Harraga Blues: Abu Dhabi Review

Harraga - H 2012
The woes of Algerian youth and their desire for a better life overseas are dramatized in two-dimensional soap-operatic style.

Karim Hamzaoui and Zakaria Ramdane star in Algerian veteran Moussa Haddad's drama of trans-Mediterranean immigration, a world premiere in Competition at Abu Dhabi.

The grass may or may not be greener on the other side of the Mediterranean in Algerian veteran Moussa Haddad's clunkily unconvincing melodrama Harraga Blues. Showing definite signs of rustiness after a 13-year absence from the screen, director/co-writer Haddad turns in a two-dimensional saga purporting to illustrate why so many young North Africans dream of escaping to a better life in Europe.

But while the theme is as urgently topical as ever, it's dealt with in such heavy-handed fashion that the overlong picture will struggle to find play outside Algeria's borders, where several of the actors are familiar faces from local television. Chief source of interest is the quietly charismatic turn by feline co-lead Zakaria Ramdane, whose boy-next-door good looks and martial-arts skills - the latter unexploited here - might plausibly result in higher-profile roles in Francophone productions.

Ramdane's Rayan is the lifelong best friend of Zine (Karim Hamzaoui), both of them fed up with the limited opportunities available in their coastal Algerian city. Zine's brother legally immigrated to Spain some years before but the thirtyish lads are more tempted by illicit means, which involves a hazardous sea-crossing on a precariously unsuitable vessel. Those who complete this journey are known as harragas, meaning "those who burn," referring to the way they destroy their identification papers.

The harraga phenomenon has been a factor of Mediterranean life for decades, the northward flow of the disenfranchised, impoverished and dispossessed into Italy, France, Spain and elsewhere having been dealt with in numerous documentaries and fictional treatments.

But where Haddad and his co-writer Amina Bédjaoui Haddad fall down is their depiction of Algerian life for the likes of Zine and Rayan. Mainly filming in and around Annaba, they present the area as sun-kissed, alluring and relatively affluent, with a strong community spirit based on supportive family ties.

Indeed, many of Zine and Rayan's contemporaries in cash-strapped Spain might view Harraga Blues as a tempting advert for immigration into Algeria, a place where, as we see, beautiful girls serve delicious food in picturesque beachside restaurants. Religious strife and political oppression are conspicuous by their absence, and there are even small-business opportunities for the more enterprising. Where are the "hopeless youth" mentioned in a newspaper headline?

The lethally perilous boat-journey  is presented in such light-hearted fashion that there's little real sense of mortal danger. Despie this, we fully expect some kind of tragic development to hit one or both of the protagonists at some stage, as the cliché-ridden screenplay is a confection of contrivances, coincidences and over-the-top developments familiar from television soaps. The unappetizing small-screen feel is emphasized by the functional-at-best cutting and the blandness of the visuals, with performances - Ramdane the notable exception - generally tending towards the self-consciously stiff end of the thespian spectrum.

Venue: Abu Dhabi Film Festival (Competition), October 16, 2012.

Production company: MHP (Moussa Haddad Production)
Cast: Karim Hamzaoui, Zakaria Ramdane, Mouni Boualem, Bahia Rachdi,
Ahmed Benaissa, Rania Serrouti
Director: Moussa Haddad
Screenwriters: Amina Bédjaoui Haddad, Moussa Haddad
Producer: Amina Bédjaoui Haddad
Director of photography: Bachir Sellami
Music: Lotfi Attar
Editor: Mahfoud Boudjema
Sales agent: MHP, Algiers

No MPAA rating, 115 minutes