'Jibril': Film Review | Berlin 2018

The classic tango of love is cleverly reorchestrated.

An Arab woman falls in love with a man in prison in director Henrika Kull’s feature debut.

The thrills and illusions of love are first celebrated, then painfully exposed, in Jibril, Henrika Kull’s thought-provoking tale centered around a dynamic, life-embracing Arab woman living in Germany. The fact that her love story unfolds with a young man who is serving time in prison only intensifies the universal lesson that love is blind and we rarely see our beloved as she or he really is. Expressive, close-up camerawork and captivating performances by Susanna Abdulmajid and Malik Adan reinforce the modern edge of this first feature.

Adding to its niche potential, the attractive actors generate some nice onscreen chemistry. The unexpected frankness of the occasional sex scenes may perplex some Arab outlets, but Western audiences will find them tastefully handled. It bowed in the Berlin Panorama.

The film traces the evolving relationship between mother-of-three Maryam (Abdulmajid) and prisoner Jibril (Adan) over the course of a year. Stage by stage, both parties project their physical and emotional needs on the other, until reality hits them like a freight train. Given Maryam’s indomitable personality, the sobering ending is not really a downer, but it does leave the lovers ruefully reflecting on their romantic illusions.

The story expands on Kull’s 2015 documentary, Absently Present, which explored a woman’s real-life relationship with a jailed man. Like the doc, Jibril tells its story from the female POV, in this case the laughing Maryam, a divorcee raising three young daughters while coolly holding down a job. We meet her dancing joyfully at her friend Sadah’s (Emna El-Aouni) wedding. In contrast to the bride, who is tightly wrapped in a white headdress with only her face showing, Maryam’s hair is long, thick and tangled, a symbol of her independence and free-thinking. Even the loud, pulsating music that she prefers speaks of a liberated woman, one who happens to be charming and seductive. But perhaps a shade too impulsive.

Her family and job take up a lot of her time, and Maryam seems to have no interest in dating an eligible man from her office. She has her mother and another older woman to babysit, and seems to have achieved an equilibrium. But intimacy is missing from her life, and one can’t imagine her remaining single forever.

When Sadah and her husband go to visit family in Beirut, Maryam agrees to deliver a package to their friend Jibril in prison. He’s easygoing and friendly, and remembers her from the wedding, though she appears not to. When he asks her to come again, she doesn’t answer. But something makes her return.

The relationship moves forward like a rushing stream thanks to the way Kull, who also edited, removes every unnecessary detail from the story. It’s a decision that lets her concentrate on the significant moments that shift the protagonists' mind scapes, which include outbursts of anger, feelings of helplessness, flashes of skin, sexual arousal.

Dialogue is mixed German and Arabic. When Jibril confesses to Maryam that he barely knows a word of Arabic because his father wanted him to “fit in” and speak only German, she promptly replies, “I know both.” It’s just a small difference, but summed up with her better education (he hasn’t even passed high school exams yet), job level and the greater maturity of motherhood; the warning signs mount up, unheeded.

They start calling each other at all hours. Her visits escalate into all the nervous awkwardness and emotion of a first date. They exchange a passionate kiss in the visitors' room. Later, when she’s in her bedroom and he’s back in his cell, they masturbate thinking of each other. This is the summer of their love.

Then comes the fall, and problems begin. By now they are co-dependent and take risks without thinking. She drops the kids off at their dad’s apartment without bothering to make sure he’s at home (he’s not). Jabril indulges in listening to her voice on a forbidden cellphone, which is confiscated with serious consequences for his probation: It’s canceled. They break up, suffer and get back together.

Things take an unexpected turn in the final winter segment, which is fast-moving and subtly played. Again the editing skips over everything usual  and expected to leap directly to the startling finale, when both Jibril and Maryam are forced to face some hard truths.

Interspersed with the narrative are episodes of a Lebanese soap opera that Maryam watches on TV, which illustrates a conventional male-female relationship. Despite its silliness and inappropriateness to her liberated lifestyle, you can see its message seeping into her unconscious, to disastrous effect.
Production company: Filmuniversitat Babelsberg Konrad Wollf
Cast: Susanna Abdulmajid, Malik Adan, Doua Rahal, Emna El-Aouni, Regina Schulte am Hulse, Dikra Rahal. Tobias Muller-Monning, Osama Hafiry, Inaam Wali
Director, screenwriter: Henrika Kull
Producers: Henrika Kull, Sophie Lakow, Carolina Steinbrecher
Director of photography: Carolina Steinbrecher
Production designer: Theresa Reiwer
Costume designer: Wiebke Lebus
Editor: Henrika Kull
Music: Dascha Dauenhauer
Casting director: Henrika Kull
World sales: Pluto Films
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
83 minutes