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For her jump from documentary to fiction, Tunisian distaff director Kaouther Ben Hania has chosen both a controversial true story — a woman who was raped by several local policemen has to decide whether to stay silent or report the crime… to the local police — and a stylistic challenge with a clear cinematic edge, chronicling that one long and awful night in nine chapters, each consisting of a single sequence shot.
It’s a risky and ambitious move that, despite some longueurs and an ensemble that is at times uneven, largely pays off in Beauty and the Dogs (Alaa kaf Ifrit/La belle et la meute), a film that’s an emotional rollercoaster and socio-political tract rolled into one. Indeed, like in her mockumentary The Blade of Tunis, about a slasher out for female buttocks in the Tunisian capital, Ben Hania’s latest explores the very limited freedom of movement accorded to women in a rigidly hierarchical society dominated by men, even when they are faced with unambiguous acts of aggression from said men.
A Cannes Un Certain Regard berth will help propel this Beauty onto the international festival circuit but this is accessible and (sadly) topical enough to warrant arthouse distribution in territories beyond the Maghreb and co-producing France, where the book on which the film is based, Coupable d’avoir été violé (“Guilty of Having Been Raped”), was published in 2013.
The film’s lead character is Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani), a single student who’s attending a university party she helped organize (in the book she was 28 and had a fiancé). At the club, she gossips with her girlfriends, dances and runs into the handsome Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli), with whom she finally goes outside. Ben Hania captures Mariam’s journey from the bathrooms into the club in one fluid Steadicam shot that always stays close to the characters, with the film’s emotionally telling score, by Amine Bouhafa, at a certain point taking over from the pumping diegetic beats and the focus puller similarly doing his part to help tell the story.
After a fade to black, the film’s second chapter, and second sequence shot, starts with Mariam, eyeliner smeared across her cheeks and with her hair completely unkempt, running outside and Youssef not far behind. Both of them are visibly distressed when a police car drives by. It slowly emerges that Mariam was raped by one or several police officers between chapters one and two and that the clinic she ran to won’t admit her without her ID, which was in her bag that stayed behind in the police car. The fact she even needs a medical certificate at all to prove that she was raped might be a shocker for some Western audiences; here this perversity is compounded by the fact that Mariam requires a statement from the police station in the very area where she was raped before a doctor will even examine her.
The subsequent chapters thus chronicle Mariam’s odyssey from public hospital rooms to the police station and back, evoking nothing less than the nightmarish descent into the medico-bureaucratic hell of Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, though with added misogyny. Along the way, the gentlemanly Youssef tries to help fend off the boorish law-enforcement officers trying to protect their colleagues and the police’s reputation and the clueless hospital workers who either don’t know how to deal with the situation or who refuse to help when it becomes clear the rape involved the police as the perpetrators. Making matters worse is that the understandably distraught young woman can’t even return home, as the doors of her dorm are locked by 10pm, forcing her to ask Youssef whether she can stay with him, a clear no-go for an unmarried woman in Tunisia.
What thus emerges is not only a clear sense of Mariam’s specific and very personal ordeal, practically told in real time, but also a larger overview of Tunisian bureaucracy and society, which greatly favors the male point-of-view and males in positions of power, such as doctors and officers, especially. By including female hospital personnel and police in the supporting cast, Ben Hania manages to underline the many subtle differences between the sexes even for people in similar professional positions. It is almost ironic, then, that it is a male character who sympathizes with Mariam’s plight who utters the very political statement: “This entire country’s a prison!” while he’s being dragged off to jail. Complicating matters even further is the fact Mariam wasn’t dressed very modestly for the party — a mishap meant she had to borrow a dress from a friend — and that she was found with Youssef, a man she didn’t know beforehand. In a normal world, however, neither of these “offenses” would ever excuse being raped, nor would the “honor of the country” be besmirched if she reported what was clearly a crime against her, as a police officer tries to have her believe.
Director of photography Johan Holmquist’s camerawork has a good eye for detail and rhythm and the entire cast is tightly choreographed, even if not all the supporting actors are as strong as the leads. One of the film’s most striking images is an overhead shot of Mariam, lying helplessly on the police-station floor with a smartphone next to her showing images of her rape (nothing explicit is shown). But the image, while remarkable, comes too late into the proceedings to have any real emotional impact.
This has to do with the odd structural decision to keep the event that triggered the entire nocturnal journey off-screen initially, which creates a kind of unnecessary suspense around what exactly happened to Mariam; what Youssef’s role was in the proceedings; how the police actually behaved, etc. This narrative uncertainty makes it harder for audiences to immediately identify with the lead, though thankfully Al Ferjani does project the necessary strength, affability and intelligence that will make audiences want to go on that harrowing journey with her.
Production companies: Cinetelefilms, Tanit Films, Laika Flm & Television, Film I Vast, Shortcut Films, Integral Film & Literature, Chimney
Cast: Mariam Al Ferjani, Ghanem Zrelli, Noomane Hamda, Mohamed Akkari, Chedly Arfauoi, Anissa Daoud, Mourad Gharsalli
Writer-Director: Kaouther Ben Hania, screenplay based on the book Coupable d’avoir été violé by Meriem Ben Mohamed and Ava Djamshidi
Producers: Habib Attia, Nadim Cheikhrouha
Director of photography: Johan Holmquist
Production designer: Moncef Hakouna
Costume designer: Nedra Gribaa
Editor: Nadia Ben Rachid
Music: Amine Bouhafa
Sales: Jour 2 Fete
No rating, 100 minutes
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