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A claustrophobic drama that couldn’t possibly be more timely, Mary Jimenez and Benedicte Lienard’s Rising Voices puts viewers inside a hunger strike mounted by refugees seeking papers that will allow them to stay in Brussels and seek legitimate jobs. Focusing on the minutiae of making such a protest work with a band of immigrants from all over the world, it feels more like an ensemble theatrical piece than an agenda-driven film, and the screenplay pushes slogans aside in favor of intimate personal concerns. The artful film stands out among the new titles in the Marrakech lineup, and holds strong appeal for the fest circuit; a smart boutique distrib could make a U.S. art-house run worthwhile.
We skip over the origins of this strike and whatever protests brought the diverse group together, starting in medias res in the church where they hope to attract the government’s attention. Kader (Assaad Bouab), a Moroccan, and an Iranian woman named Esma (Maryam Zaree) are the organizers, gathering money to buy supplies for strikers who speak a half-dozen languages and aren’t all versed in the ways of protest movements.
But the two leaders aren’t on the same page. Esma is earnest, seeing strikers’ self-denial as payment for freedom to come; Kader is secretly taking money from desperate people who aren’t part of the hunger strike, promising to sneak their names onto the group’s list when officials agree to issue them all papers.
That list is something of a weak spot for the pic, as viewers may have a hard time following why it is being kept secret and how it is compromised over the course of the strike’s several weeks. But power dynamics aside, the film succeeds in showing the drain those long weeks put on people who have little in common but the fact that they can’t go home and can’t bargain with anything but their lives. Stuck here on the cots with them, we share dreams about what they’ll do once they have papers; hear stories about the terrible things they’ve experienced; and, of course, fantasize about the dishes from their various homelands they ache to cook for themselves.
The city outside ceases to exist (and could be just about any Western metropolis), as tightly framed shots keep us inside the church and only go out when Kader and Esma do. We don’t know how the press is reporting the strike, whether citizens support protesters or how immigration officials have responded. Only once, three-quarters of the way through its story, does the movie introduce a voice from the halls of power, a Minster of Foreigners whose face betrays little feeling for those whose lives hang on her judgment. Though this is temporarily the entire world for them, for her it is just another crisis to manage — and one that, as Rising Voices eventually finds, will end with just about everyone feeling they’ve lost.
Production company: Tarantula
Cast: Maryam Zaree, Assaad Bouab, Ahmet Rifat, Sam Louwyck, Zeinabou Diori, Pitcho Womba Konga, Duraid Abbas, Saida Manai
Directors-screenwriters: Benedicte Lienard, Mary Jimenez
Producers: Joseph Rouschop, Valerie Bournonville, Donato Rotunno
Director of photography: Hichame Alaouie
Production designer: Marc Ridremont
Editor: Marie-Helene Dozo
Composer: Catherine Graindorge
Venue: Marrakech International Film Festival (Coup de Coeur)
In French, English, Arabic, Dutch, Farsi
Not rated, 100 minutes
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