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Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011

UWM’s Festival of Films in French

French influence felt far beyond Paris

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This year’s Festival of Films in French travels far from the boulevards of Paris to explore the wider world. The number of languages heard during the event’s run, Feb. 3-15 at the UWM Union Theatre, is a reminder of how far the influence of France reached during the age of empires. Admission to all films is free.

A splendid film from Quebec, Ce qu’il faut pour vivre (The Necessities of Life), concerns an Inuit who becomes a stranger in a strange land. Set during a 1950s tuberculosis epidemic that penetrated the northern tier of Canada, Necessities’ protagonist, Tivii, supports his family by hunting on the barren slopes of Baffin Island. It’s a place where the only sounds come from the wind, the sled dogs and the geese overhead. When the quiet is broken by the deep bellow of a ship’s horn, Tivii is wrenched from his life in nature into the civilization he has only glimpsed from afar. A Canadian hospital ship has come to examine the Inuits for TB; amid the crying of children separated from their mothers, Tivii is ordered to leave his wife and children behind in order to convalesce in a Quebec City sanitarium.

The film’s artful rhythm encourages contemplation of Tivii’s fate and shared wonder as he sees a city for the first time. The sight of a bathtub and toilet is bewildering. A man of simple dignity, Tivii is saddened at his forced if necessary separation from the family and life he has known. Although surrounded by people, including doctors, nurses and a ward full of coughing TB patients, Tivii finds himself alone behind the barrier of language. Smiles and gestures can only go so far for an Inuit marooned in a Francophone world.

Unlike in most fish-out-of-water films, Tivii and his dilemma are never played for laughs. He is entirely sympathetic, as worthy of respect as the men with the stethoscopes and as knowledgeable in his field of life as anyone with a medical degree.

Le chant des mariees
(The Wedding Song) opens with scenes of Jews and Muslims in the old quarter of Tunis during World War II. Intense friendship as well as backbiting occurs across the thin boundaries separating residents of this French protectorate on the North African shore. And then director Karin Albou cuts to archival photographs of Hitler meeting with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a radical Islamic cleric who called on Muslims to rise up against the Jews. It’s easy to guess what’s next: Tunis falls under Nazi occupation and the regime finds at least some willing helpers among local Muslims.

Politics becomes personal in The Wedding Song. Central to the story are two teenage girls, the Jewish Myriam and the Muslim Nour, whose close friendship threatens to crumble beneath the weight of social tensions exacerbated by the Nazis. Under pressure from poverty and fear, Myriam’s mother pushes her toward marrying Raoul, a wealthy and older physician. Meanwhile, Nour’s father opposes his daughter’s desired marriage to Khaled, the handsome neighborhood ne’er-do-well.

The Wedding Song
is acute in its glancing observations on the fractures between class and gender within ethnic and religious groups in conflict. Both of the teenage protagonists are walking down different roads to unhappiness, paved for Myriam by the fleeting hope of security and for Nour by the restless stirring of a heedless heart. As in life, the characters of The Wedding Song are driven to compromise by the need to survive.

The Necessities of Life
screens at 7 p.m. Feb. 4 and 5 p.m. Feb. 6; The Wedding Song screens at 9 p.m. Feb. 4 and 7 p.m. Feb. 5. For more information, visit www4.uwm.edu/cie/frenchfilm.
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