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TORONTO 2022 Contemporary World Cinema

Review: Alam


- Firas Khoury’s debut feature is a fiery and engaging exploration of youth, politicisation and forced forgetting

Review: Alam
Sereen Khass and Mahmoud Bakri in Alam

In his extremely well-regarded 2019 short Maradona’s Legs, Palestinian director Firas Khoury blended the inherent traditions of the coming-of-age drama with pointed political exploration. His feature debut, Alam – which recently had its world premiere in Toronto’s Contemporary World Cinema section – explores similar themes. However, Khoury shifts his focus from childhood to protagonists who are in their late teens, to create a work that crackles with the energy of both the insouciance of teenage rebellion and hedonism, and the awakening of political activism.

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Tamer (Mahmoud Bakri) and his friends are Palestinians living in Israel – the new generation of Arab children from families for whom the ramifications of the displacements of 1948 are still an everyday struggle. Seventeen-year-old Tamer and his gang are your typical high-school rebels, spending their days looking to get high, get into trouble at school and sleep with girls. But whilst they embody the traditional heady brew of hormones, naivety and self-assuredness of almost every teen on the planet, the complex politics faced by them and the generations before them are always on show. From an (often vandalised) Israeli flag fluttering at them every day from above the school to the forthcoming Israeli Independence Day (coinciding with Al-Nakba, the Palestinian commemoration of the 1948 displacements), they’re constantly confronted by their status within Israel.

While some of his friends become more politically engaged, and others keep up the search for weed and girls, Tamer notices the beautiful Maysaa’ (Sereen Khass) when she joins his class. Using her political engagement as a way to get closer, Tamer soon begins to take more notice of the world around him and – as Nakba Day approaches – has to decide whether there are things greater than him that are worth fighting for.

There’s a continual sense of urgency throughout the film, driven by the twin engines of the ardour of youth and the outrage at an oppressive system. Often, these are shown to be at odds, with many of our protagonists preferring the former to the latter, but as Tamer becomes more politically awakened, there is a sense that they need not be mutually exclusive. Certainly, the picture is far from a screed against a new generation. When one student rails against a history lesson, and the pattern of forced forgetting, it reminds us that this generation is not as apathetic as those in power would like. Despite Tamer’s father being outwardly authoritarian, the film always hints that his past was also one of activism. The real tragedy in the movie is not apathy; it’s those whose passion and zeal are finally drummed out of them through oppression and violence.

It would be easy to accuse the feature of indulging in cliché, with all of the “coming of age” genre tropes out in full force. But one thinks that many of the clichés on offer here are deliberate, as the film veers between the obvious and the subtle. There is much about propaganda: Tamer’s flat has a framed photo from Battleship Potemkin – perhaps the earliest example of a propaganda film – while the central tenet of the movie explores flags as symbols. Propaganda can often be unsubtle and obvious, and Khoury cleverly plays with much of this.

The performances are strong, particularly from Bakri in the lead, while the film swings between starkness and warmth thanks to the cinematography of Frida Marzouk.

Alam is a French-Tunisian-Palestinian-Saudi Arabian-Qatari co-production staged by MPM Film, Philistine Films, Paprika Films, Red Sea Film Festival Foundation and Metafora Production. Its international sales are handled by MPM Films.

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