On the Edge: LAFF Review

Tough girls navigate the mean streets of Tangier in this hard-edged yet underdeveloped drama.

Leïla Kilani's film follows young women in Tangier who are wage slaves by day and thieves by night.

Documentarian Leïla Kilani’s first fiction film is a restless look at 20-year-old women in Tangier who are wage slaves by day, thieves by night. More convincing in its particulars than it is involving as a narrative, Sur la planche — which has been given the somewhat generic English title of On the Edge — offers a tough view of the everyday effects of globalization. With much of its action unfolding in the nocturnal fringes of the Moroccan port city, where poverty and luxury collide, the film bristles with rage and suspicion.

The kinetic handheld filmmaking aims to get close to the characters as they take ever-riskier leaps into dangerous territory, but their actions never invite emotional connection. The feature has followed its 2011 Cannes premiere with a steady string of fest slots, most recently in the International Showcase of the Los Angeles Film Festival.

At the center of the story is the ferociously defiant Badia (Soufia Issami), who becomes ringleader to a quartet of young women looking for thrills and cash to supplement their factory earnings. By day, Badia and the more amenable Imane (Mouna Bahmad), both from Casablanca and on their own in Tangier, peel shrimp in a glaring white processing plant. When Badia scrubs her skin with lemon, the gesture has none of the lyricism or erotic charge that Susan Sarandon’s seafood-bar waitress brought to it in Atlantic City.

Badia’s nearly every move is fueled by anger and an impatient longing for true independence. She warns her friend not to mingle with the others at work, and when a supervisor wants Badia to recruit more workers — “You know what makes a good shrimp girl” — she’s not flattered.

At night, shucking off their djellabahs in the back of a taxi, they step out in Western clothes to pick up men and steal from them. In the process they meet Nawal (Nouzha Akel) and Asma (Sara Betioui), local girls who have been working their own small-time schemes. As textile workers in the nearby Free Zone, where international companies subcontract production, Nawal and Asma have a higher standing in the factory caste system than Badia and Imane.

The script by Kilani (Our Forbidden Places) is at its best when illuminating the European presence in North Africa and the socioeconomic divisions among the natives. As a cabbie remarks, “Tangier gives only to foreigners.” To redress the disparity, the four girls join forces to fence stolen goods. Badia’s philosophy, spelled out in occasional voiceover narration that helps to penetrate her armor, differentiates between perception and intention: “I don’t steal; I get my fair share.”

The performances are all strong. But even with Issami’s committed portrayal of Badia, the character’s self-dramatizing intensity remains off-putting from beginning to end. Eric Devin’s lensing and the editing by Tina Baz are essential to the agitation and unease that Kilani wants to convey. The story loses its specific force, however, as the rather ordinary setups and double-crosses multiply.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival
An Aurora Films & Socco Chico Films production
in association with DKB Productions, INA and Vandertastic (In Arabic with English subtitles)
Cast: Soufia Issami, Mouna Bahmad, Nouzha Akel, Sara Betioui
Director-writer: Leïla Kilani
Producer: Charlotte Vincent
Director of photography: Eric Devin
Production designer: Yann Dury
Music: Wilkimix (Wilfried Blanchard)
Co-producer: Hanneke Van der Tas
Editor: Tina Baz
No MPAA rating, 110 minutes
International sales: Fortissimo Films.