Blessed Benefit: A different kind of prison film
by Vladan Petkovic
- An offering from Jordan takes us on a rather surprising journey into the rarely-visited territory of local society
With a background in documentaries, the most widely known being Recycle, which won the Cinematography Prize at Sundance in 2008, it is not surprising that that Jordanian-born, Netherlands-based filmmaker Mahmoud al Massad has based his first feature film, Blessed Benefit, on a true story, cast the protagonist of that story to play himself in the starring role, and gave all the other roles to non-professionals, including himself. The film bowed to European audiences in the Warsaw Film Festival's International Competition, after world-premiering at Toronto.
Ahmad Tharer is a construction worker who used a down payment from a client to help a cousin buy, and then sell, ten laptops from Canada. The laptops get stuck in the customs, and the cousin cannot receive them in time. As a result, Ahmad fails to return the money to the client, which lands him in prison for three months.
Once inside, our hero is, at first, lost and scared. He is a family man and the situation is completely foreign to him. He shares a big dormitory-like cell with some ten other inmates. But there really aren’t any dangerous characters in this prison (the director explained at the Q&A that it is a prison reserved for perpetrators of fraud), and he soon adapts. He is befriended by Mor, who runs a kind of a supermarket in the place, selling cigarettes and all kinds of small necessities to his roommates. Meanwhile, Ahmad’s cousin struggles to get the laptops, but his obvious incompetence and some very funny obstacles prevent him from getting anywhere.
This is an exceptionally benevolent kind of a prison film. Barely a fistfight occurs, and even the guards and the warden are not too harsh on the prisoners. Good for Ahmad, because he is a sweet, peaceful person who, in any other kind of correctional facility, would become a doormat for everybody else to walk on.
And the whole society Ahmad lives in represents a kind of benevolent Arabic milieu. People beg, bargain and steal, the police are corrupt and incompetent, but no one is very violent. The director explained at the Q&A that they tried to be as realistic as possible. If this is indeed so, it certainly explains what is probably the only prison shower scene in the history of cinema in which a character simply takes a shower, alone.
It is an accomplished and light-hearted story, with moments of touching human connection, interspersed with black humour. The production design provides a believable setting, and the camera plays around the characters, sometimes following them, sometimes jumping in front of them – but always with reason, and never too chaotically. Dialogues are natural, as much as possible for an English translation that, when coming from Arabic (and Turkish and Balkan languages, for that matter), often feels clunky in any film that tries to transfer us into a common-folk surrounding and their style of talking. The title of the film is a good example of this, apparently insurmountable, discrepancy.