expended every effort and risked her very life to see. She shares her new found ideas of freedom with Malika who, rather than being inspired, becomes very afraid and orders Zouina out of her home, accusing her of trying to have her killed. Malika’s internal conflict is evident as she tearfully stands behind the door, obviously torn apart while Zouina screams and cries for her to let her back inside and not to abandon her like this.

There seems to be no real dénouement and the story appears to end abruptly on a note of hope when Zouina arrives home with her children in the bus driven by a young man who passes her house everyday. She meets Ahmed and Aicha waiting outside with the neighbors and friends after having returned some four hours before with the sheep they have been checking on every Sunday to ensure its readiness for the upcoming Eid celebration. Ironically Zouina is holding the key that will let them inside the house. Instead of punishing her, as recommended by Aicha, Ahmed smiles at her and Zouina tells the children that from now on she will be taking them to school.

In the long run, Inch’Allah dimanche is a story of the triumph of the human spirit over oppression and the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifices to achieve a dream or desire.