Sunday, 29 April 2012


“Prejudice is a great time saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts.” - E. B. White

We watched an interesting French film at the weekend, which although rather slow and of an almost documentary-like look, was quite effective and made some strong points about some of the problems immigrants face in France. It was the 2007 film by Abdellatif Kechiche, La Graine et le Mulet - “The Secret of the Grain”, starring Habib Boufares, Hafsia Herzi and Farida Benkhetache.

At the port of Sète, near Montpellier in Southern France, Mr Slimani, a 60-year-old man, works the local shipyard. He is from Tunisia, but has been working at the shipyard for 30 years. As the economy gets worse and the shipyard loses business, big demands are made on the workers so that productivity increases as staff is laid off.  Mr Slimani is divorced and a good father who stays close to his family despite the existing tensions amongst the family members. Tempers flare, arguments are easily sparked off and financial difficulties make everything even more intense. Making things more complicated is his lady friend who is a cheap hotel owner and her young daughter who adores Mr Slimani, as if he were her own father. Mr Slimani is going through a difficult period in his life and everything seems to make him feel a failure. He has a dream to start up his own restaurant. When Slimane is laid off, he has nothing to lose and rescues an old ship from the wreckers and remodels it to become a floating restaurant. What seems to be an unreachable dream suddenly begins to become reality with the help of family and friends who rally around him to support his project: His sons help with the boat’s renovation; his girlfriend’s daughter helps acquiring the necessary bank loans and official documents; and his ex-wife cooks the restaurants signature dish – fish couscous. But unfortunately all is not rosy…

The grain referred to in the title of the film is the staple dish of North Africa, couscous. This is to be the specialty of the restaurant and it is to be served with fish, special sauces and delicious hors d’ oeuvres. All is cooked to perfection, but his philandering son throws a spanner in the works on the party night that Mr Slimani has invited all the city VIPs to show them how his restaurant will function faultlessly.

The movie was over-long at 151 minutes and a lot of film should have been left on the cutting room floor to make it tighter, to flow more easily and to discard a lot of irrelevant details that were bordering on the tiresome (the sequence with Mr Slimani’s grandaughter’s toilet training was a typical example). One can argue that the meandering dialogue was natural and believable, but it laboured a point and most viewers would lose interest very quickly in a long discussion about the price of nappies. However, as the film progressed, the pace quickened and the final scenes contrasted very much with the earlier part of the film.

The acting was excellent and Habib Boufares gives an understated, dignified performance as Mr Slimani. Hafsia Herzi and Farida Benkhetache sparkle as the adopted and blood daughters and the supporting cast do a great job of making the family and their contacts come to life. Many of these were not professional actors and much of the dialogue surely must have been improvised on the spot (highlighting once again the need for tighter editing). The cinematography is good and the music very apt.

The restaurant is of course symbolic of the dreams of immigrants and hopes of immigrants, wishing to make it good in the “new country”. To achieve a success that will elevate them in their new community, while raising their status amongst their peers. The wish to integrate and work in their new community, whilst still retaining the culture and customs of their homeland is a tough balancing act, but Mr Slimane tries to do this valiantly. The community’s dual attitude toward immigrants is an issue that the film confronts. During a party at Slimane’s restaurant, the invited guests (who all accepted and turned up for the free feed) compliment their host and try their hand at a little Arabic; however, as soon as Slimane’s back is turned, they whisper amongst themselves that “he’s not from around here”; “he’ll ruin the market for us – his prices will be much cheaper than at our own restaurants”; and “of course he cannot moor his boat restaurant at the good side of the port”…

The ending of the film is abrupt and quite shocking, leaving the viewer flummoxed. But one has to remember that this is not an ordinary film. It is documentary-like tragicomedy, with real glimpses of family life, tensions between the immigrant community and the autochthonous elements, love and devotion – parental, filial and otherwise, as well as the value of dreaming and the hope of achieving one’s dreams. It is a difficult film to watch but quite rewarding for those who are interested in off-beat, unconventional and highly individualistic movies.

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