A Bag of Flour: Film Review

Belgian-Moroccan director Kadija Leclere’s thoughtful reflection on female identity in Arab society puts its finger on cross-cultural discomfort

Cult Arab actresses Hafsia Herzi and Hiam Abbass give life to the tale of a kidnapped child growing up a stranger in her own land.

Based on a true story that seems like the tag-line for an international kidnapping drama, A Bag of Flour touches the heart of the old question of woman’s role in contemporary Arab society. Though the film, expanded to feature length from director Kadija Leclere’s award-winning short Sarah, unravels a bit in the middle with romantic clichés, its final, piercingly bittersweet minutes redeem a lot. It’s held together by beautifully low-key performances from the stately Hiam Abbass and Hafsia Herzi, whose career began with her memorable portrait of a North African woman caught in cultural cross-fire in The Secret of the Grain. This small, imperfect but valiant first feature has begun making festival rounds, where it should gain notice.

Little Sarah (grave-faced Rania Mellouli) is introduced as a bright student living in a Catholic orphanage in Belgium, where she thrives under the nuns’ tutoring.  One day a rough man she's never seen claiming to be her father turns up, promising a trip to Paris. She’s drugged in the car and wakes up to find herself in a remote village deep in Morocco’s  Atlas mountains.  “It’s for your own good.  You are Muslim,” she’s told. And a virtual prisoner at 8.

The man really is her father and he quickly disappears back to Europe, leaving her in the care of his stern sister Jasmine (Abbass), who tries but fails to pawn her off on the village mad woman (played by the director). This, it turns out, is Sarah’s mother. It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for the horrified, helpless girl who, instead of continuing her studies of history, geography and math, is taught to sew, knit and embroider.

Jump to ten years later: Sarah (Herzi) is an Arab girl of 17, bi-lingual but different from the other girls her age who only think about finding a husband. Sarah dreams of returning to Belgium, to school and books.

Leclere has little good to say about village life, its hunger, poverty and stifling social conventions. Only the strength of the acting keeps this part of the film in focus. Abbass brings redeeming humanity to the cold character of Jasmine, while Herzi is an intriguing mix of latent sensuality and intelligence. This is cleverly shown when, having been called "an extra mouth to feed", she ingeniously solves the family’s money problems through business acumen as well as knitting skills.

Throwing the film somewhat off-track are the two romantic threads that run unconvincingly in the background: Sarah’s dangerous infatuation with a handsome student protestor (Mehdi Debhi) on the run from the authorities, and her cousin's highly improbable betrothal to a wealthy religious boy. Both romances seem like total fantasies in the context of the nitty-gritty story and undermine its credibility.

Leclere gets excellent tech support from her crew. Gilles Porte’s colorful cinematography enlivens scenes with Technicolor red sweaters and blankets the village in an elegant, fairy tale light.

Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Arabian Nights), Dec. 12, 2012

Production companies: La Compagnie Cinematographique, Sahara Productions, Tchin Tchin Productions
Cast:  Hafsia Herzi, Hiam Abbass, Mehdi Dehbi, Kadija Leclere, Rania Mellouli, Souad Sabir, Smain Fairouze, Souad Saber, Abderraouf, Hassan Foulane

Director:  Kadija Leclere
Screenwriters: Kadija Leclere, Pierre-Olivier Momas  
Producers:  Gaetan David, Samy Layani, Andre Logie
Director of photography:  Gilles Porte
Production designer:  Francoise Joset
Music:  Christophe Vervoort
Costume designer: Nezha Dakil, Sabine Zappitelli
Editor: Virgine Messiaen
No rating, 92 minutes.

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