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A tale of two cultures with a semi-autobiographical back story, this assured debut feature from the young Dutch director Alex Pitstra takes place in his father’s homeland of Tunisia. The themes of emigration, people smuggling, political disillusion with Arab leaders and ingrained distrust of the West may be familiar. But they are woven together into a smart, funny and emotionally engaging rites-of-passage drama which has the authentic texture of real life.
Raised in the Netherlands by his mother, the director – who was born Karim Alexander Ben Hassen – did not even meet his divorced father until he was 25. Die Welt is the result of him coming to terms with his Arab heritage, partly by imagining how his life might have turned out had he grown up Tunisia. Following its world premiere at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival earlier this week, where it is playing in the Arab cinema competition strand, this Dutch-Tunisian-Qatari co-production certainly has enough topical bite and technical polish to merit further festival exposure. Theatrical appeal in overseas territories will be niche at best, but there is plenty here to interest globally curious fans of quality indie-movie fare.
Making his likeable big-screen debut, Abdelhamid Naouara plays the 22-year-old hero Abdallah, a street-smart young Tunisian who dreams of escape to the mythical promised land of Western Europe. A chance meeting with a Dutch woman at a family wedding leads to a one night stand, which only intensifies his feverish fantasies of a bright future with a European wife, shiny car, glamorous apartment and huge fridge stocked with Coca-Cola. Quitting his dead-end job in a Tunis DVD store, he strikes a deal with a people trafficking ring to smuggle him across the Mediterranean to Italy.
Pitstra opens Die Welt in witty, knowing, almost Tarantino-esque style as Abdallah delivers a long straight-to-camera monologue haranguing a client in his DVD shop over the anti-Arab clichés and thinly veiled US cultural imperialism in Transformers 2. He recommends Syriana instead. The narrative then settles into a more naturalistic mode, although it incorporates playful chapter headings and snippets of 8mm home movie from the director’s own family archive. In a nicely self-referential touch, Pitstra’s own father Mohsen Ben Hassen plays Abdallah’s screen father here. A silver-tongued charmer in several languages, he is a non-professional, but a total screen natural.
Shot mostly in restless, hand-held, docu-drama style by Pitstra’s fellow Dutch director and co-writer Thijs Gloger, Die Welt is a lively and intelligent exploration of the conflicted emotions felt by contemporary Arab youth towards the West. It is also scattered with small but pointed references to the Jasmine Revolution, which happened shortly before the film was shot. If Pitstra has any concrete political point to make, it is that life in post-revolutionary Tunisia for aspirational underclass dreamers like Abdallah remains as cramped and hopeless as ever.
Ending on a downbeat act of casual betrayal, Die Welt is an absorbing debut that ultimately feels a little too slight to fully explore its rich jumble of themes. Even so, it pulls off a crucial trick for a first-time feature by leaving you wanting more. As Tunisia finds its post-revolutionary voice, Pitstra and his peers should have deeper, bigger stories to tell in the future.
Venue: Doha Tribeca film festival screening, November 20
Production company: Schaftkip Film
Producers: Alex Pitstra, Rene Houwen, Rosan Breman
Cast: Abdelhamid Naouara, Ilse Heus, Mohsen Ben Hassen, Kamel Ben Khalfa
Director: Alex Pitstra
Writers: Alex Pitstra, Thijs Gloger, Abdallah Rezgui
Cinematographer: Thijs Gloger
Editors: Alex Pitstra, Thijs Gloger, René Duursma
Music: Renger Koning
Sales company: Schaftkip Film
Rating TBC, 80 minutes
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