The ties that bind

You can understand why some films of iffy quality find a place at a festival. Like the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, which I missed due to a late flight into Berlin. But everyone said it was nothing special — at least, nothing special enough to open such a major international festival. But not every film can be about pushing the boundaries of cinematic art, like Lav Diaz’s 8 hour 2 minute drama, A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery. A festival needs stars and glamour, and big, splashy Hollywood releases have to be there. But what explains the inclusion in competition (which means it’s a contender for the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear) of the Arabic drama Inhebbek Hedi, directed by Mohamed Ben Attia?

(From left) Actors Majd Mastoura, Rym Ben Messaoud, director Mohamed Ben Attia, actor Sabah Bouzouita and producer Dora Bouchoucha Fourati during a photo call for the film Inhebbek Hedi at the 2016 Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin on Friday.

This is the story of a young Tunisian named Hedi (Majd Mastoura), who works as a sales agent for Peugeot. The first scene shows him stuck in traffic, knotting his tie in his car (translation: he’s suffocating), as a single piano key is struck repeatedly (translation: something ominous is about to happen). It isn’t a good sign when we begin with clichés, which keep piling up. He’s entering into an arranged marriage with Khedija (Omnia Ben Ghali), who’s so demure she’ll only meet him in his car, and even after three years of being engaged, she shrinks back when he attempts to kiss her. Is it any surprise he’s drawn to the free-spirited Rym (Rym Ben Messaoud), who entertains tourists with Hawaiian dances? To make things clearer, Rym, unlike Khedija, lives by the sea — she’s locked in neither by land, nor by the customs and traditions of the land.

There are hints that this isn’t just a love triangle, that something larger is at play. The country is in a crisis. Rym wants to move to France. Hedi’s brother Ahmed (Hakim Boumsaoudi) is there too, working as an engineer. But even there, life is tough for immigrants. The festival brochure tries to sell the film this way: “An ostensibly personal story broadens into a panorama of a society in upheaval, an allegory about breaking away from traditions. And a film about happiness and pain of freedom.” But the story is familiar to anyone who watches Hollywood films. Or even the recent Indian multiplex films, many of which are about people trapped between the opposing pulls of tradition and freedom.

At many points, I felt I was watching an Indian film. “He’ll always be my little boy,” says Hedi’s mother. And later, when she learns he may not be marrying Khedija after all, she wails, “After all we have done for you.” There’s talk of dowry and the inability to settle down someplace too far away from one’s parents, and Ahmed – the film’s most interesting character – is like many NRIs who cannot (or will not) return home and yet want to control what’s happening at home. He’s keen on the Hedi–Khedija weding because he wants to get into business with her father. Inhebbek Hedi is a nice film, and at times affecting, but is “nice’ enough to compete for one of the most prestigious film awards in the world? With the racism row heating up, thanks to the Oscars, it’s impossible not to wonder if films like Hedi are selected simply so that the competition line-up has some diversity. Hedi, undoubtedly, is a window to another world, one where women wear head scarves and yet smoke cigarettes, where the sounds of ululating at rituals mingle with the sounds of pre-marital lovemaking. But can this alone be enough? But without this diversity, I suppose festival organisers will throw themselves open to questions about racism, especially with the refugee crisis in Europe.

At the end, even if I didn’t feel my mind had expanded, I found that my heart had swelled a bit, for we’ve all been through some version of Hedi’s dilemma. As much as we want to break free, some ties are too strong.