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Algerian-born French writer-director Tony Gatlif has carved a unique niche making quasi-documentary dramas rooted in underclass folk music and the marginalized migrant groups who perform it. A former best director prize-winner, Gatlif’s fifth Cannes premiere, Djam, revolves around the subculture of “rebetiko,” an emotionally charged storytelling style that spread from poor urban communities in Greece and Turkey to the islands of the Aegean. The plot loosely mirrors key themes in the songs, which are steeped in exile and loss, but still lusty and defiant.
Djam is very much in Gatlif’s signature style, with flavorsome musical set-pieces taking precedence over scrappy plot and flatly rendered characters. Already pre-sold to French cable network Canal+, it has the clean digital sheen and boxy aspect ratio of a TV production, suggesting its post-festival afterlife will most likely be on small-screen platforms. Though unlikely to win the 68-year-old director any new converts, this crisply shot French-Greek-Turkish co-production puts a fresh, compassionate, left-field spin on Southern Europe’s current financial woes and migrant worries. The film made its public debut last night on the Cannes beach, preceded by a live rebetiko concert.
The film’s eponymous heroine (Daphne Patakia) is a free-spirited young Greek woman living on the island of Lesbos with her stepfather Kakourgos (Simon Abkarian), a restaurateur teetering on the brink of bankruptcy as Greece’s economy flatlines. Unable to leave his restaurant while bailiffs are circling like vultures, Kakourgos dispatches Djam on a mission to Istanbul to collect an engine part for his ancient boat, which includes a detour to her late mother’s former home to recover a beloved archive of vintage rebetiko recordings.
In Turkey, Djam runs into Avril (Maryne Cayon), a distressed French 19-year-old whose noble but ill-conceived plans to help migrants at the Syrian border have backfired. Avril now has no passport, no money and no way to get home. Djam takes pity on her and the pair become uneasy traveling companions, setting off on an eventful road trip back into Greece full of wild digressions, chance encounters and musical interludes. The overland route they follow is the same one routinely taken by Syrian refugees, who never feature in the film but haunt the narrative, from ghostly graffiti scrawled on walls at remote railway stations to life jackets piled up on bleak Greek beaches.
Typically for Gatlif, Djam is a stagey and stilted affair whose loose-cannon protagonists are given to sudden mood swings and wild poetic musings. Realism has never been his forte. Fortunately, he has a secret weapon in his female lead Patakia, a magnetic young Belgian woman of Greek heritage who learned to belly dance and play the baglamas, the long-necked instrument central to rebetiko, especially for the role. Switching between fluent French and Greek, Patakia imbues Djam with rock-star charisma and electrifying body language during her many musical numbers. She is a born performer and a commanding screen presence.
Gatlif strikes a few jarring notes, particularly in his voyeuristic approach to his nubile young female stars. Scenes of full frontal nudity, implausible stirrings of lesbian lust and even a pubic shaving episode feel more like the director’s private fantasies than dramatically necessary character detail. Naked soft-porn role-play by two Manic Pixie Dream Girls? The male gaze in full effect. But these are fleeting, minor annoyances in a generally big-hearted, life-affirming, musically sumptuous film.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Plage)
Production company: Princes Production
Cast: Daphne Patakia, Simon Abkarian, Maryne Cayon, Kimon Kouris, Solon Lekkas
Director, screenwriter: Tony Gatlif
Producer: Delphine Mantoulet
Cinematographer: Patrick Ghiringhelli
Editor: Monique Dartonne
Music: Evangelos Paschalidis, Konstantinos Velliadis, Kyriakos Gkouventas, Vasileios Kasouras, Despoina Pagioula, Cem Koklukaya, Ozan Coban, Burhan Hasdemir, Onur Yusufloglu, Ozan Tura, Mamed Dzhafarov, Melike Sahin
Sales company: Les Films du Losange, Paris
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