'A Roundabout In My Head' ('Dans ma tete un rond-point'): FIDMarseille Review

A Roundabout In My Head Still - H 2015
Courtesy of FIDMarseille

A Roundabout In My Head Still - H 2015

Visually striking slaughterhouse portrait could do with further slicing

Hassan Ferhani's Algerian-French documentary was named best domestic feature-length work at the port-city festival

Arguably the most beautiful film ever made in a slaughterhouse, Hassen Ferhani's A Roundabout In My Head (Dans ma tete un rond-point, aka Fi rassi rond-point) goes behind the scenes at a central Algiers abbatoir with uneven but illuminating results. A glimpse into the working lives of the male employees, Ferhani's feature-length debut touches lightly on wider issues connected with the Arab Spring, and is thus sufficiently topical — as well as aesthetically distinctive — to justify significant festival play on the back of its well-received FIDMarseille bow. 

Winner of the French Competition at the documentary-flavored event, this France-Algeria-Qatar-Holland-Lebanon co-production could — somewhat ironically, given the nature of the enterprise depicted — benefit from further trimming at a current run-time of 101 minutes. Four editors are credited, hinting at the proverbial consequences of having too many cooks laboring over a single dish.

There's undeniably some strong meat on view here, as befits a picture whose protagonists are often employed in the killing and dismemberment of cattle. But in contrast to the undisputed masterpiece of the sub-genre, Georges Franju's nightmarishly harrowing, 20-minute The Blood of Beasts (1949), there is surprisingly little actual bloodshed on show,  at least until just before the hour mark when we see one hapless bovine in the the throes of messy, noisy demise.

And while Franju's eye-opener was all the more harrowing for playing out in inkily chiaroscuro monochrome, here color is very much a crucial part of the visual palette. Director-cinematographer Ferhani — who possesses a fine, unfussy compositional eye — seeks and finds unlikely allure in these centuries-old industrial environs. Francis Bacon's intermingling of human and animal "meat" is one underlying reference-point, and even the city's night skies — the picture has a pungent nocturnal vibe — can take on hauntingly evocative shades of mauve.  

Commendably, Ferhani doesn't let such pleasures overwhelm his central preoccupation, namely the human players in this quotidian drama: their discontents, dreams, diversions. He is particularly interested in 20-year-old Yusuf and middle-aged Ali Bey (i.e. Uncle Ali), both of whom are very much products of their historical moment: Ali a son of post-colonial Algeria, when what is now Africa's largest nation broke free of French control after a bloody civil war; Yusuf part of the Arab Spring generation, bewildered by a multiplicity of options including escape to the supposedly more stable continent just across the Mediterranean.  

"In my head there's a roundabout with a thousand exits," Yusuf grumbles in the sequence which provides the film with its title, "...but I haven't found mine." Most of his friends and peers take one of four "paths", becoming drug-addicts or criminals, escaping to Europe or committing suicide. The possibility of living an "honest" life has somehow, somewhere disappeared.

In A Roundabout In My Head's latter stages Ferhani relies increasingly on direct-to-camera interviews, moving away from the more unconventional approach that marks the earlier stretches. It's a shift that echoes the equivalent FIDMarseille title from last year, Jeremie Brugidou and Fabien Clouette's Bronx workplace-chronicle Bx46.

Less involving and more prone to longueurs than what has gone before, Roundabout's chatty second half eventually bogs down into spiritual ramblings (courtesy of one particularly venerable abbatoir denizen) and self-reflexive discussions about the nature of documentary, the elusiveness of truth, the meaning of freedom, etc. A little of such verbiage goes a long way, and doesn't play to Ferhani's considerable strengths. At his best, he shows promising flashes of real brilliance — most notably a genuine coup de cinema involving the slaughterhousemen, a long rope, an intransigent beastie and a televised goal for Algeria in the soccer World Cup.

Production companies: Allers Retours FIlms, Centrale Electrique
Director / Screenwriter / Cinematographer: Hassen Ferhani
Producer: Narimane Mari
Editor: Myriam Aycaguer, Narimane Mari, Hassen Ferhani, Corentin Doucet
Sales: Allers Retours, Algiers
No Rating, 101 minutes