Directors of different cultures between horror and the beauty that saves the world

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L'apotre.jpg“The fear of being polemical, the fear of upsetting people, the fear of stirring up controversy, the fear of being considered an Islamophobe. Perhaps, also, the fear of reprisals. Ultimately, fear in all its forms.” They sound familiar, those words of the young director, Cheyenne Carron, as she describes the obstacles she encountered and the struggle she had, in the France of “laïcité,” to make L’Apôtre, a film that tells the story of a Maghrebi boy’s conversion to Catholicism. “I’m not afraid,” she says. It was a very clear insight that enabled her to make her film, despite the dictatorship of political correctness: “The ultra-secularism that wants to cancel every trace of Christianity is no longer tenable.”

Inspired by the true story of a conversion from Islam to Catholicism – a story that the director was turning into a film script during the period of her own preparation for baptism – L’Apôtre presented a challenge: how to tell of Catholicism’s beauty without denigrating Islam. The film came out in Paris at the end of 2014 but the attack on the editorial office of the weekly Charlie Hebdo blocked its release, first in France and then abroad. The French authorities justified their decision by stating that the film could have been perceived “as a provocation for the Muslim community.” An embarrassing instance of censorship during the days of demonstrations to the cry of “Je suis Charlie” and one that increased the difficulty of finding someone with the courage to export it.

And that is a shame, because Carron’s film has something miraculous about it. Filmed with a rigour that touches eyes and hearts and containing excellent acting from Maghrebi actors, it tells the story of how Akim, a young Algerian destined by his family to become a French provincial imam, converts to Catholicism. A story that has nothing ideological about it, in which the encounter with Christ is presented as sheer beauty. There is beauty in the peaceful gaze of the Catholic priest, Don Fauré, who continued living in the district where his sister had been killed by a Maghrebi. There is beauty in the church where Akim – invited by a friend to the baptism of his daughter – stands enchanted, drawn by the music and the words of Jeremiah written on the wall, “When you seek me you shall find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” The priest makes him the present of a Bible, which he reads secretly. And as his new love for Jesus grows, Akim finds himself at a crossroads and chooses: he reveals his choice to his mother, who laughs in his face, and to his brother, who beats him black and blue. He goes ahead, however, despite the fact that his fear is great.

Timbuktu.jpgFear also had an impact on the release of a film that was apparently irreproachable from the ideological point of view. Timbuktu. Le chagrin des oiseaux was banned in the French cinemas following the Paris massacre. An instance of censorship that spread from Europe to Los Angeles and resulted in the film (which was nominated for an Oscar) being ignored, despite the fact that the memory of the American journalists beheaded by ISIS is still smarting. And yet the director, Abderrahmane Sissako, is a Muslim. Just as the government of Mauritania, the country that produced and supported the film – deploying the army on the set to protect the filming – is Muslim. And Islam is – both in the story and in real-life – the first victim of the jihadist fanatics who arrived in northern Mali in 2012, armed with their black flags, semi-automatic weapons and threats yelled in Arabic. Sissako decided to make the film after seeing a video posted on the Internet by the same terrorists in which a young, unmarried couple living in the village of Aguelhok were buried up to their necks in the sand and stoned. “Aguelhok is neither Damascus nor Teheran. And so no one talks about it,” maintains the director, denouncing an occupation that is spreading from Mali to other African countries, while the world remains indifferent. What is special about this wise film is the director’s highly refined choice to let the horror reach the public – by contrast or in its absence – through the beauty of the images. “Beauty will save the world,” Sissako reminds us, “but beauty also provides the necessary distance when one is trying to evoke violence.”

Life is beautiful for the herdsman Kidane, living amidst the velvety dunes and waves of the desert. He follows his herd of eight cows in the company of a foundling, whilst his wife Satima and their little daughter look after the tent. When the guerrillas arrive in the village, their neighbours escape and they are the only ones left. But something changes even there, between the sand and the river, where tragedy lies in waiting because evil is contagious. In the village, the militias prohibit everything, from music to football to laughter. A herald on a motorbike announces that no one may sit outside their door during the daytime: the men must roll up their trouser-hems and the women must cover their heads, hands and feet.

Sissako makes no allowances for the men of terror. We see them kill a gazelle and destroy works of art, forbid smoking and smoke themselves, ban football and discuss Zidane’s playing style, punish singing and listen to music, have their way with the girls and profane God’s temple with weapons and heavy boots. “What has happened to clemency, forgiveness, piety and dialogue”? the village imam wonders. A cry that echoes in the streets, says Sissako, particularly when a church explodes in Lagos on Easter Day. If, at the beginning of the film, one sees polite guerrillas who return a pair of spectacles to the western prisoner they are about to slaughter, at the heart of the film there lies, above all, the wound inflicted on Islam and the evil committed by fanatics who are “neither convinced nor convincing.”

silvered-water-syria-self-portrait-2014-poster.jpgThe West witnesses it all and doesn’t seem to understand much of what is happening. Judging the unsettled world scene has become a hard task in the absence of clear criteria. Take Ma’a al-Fidda-Silvered water by Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan, for example. This is a film on the siege of Homs in Syria, which provoked debate at Cannes last year. It seemed to be the squaring of the circle regarding the quest for truth that the cinema persists in pursuing. From his Parisian exile, Ossama Mohammed, an important Syrian director, orchestrated the footage of a young female Kurdish director, who documented the reality of the clashes between the army and the revolutionaries on site. To this was added the work of another “1,001 authors” of anonymous videos posted on YouTube and a documentary was born. It is the myth of the cinema-vérité, capable of seducing reality to the point of persuading it to reveal itself by itself, without a critical eye that looks at it and judges it through the lens. It’s just a shame that, within a short space of time, the way the civil war evolved has changed the role of the protagonists.

It is not strange, then, that fear often becomes the only magnifying lens for reading reality. Few know how to tell its story like Clint Eastwood, who has reached the ripe old age of 84. American Sniper (another film that liberal America forgot to reward with an Oscar) tells of the fear felt by the terrorist who is about to detonate himself or that of the sniper, when he sees a child at the centre of his sights.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Emma Neri, “Fear’s Colours”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp. 140-142.

Online version:
Emma Neri, “Fear’s Colours”, Oasis [online], published on 31st July 2015, URL: