Features, Film

Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (PӦFF27) Dispatch #4


The Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (PӦFF) runs in-person in Tallinn, Estonia from November 3-19. The Boston Hassle’s Joshua Polanski will be reviewing and interviewing live from Estonia as part of his multi-outlet coverage of the festival. Be sure to check out his website for updates on additional coverage. 

AMAL (2023) — dir. Jawad Rhalib

Amal is the kind of film I expect to see a lot more of from French-speaking Europe over the next decade: well-intended, competently-made, and incredibly simplistic films that divide the rising Islamic community in Europe into either the good European progressives that hide all religiosity from the public or extremists with an inclination to terrorism. It’s not a terrible film– I actually enjoyed it for the most part– but it would be doing no one a service to deny the simple and frankly harmful politique binary that motivates the picture. 

Amal (Lubna Azabal) is a literature teacher at a majority Muslim school in Belgium. Mounia (Kenza Benbouchta) is a Muslim girl with a Moroccan background who is also attracted to women—a contradiction that shakes the world of her traditionalist peer students. She’s bullied and threatened, including with a drawing of a “dyke” being pushed off a building, relentlessly by her homophobic classmates. Amal, whose name means hope in Arabic, can’t stand for this and assigns readings by the radical erotic poet Abu Nawas from Arabic antiquity. The classmates react to his homoerotic poems with pandemonium.  

The film, from Belgian-Moroccan director Jawad Rhalib, flourishes in the editing room. The recurring structure rather loosely follows Amal’s class room, an outbreak of hatred, a teacher’s meeting, and then a scene at the home of one of the main characters; and repeat. As the cycle continues, the teachers’ meetings fail to be a resource of safety for their students and end with bureaucratic stalemates among the disagreeing teachers. In the last of these all teacher meetings, the edit skips the actual content of their meeting and only shows the familiar (lack of) resolution. In decisions like this, editor Nicolas Rumpl’s keeps a strong tempo and prevent the film from falling into a space too contemplative, a space that I fear wouldn’t suit it too well.

The two versions of Islam on display never go beyond name-calling and slurs: “Salafi,” “haram,” “terrorist.” There is no probing into ideology, religious mystery, or anything of that sort. The only instant of depth in this regard comes and goes in a flash as Mouna quotes the Qur’an to her classmates in a moment many viewers will miss. The only sort of “good Muslim” seems to be one that segregates religious beliefs from the rest of life. This sort of European liberal spirit, the same ideology that managed to make wearing a face veil illegal in Belgium, expresses itself most clearly very early on in Amal. The titular teacher gives a lecture on the European Enlightenment—that great intervention of modernity into the traditionalist world of religiosity and superstition—that finds itself interrupted as her students descend into a full-scale public bully session of their lesbian classmate. How great everything would be if the peace of our enlightened society wasn’t disturbed by religious extremism?, the film presses onto its viewers.

Amal saves itself from racial insensitivity in the final moment, likely strategically, with the “conversion” of the one the bullies. For the majority of the runtime, one can quickly identify whether or not the film will approve or disapprove of one’s “version” of Islam based on the color of the character’s skin: the more brown the skin color, the more likely one is to succumb to extremism; the lighter the skin, the more likely one can be boxed into a sort of progressive Islam. And for the latter, what matters is not the content of belief (whether or not Islam possesses the space to contain affirmative messages for queer Muslims is never really a concern, or even a question); what matters is simply that one can relegate their religious beliefs and practices to their personal lives, a political view that, in reality, immensely hinders the struggle for a healthy pluralistic society and gives precedent to Christian norms.

Maybe I’m just too sensitive to simplistic depictions of rich religious traditions. These are students, after all, in a school system that shows some scars of previous troubles. And even though Nawas’s poems barley take up more than four minutes of runtime, Amal does attempt to meet her students where they are at: with a queer Muslim. 

But regardless of her right to teach Nawas and the topic of homosexuality, her decision is never pedagogically persuasive. Why would she assume her students would respond well to such poems rather than being inflamed? Wouldn’t the more effective approach have been to show traditions of radical love within Islam, forms of love that make bullying and homophobia just as unacceptable if not more to these students as queer love? 

Lubna Azabal won the prize for Best Actress for her performance as Amal. She won alongside Kim Higelin for Consent as dual winners (not co-winners). The jury only intended to award one prize, but made an exception because of their appreciation for the artistry of the two women.

Cat Call (2023) — dir. Rozália Szeleczki

No film festival passes without some sort of affront to art. That’s just the nature of what happens when hundreds of films are programmed together. Cat Call, a Hungarian film from the First Feature Competition category, is one of those films. 

With a runtime just a few minutes over an hour and a half that somehow drags for an eternity, it was one of the most excruciating watches of the festival. Formally, first time director Rozália Szeleczki holds her own and certainly shows the capacity to one day make a good film; the film about a woman who has visions of all potential love interests dying horrible deaths out of a childhood trauma and then falls in love with a talking cat that’s also somehow voiced by her father is not that film.

I found it difficult to believe Cat Call is actually a twisted comedy of some sort. The beats of the film too perfectly mirror serious romances and, unless I don’t understand Hungarian humor, the film just isn’t funny. It’s a bit perturbing, in fact. The lead, Franciska Törőcsik as Fáni, imbues her character with the same sort of quiet eroticism that Dakota Johnson has mastered: you can tell just how turned on she is without a word or any form of clear expression. It just isn’t funny—nor profound or meaningful—to watch a cat make her horny. 

Cat Call
dir. Rozália Szeleczki
92 min.

dir. Jawad Rhalib
112 min.

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