'Latifa: A Fighting Heart' ('Latifa, le coeur au combat'): Film Review

Courtesy of Haut et Cour
Mother Courage takes on homegrown jihadis.

French documentary reportage by Olivier Peyon and Cyril Brody provides a striking portrait of a grieving mother turned anti-jihadi campaigner.

The world of Latifa ibn Ziaten changed forever on March 11, 2012, the day her son Imad, serving as a paratrooper in the French army, was gunned down by jihadi terrorist Mohamed Merah in a rampage in southern France that left seven dead, including three young schoolchildren. Out of the grief and despair into which she was plunged, this simple, Moroccan-born housewife has forged a vocation, well described by Olivier Peyon and Cyril Brody in their documentary Latifa: A Fighting Heart.

Heading the Association for Youth and Peace that she created in the wake of her son's death, Latifa travels the length and breadth of France, spreading a message of tolerance and respect for one's neighbors in schools, youth clubs, detention centers and prisons in a determined campaign to get to the root causes of native jihadism.

The filmmakers followed Latifa over the course of a year, observing and listening, dispensing with commentary, the sobriety of their approach matching the transparent sincerity of her conversations with troubled youth. The result is a film that, while likely to serve as a campaigning document for civic associations and human rights groups, also provides a striking portrait of a remarkable individual. Latifa's message is universal, and the film, though it appears destined for niche markets, deserves to flourish on the festival circuit.

Nothing had prepared Latifa for her role as a fighter against intolerance. Arriving in France in the late 1970s at the age of 17, she was unable to read or write and devoted herself solely to catering to the needs of her husband and five children. Family scenes and snaps of her early life as a bride and mother punctuate sequences of her debating with schoolchildren, mostly of immigrant origin in the more deprived regions of France, or receiving honors from the likes of John Kerry, then U.S. secretary of state, or then-French President Francois Hollande.

It's impossible not to be impressed by Latifa's down-to-earth common sense and lack of pretention as she tackles complex issues such as the state's responsibility for the emergence of homegrown jihadis, the claims of religion in a secular society, or the rights and wrongs of wearing a veil (she herself invariably wears a headscarf: "Does that shock you?" she asks her native-French interlocutors rhetorically). She fully assumes the notion of multiple identities, seeing herself as simultaneously French, Moroccan and Muslim and fending off the arguments of a senior politician, encountered during a debate in the French parliament, who insists that in matters of national allegiance you cannot have split loyalties.

There are moments of emotion, as when Latifa visits her son's grave in Morocco, but these are handled without sentimentality or condescension. She encounters the occasional rebuff, as when, during a trip to Israel, she visits the West Bank city of Ramallah and proposes to bring a mixed group of Jewish and Palestinian children to France (she also visits the grave in Tel Aviv of Jonathan Sandler who, with his two children, also figured among Merah's victims). And from time to time she receives death threats, almost certainly from jihadi groups unhappy with Latifa's insistence on the need to accept differences and to learn to live together in peace.

Cinematically, it's possible to quibble on a number of points — a lengthy account of a trip to China makes the film perhaps longer than it needed to be — but in an age when the default response to world affairs is weary cynicism, Latifa ibn Ziaten's message, her example of hope, positive action and rejection of fear, comes as a breath of fresh air.

Production company: Haut et Court
Cast: Latifa ibn Ziaten
Directors: Olivier Peyon, Cyril Brody
Producers: Carole Scotta, Laurence Petit, Julie Billy
Directors of photography: Olivier Peyon, Cyril Brody
Editors: Lizi Gelber, Catherine Birukoff
Music: Mike and Fabien Kourtzer
International sales: Cinephil (Israel)
No rating, 97 minutes