Zanj Revolution (Thwara Zanj): Rotterdam Review

International Film Festival Rotterdam
"Zanj Revolution"
Contemplative, experimental exercise about the politics of resistance, with the emphasis on conflicts of ideas rather than arms.

Tariq Teguia's third feature has an Algerian journalist and a Palestinian activist crossing paths in Beirut in their respective quests to understand the history of popular insurrections in the Middle East.

Midway into Tariq Teguia's third feature, a Lebanese historian tells the film's journalist protagonist Ibn Battuta (Fethi Ghares) that past rebellions can provide a lot of pointers to the thinkers of today. It's a remark which defines Zanj Revolution, a piece that belies its title by offering scant images of an unfolding insurrection. In line with the Algerian-born and now Greece-based filmmaker's previous two Venice-premiered outings – his 2006 debut Rome Rather Than You and 2008 follow-up Inland – this latest, mostly Beirut-set piece unleashes conflicts of ideas rather than arms, as contemplative discussions and the occasional heated debate serve as harbingers about how resistance against the establishment is possible.

These lessons on Middle Eastern history and politics betray a certain urgency that is absent in Teguia's ennui-driven work of the past. Perhaps inspired by and then mirroring the vibrant political changes in the region during the past three years, Zanj Revolution provides a timely and thoroughly intellectual treatise about the ebbs and flows of anti-authoritarian political movements in the Arab world. Its world premiere at Rome (in the CinemaXXI sidebar) was followed by appearances at Belfort (where it won the festival's grand prize) and Rotterdam. Screening for the first time outside Europe with a slot at Mexico City's Ficunam next month, the film's mix of art and politics – with obvious nods to Michelangelo Antonioni's play of space and Jean-Luc Godard's penchant for on-screen polemics – will play well in indie showcases or individual arthouse and campus bookings.

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The film begins with Ibn's symbolic on-screen entrance, as the reporter – who shares the same name of the 14thcentury Moroccan explorer who wrote extensively of his travels – emerges into view amidst a flurry of smoke. Interestingly, Ghares' character has already appeared in Teguia last film: while remaining nameless, the flat-capped firebrand was featured in a short scene in Inland, striding across wastelands as he cheerfully said to a friend how walking gives him back some kind of humanity.

But that was five years and a lot of political unrest ago. Now, Ghares/Ibn looks visibly jaded and perplexed about the significance of his work. As he walks into a small Algerian town in the grip of sharp social unrest, he hears of a masked, stone-throwing demonstrator mentioning the Zanj, a much-oppressed underclass which revolted against their rulers in 9thcentury Iraq. Weary of a life in which he would inevitably "be sent to a hellhole to cover a riot", Ibn convinces his editor to allow him to fly off to conduct research for a piece about this rarely-articulated episode in the history of popular insurrections in the Middle East; while denied the budget to go as far as Baghdad, he manages to be approved of a trip to Beirut, the city his boss describe as the illustration of "what went wrong with the Arab Nation".

The sorry state she has in mind is reflected in the story's parallel strand in the shape of the family roots of student activist Nahla (Diyana Sabri), who lives in Thessaloniki (where Teguia himself is based) with her exiled Palestinian parents. Knowing well their pain of having fled war-stricken Lebanon in the 1980s – his urban studies professor father would speak of the anguish of being seen as "sold out" for leaving, while his ex-militant mother laments her old life as being "gone" forever – the young woman decides to explore her roots by returning to Beirut, the pretext being to bring a donation to the Shatila refugee camp, where Israeli-backed Christian militias slaughtered thousands of Palestinian civilians in September 1982 in one of the bloodiest chapters of the protracted Lebanese civil war.

In a meet-cute of sorts, the pair converge as they wander amidst the scaffolding-strewn, reconstruction-in-action downtown of Beirut, as Ibn asks Nahla for directions to the university where he is to meet a scholar on the Zanj rebellions. After a mischievous exchange in which they reveal themselves as kindred spirits lost in a strange land – with the anarchist Nahla laughing at the absurdity of being asked how to go to the "American University" – they would meet again. Alongside their listless local friend Rami (Wassim Mohamed Ajawi), they become some kind of a politicized version of the Jules and Jim troika, as they talk about activism, dance to rock music and pulls off a heist (of sorts) and secures the money with which Ibn and Nahla could finish the final legs of their destined journeys – to the lands of the mythical Zanj and their modern-day incarnations in Palestine and then back on the streets of discontented Greece.

Ibn's determination in accomplishing this expansive journey speaks volumes of Teguia's ambitions here, as he provides a thoughtful alternative to the rolling-news coverage offered by mass media outlets on a daily (if not hourly) basis. Nasser Medjkane and Hacene Ait Kaci's digital camerawork is defined by meticulous framing, as individuals – specifically Ibn and Nahla – are positioned amidst daunting, dehumanized landscapes so as to accentuate their existence amidst historical, political and economic flows. Meanwhile, close-ups are provided to the unnamed resisters showing up on Ibn and Nahla's journeys, whether it be kaffiyeh-wearing protesters in rural Algeria, the melancholic refugee-camp dwellers in Beirut, dismayed bearers of a coffin holding a martyr, or the possible Zanj descendant who reveals himself to Ibn at the very end of the film.

This approach works in tandem with Rodolphe Molla's editing. Rather than employing machine-gun montages to artificially pump up the adrenaline, he leaves it to Teguia to mould the tension by having his characters navigate their ways towards their epiphanies while confusion reigns around them.

Given Teguia's interesting spatial experiments of saying more with less, it's perhaps ironic that his major misstep lies in filling his narrative with a few unnecessary villains. It's hardly a surprise they come in the shape of two amoral American suits (played by John W. Peake and Sean Gullett) who first appears in the film as vulture entrepreneurs touring Iraq; arriving in Beirut, they are to stay in a hotel room across the street from Ibn's lodgings, carrying with them - inexplicably – a suitcase filled with crisp dollar bills which they regularly leave unattended in the room.

Their presence might be warranted so as to provide the protagonists with the resources they need to press forward, but the Americans are just too much a caricature: they are there to act merely as ciphers representing the values modern-day revolutionaries should fight against, conducting grumbling conversations about remapping Iraq as a "capitalist utopia" and their roles as "real revolutionaries" conducting "creative destruction". These comments  do not add anything to the arguments made throughout the film; rather than trying to unearth "lost ghosts", perhaps it's time to steer clear of clichés, innovate and inspire. Casting aside this artificial imposition of the bland baddies, Zanj Revolution delivers some nourishing nuggets to be consumed as the viewer contemplates the meanings and possibilities of resistance against the system.


Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Spectrum), Jan. 26, 2014

Production Companies: Neffa Films, Zendj, Le Fresnoy, Mirrors, Captures

Director: Tariq Teguia

Cast: Fethi Ghares, Diyana Sabri, Ahmed Hafez, Wassim Mohamed Ajawi, John W. Peake

Producer: Tariq Teguia

Screenwriters: Tariq Teguia, Yacine Teguia

Directors of Photography: Nasser Medjkane, Hacene Ait Kaci

Editor: Rodolphe Molla

Music: Psarandonis, Magyar Posse

Sound Designers: Abdelkader Affak, Kamel Ergani

International Sales: Neffa Films

In Arabic, Greek and English

No ratings, 136 minutes