Monday, October 23, 2017

Investigating Paradise - a film review

Nedjma and Mustafa planning their interviews
Algeria is probably not on the radar of most people I know. Another of so many troubled areas in the world, failed states or nearly failed states, or at the very least not-ready-for-prime-time states. What is on my radar, though, are film festivals. We are blessed here in the Bay Area with one after another – the LGBT festival, the Jewish festival, the German festival and more than a dozen others. And this year I found myself drawn to the Arab Film Festival, (now in its twenty-first year) because of an intriguing description of an Algerian film called Investigating Paradise (Tahqiq fel djenna).
...a layered analysis of Algerian millennial culture and the efforts made by Salafi clerics to tempt this particularly vulnerable demograph towards the embrace of jihad. Through a sampling of everyone from college students at internet cafes and a karate instructor, to Imams and social intellectuals, it becomes apparent that Allouache’s position is much deeper than what is readily and regularly espoused per “extremism” and “radicalization” on Western media outlets.
Investigating Paradise is a curious genre, bound to make some people howl in protest: It’s a fictionalized documentary. The festival blurb refers to this genre as – are you ready for this? – “performative docuform.” But hold your horses. The silliness of that term (and the notion it captures) don’t do it justice.

Two journalists, Nedjma, played by the well-known Algerian actress, Salima Abada, and her male colleague Mustafa, played by Younés Sabeur Chérif, set about investigating how it is that so many Algerian youth are drawn to ISIS and to radical Islam in general. What writer/director Merzak Allouache and his daughter Bahia (or perhaps I should say what Bahia and her better-known filmmaker father) have come up with is a vehicle for capturing the vulnerability of Algerian society today to political Islam and the readiness of an uninformed and badly schooled populace to be misled by their own programmed desires. Nedjma and Mustafa focus on the Koranic concept of paradise, which they understand to be driving so many young people into violence and self-destruction, and its bizarre macho vision of 72 virgins to take you into paradise. 

Nedjma begins with interviews with young men in an internet café, but travels around asking everyone she meets how they conceive of paradise. She captures a full range of answers from the clueless young and their unquestioning acceptance of the ideas of the online video sermons of two imams, two televangelist types, to the feminists and other intellectuals at the other end of the spectrum who label the 72-virgin concept macho porn.  A taste of her interviews is available on YouTube here.  

She travels across the Sahara at one point to the town of Timimoun, where she meets with one of the imams in question, a man who appears to be kindly and driven more by spiritual Islam than its political version.  The other imam, Abdelfatah Hamadache, the more strident of the two imams, refuses even to meet with her. Not part of the "docuform" is the suggestion found elsewhere that Hamadache in reality might actually have been an agent of the corrupt government, but now we're getting into far too much complexity, and we haven't begun to address the Western support of the Saudi-based Wahhabi Salafists that he speaks for. Whatever the twists and turns, what comes out of the interviews is a layered and richly textured study of a people under siege.

Algeria’s road to modern democracy is filled with the kind of hurdles common to all postcolonial nations. Investigating Paradise suggests the possibility that political Islamist ideology may turn out to be much more than a just a bump, however. Many fear is could be a permanent – or at least a long-term – impenetrable barrier. In the background, coloring the quest for understanding and providing a context for why Algeria never participated in the Arab Spring, was the decade-long civil war between the corrupt government and the brutal and radical islamist forces, which left most Algerians with a “pox on both your houses” sense of alienation, with no place to go. [For one source on the corruption on the government side, click here.]

At least this is the explanation given by the writer Kamel Daoud, whose interview was for me the highlight of the film. Daoud has gotten into trouble recently, not only among the religious sector in Algeria itself for being too much a part of the French-speaking secular elite, especially by the likes of Hamadache, who puts a fatwa out on Daoud for being an apostate and an “enemy of religion.”   But Daoud has lost favor as well among the intellectual left in Europe who see him as anti-immigrant for his outspoken stance that Europe is being naïve in allowing in so many cultural Muslims with little to no understanding of and appreciation for Western values.   Investigating Paradise gives a platform for Daoud to present his view that the Arab-Muslim world is "full of sexual misery," particularly when it comes to women, but also when dealing with the human body and any notion of healthy sexual desire.

Daoud is hardly alone in his view that the problem with Islam (certainly political Islam, but to a greater or lesser degree cultural Islam as well) is its inability to read the Koran as poetry, thus missing the point and taking things literally that were never intended to be read that way.

The film, despite the despair and conflict reflected in many of its scenes, is ultimately a warm human story. There are scenes of feminists giggling among themselves at the responses of the sex-obsessed boys and the silly old men who claim to be speaking in the name of Allah, and who, when asked what happens to single women when they enter paradise – what good are the 72 virgins to them? – are told that they become virgins again and get to choose their husbands this time. Or revert to the age of 33, the perfect age for a woman, and become beautiful, with long black hair and sparkling eyes. There’s a scene with a martial arts teacher who would love to train girls, but is handicapped by not having the money to keep them safe, he tells them, so has to turn them away from his gym. And there is affection for even the most radical of players in this Algerian drama, and much respect shown for older people with religious views. 

Daoud, I believe it was, remarks at one point that the tragedy of the decade of violence, which one would expect would make the population war-weary and desirous of peace and cooperation, has made them suspicious and withdrawn instead. Many choose life in exile and migrate. Others draw into themselves, the young all too often into religion. It’s a melancholy world-view that Allouache père has revealed in his previous films. But the implied criticism of Muslims as unduly focused on the next world when they have so much to offer in improving this one, is not a cynical world-view. People can learn. They can lift themselves up and out of ignorance. It’s just going to take time – and a whole lot of effort.

No doubt some will want to fault the film for being all about the problem and short on answers. Some will object that it's too critical of Islam, and that we must start and end with an acceptance of Islam. But that would be missing the point. If political and socially retrograde cultural Islam are the problem, one doesn't surrender to it; one seeks ways over it, under it, through it or around it. A daunting task, to be sure. But if the thinkers - perhaps especially the feminists - in this film are any indication of the richness to be found in the character of Algerian society the task is not insurmountable.

While Investigating Paradise is doing well in the festival circuit - it has won the Berlinale and the Festival International des Programmes Audiovisuels in Germany and France, respectively - it deserves to make the leap up and out of festival status to reach a much broader audience.

photo credit: clipped from Beirut film festival poster

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