Bik Eneich/A Son

BIK ENEICH/ A SON/ UN FILS, Tunisia, 2019. Starring Sami Bouajila, Najla Ben Abdallah, Youssef Khemiri. Directed by Mehdi Barsaoui. 95 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and violence)

A simple title, direct, for a drama that might happen anywhere in the world, but a simple title for a treatment of its themes which is cultural and geographical specific.

In fact, the setting is Tunisia (with some sweeping location photography, especially in the mountains). The date is 2011. Audiences will appreciate that this is the period of the Arab Spring in North Africa. In the background of this story are references to strict Islamists wanting power, armed groups in road ambushes, and, especially, what was happening in neighbouring Libya, uprisings, the privy to the downfall of Colonel Gadaffi.

This is the background, but, centre-screen, is the story of a family. It starts with exuberance and joy, father, mother and son, friends and relatives, out at a picnic, hopeful, modern and contemporary, happy prospects. (As in other Tunisian films, the picture of Islamic Tunisian society is a mixture of tradition, especially in women’s dress, and a more “secular” lifestyle.) Within the first 15 minutes, A Son moves from this exhilaration, mother father and boy jubilantly singing in the car on the way home, to unexpected violence, to a crisis, hospital and surgery, the probing of family secrets.

A word to describe the experience of this film is “harrowing”. While we might say that, at times, life itself is harrowing enough, it seems very important to experience this kind of harrowing story, experience its beginning, complex developments, and ending within two hours of screen time. (This film has been compared to some Iranian films of recent years, in subject and in quietly dramatic style, like A Separation, a just comparison, a quietly intense sharing with characters, troubles, sadness, that touches both heart and mind in ways unanticipated.)

Sami Bouajila is a celebrated French actor with African background and has appeared in a number of films for two decades. Here he plays Fares, a successful businessman, devoted to his wife, Meriem, who is also a professional. They have an 11-year-old son, Aziz, who seems to have a zest for life. And it is he who is taken to hospital, requiring demanding surgery, hanging on for his life, much of his liver destroyed, in need of a liver transplant (but finding himself way down on the list for transplants, strict legal and religious traditions in Tunisia, permissions and documentation required).

While the focus is on Aziz and audience hopes for successful surgery, the drama takes us into unanticipated complications, emotional complications to be handled by Fares and Meriem. They are complications that audiences will recognise and appreciate how difficult it is to communicate them and deal with their consequences.

There is also a significant sub-plot, a sleazy entrepreneur who haunts hospital waiting areas and checks out anxious parents, offering them alternate (and expensive) ways for transplants – and a revelation about a black market in organ donors and a cruel exploitation of young children.

This is the first full-length feature of the Tunisian director, Mehdi Barsaoui. It is accomplished filmmaking, accomplish storytelling, an accomplished invitation for the audience to be willing to share harrowing experiences.

Limelight Films                                                 Released July 2nd

Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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