Black: Romeo and Juliet set the streets of Brussels ablaze
by Aurore Engelen
- An uncompromising and brutal journey into the heart of Brussels' inner-city gangs, Bilal Fallah and Adil El Arbi’s film is a harsh but effective reinterpretation of West Side Story
Marwan and his gang skive off school and engage in petty theft. Up to no good, they seem to have taken up residence at the local police station, which has become like a second home to them. Mavela observes the habits of the Black Bronx, the gang she’s trying to find her feet in, with awe. She won’t listen to warnings from her mother, who’s fighting to raise her daughter alone, and seems willing to get herself into trouble to integrate herself into the gang, even if it means ending up at the police station. It’s there that she meets Marwan. They enter into a secret relationship, a forbidden love which is not allowed by their rival gangs. This dangerous liaison exacerbates the highly volatile relations between the two gangs. Mavela, who’s guilty of sleeping around outside the Black Bronx clan, is going to have to pay the heavy price for this insult to the gang’s way of life. Held prisoner by the very gang she has worked her way into, she embarks on a true descent into hell, coming to her senses and betraying her unappeasable gang. Thus, a film which starts out as a rather brutal teen movie set against a backdrop of warring gangs is transformed into a relentless thriller, which leaves us in no doubt as to how it will end, right up until the final confrontation.
While Bilal Fallah and Adil El Arbi skilfully handle the film genre codes they revisit in Black [+see also:
interview: Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fal…
interview: Martha Canga Antonio
film profile] (a film about the suburbs, a mafia flick and a variation on the timeless myth of Romeo and Juliet all at once), this update of West Side Story makes Brussels into a cinematic gem, the likes of which we have seen little up until now. With Black, which was screened at the FIFF in Namur after having its world premiere at Toronto, Brussels earns its stripes as an object of film, as much with its ability to recall other urban filmscapes as with its power to stand out with its uniqueness, the outrageousness of its royal avenues, the frenzy of its neighbourhood streets, and its architectural grandeur, of the buildings in the Marolles where Mavela lives for example.
The actors are all novices or near-novices, and for a reason: one of Black’s biggest virtues is that it shows us what we never see on the big screen, these young citizens of Brussels who come from neighbourhoods which largely forget they exist. The two leads, Martha Canga Antonio and Aboubakr Bensaïhi, are mind-blowingly realistic and energetic, and are supported by a strong cast, mostly made up of amateur actors.
Black is brutal, just like its protagonists, but its true violence lies in its stubborn refusal to grant its characters a way out. The title is well deserved, and the film is relentless in the way it addresses the place of girls, which is as shocking as it is hopeless, the way they are treated like commodities, bodies to be traded and consumed alone or as a group. It is without compromise that Black tackles the issues of theft, gang rape, and the sexual submission of young girls. The film is dark, violent, and condemns all its protagonists to a future of poverty and violence. It doesn’t end in death, but retains the energy that runs through it, with Marwan’s jibes, Mavela’s independence and stubbornness, and this cinematic version of Brussels, cosmopolitan and theatrical, that we don’t see enough of.
Black was produced by Caviar and co-produced by A Team Production and Climax Films, with the support of the VAF, Wallimage and the Centre du Cinéma de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles. The film, which will be released on 11 November 2015 in Belgium by Kinepolis, is being sold internationally by Be For Films.
(Translated from French)