This week the Mediascape Blog is running a series of posts by Laura Swanbeck on the 2013 ColCoa Film Festival.
Plot spoilers below
Opening at the Directors’ Fortnight at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Rachid Djaïdani’s feature film Hold Back (Rengaine) exemplifies a new style of guerrilla filmmaking in France and is also a contender for my favorite film of ColCoa. Starring Sabrina Hamida and Stephane Soo Mongo as a couple whose families object to their engagement based on their divergent races and religions, this provocative film explores the prejudice and hostility between different immigrant groups in modern-day France.
While this subject matter might make the film sound self-righteous, it is far from it. In fact, Djaïdani, who worked as a novelist and a boxer before making his feature film debut, has managed to craft a social issue picture that retains its sense of humor. Much of this comedy comes in the shape of Dorcy (Soo Mongo), a struggling actor who answers ads in the paper for jobs ranging from the absurd to the disturbing. Djaïdani seems to take pleasure in satirizing the film world, using Dorcy’s string of auditions as fodder for a critique of eccentric directors who want their actors to literally suffer for their art. Shot over the course of nine years, the film finally came to fruition once acclaimed producer Anne-Dominique Toussaint (Cycling with Molieré, The Hedgehog, Caramel) lent her support to the project, allowing Djaïdani the opportunity to translate his vision to the screen.
After asking for Sabrina’s (Hamida) hand in marriage, Dorcy must contend with the family brood (totaling 39 siblings!). Once her perpetually scowling eldest brother, Slimane (Slimane Dazi), discovers that his sister is set to marry a black Christian whose status as an often unemployed actor doesn’t help matters, he balks at the idea and canvases the neighborhood, trying to rally support in the Arab community to put an end to their union. He, in turn, employs a double standard, exhibiting an underlying hypocritical streak by pursuing a relationship with Jewish singer Nina (Nina Morato) while struggling to keep it a secret. Meanwhile, Dorcy is none too happy that he’s engaged to an Arab Muslim: his hairdresser mother refuses to cut his hair until he puts an end to the relationship.
Favoring a hand-held camera and extreme close-ups, Djaïdani captures a sense of immediacy and urgency, which is striking given that he shot the film over such a long period of time. Nevertheless, he retains a sense of intensity and cohesion throughout the film. He excels at capturing the bustling metropolis of Paris as well as the complicated friendships and rivalries that define specific regions. Moreover, there’s a grittiness to his work, which he prominently reveals in a scene midway through the film in which Dorcy’s acting and real life blend to disorienting and disconcerting effect.
While for the most part Djaïdani displays a naturalistic and self-assured approach that’s unprecedented for a first-time feature filmmaker, he stumbles toward the end by complicating the narrative when Sabrina’s true eldest brother, who’s been disowned for his personal life, comes out of the woodwork to try to reason with Slimane. This final twist seems a bit contrived and would have benefited from further exploration to delve into the nuances of their family history. The last-minute revelation does serve as a reminder of the consequences of shirking the status quo in a very conservative community, but it lacks the necessary set-up for the impact and payoff that it might have had. Still, Hold Back heralds the arrival of a really innovative new talent whose street-smart, quasi-documentary style catapults you onto the streets of Paris and into the shoes of both Sabrina and Dorcy’s circle of family and friends. In hindsight, while the film dedicates quite a bit of screen time to Dorcy’s thespian misadventures, hardly any time is spent concentrating on Sabrina. Nevertheless, seeing her side of the story through Slimane’s slanted point of view forces viewers to observe through his eyes and ultimately confront the chasm and casual bigotry that’s endemic between immigrant nationalities in French society.
Hold Back won the FIPRESCI Prize at the 2012 Directors’ Fortnight and the Michel D’Ornano Prize. It was also nominated for a Best First Film César in 2013. Pathé is handling international sales. Domestic distribution has yet to be announced.
Laura Swanbeck is a staunch cinephile, film festival enthusiast, and Master’s student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. She spent the last few years working in film programming and championing independent filmmakers at the California Film Institute and San Francisco Film Society. Areas of interest include Middle Eastern and European transnational cinema with a specific focus on immigration, exile, and diaspora. Currently she’s enamored with French film after covering the ColCoa Film Festival. She has recurring nightmares about DCP issues, unabashedly loves feminist film theory, and probably would have been Pauline Kael’s arch-nemesis had she been born a few decades earlier.