Michael Knaapen

'Salvation Army' Film: How the Impersonal Hits Home

Filed By Michael Knaapen | February 22, 2015 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: Casablanca, incest, intergenerational sex, Morocco, Reel Affirmations, Washington D.C.

salarmy.jpgReel Affirmations, D.C.'s ongoing celebration of LGBT film, presents Salvation Army this Friday, February 27th, at 7pm at the HRC Equality Center in downtown Washington. This 2013 film offers an opportunity to explore the intersections of LGBT life, sexuality, and cultures -- all within the focus of one young man's struggles.

In an adaptation of his autobiographical novel, filmmaker Abdellah Taïa tells the story of a gay Moroccan -- first as a teen, later as an adult -- who grows up under religious, familial, and social oppression and later pursues independence far from home by manipulating whoever he must in order to achieve it.

Our protagonist (Said Mrini as a youth, Karim Ait M'Hand as an adult) is one of seven siblings living with intermittently doting and abusive parents in cramped quarters in bustling, impoverished Casablanca. The contemporary streets of Morocco, here depicted as highways of congested loneliness, act as a crucible in which Abdellah learns about sex and power. These two elements perform a sometimes seductive, sometimes destructive pas de deux as older men exploit him to relieve their sexual frustrations while he in turn relies on them to explore his sexuality.

Abdellah also enlists these encounters to fulfill his need for attention which he desperately seeks from his troubled father and his older brother Slimane, with whom he is in love. While Slimane does not reciprocate Abdellah's feelings, he does offer fraternal support and insights, ultimately encouraging his younger brother to do whatever he must in order to live a fuller, happier life for himself. The second half of the film follows an older Abdellah living out an imperfect but resolutely self-possessed interpretation of that lesson.

Taïa as a filmmaker employs straightforward cinematic devices -- faraway shots; extended silences; pacing that ranges from adagio to lento -- to create an atmosphere at once claustrophobic and remote, intimate and impersonal. Ultimately, this creates a lens of essentialism where viewers are constantly challenged to determine the root of things -- sometimes dramatic themes like sexuality and origins, other times material questions of drama, like what is the essence of a particular scene or sequence. The metaphorical and material distance gives viewers the freedom to act as dispassionate witnesses, allowing space between audience and art for conversation and reflection.

salvation-army-film-poster.jpgAt times this project succeeds, especially in the former category (e.g., when we are treated to the many dispassionate sexual encounters where we must set aside the privilege of sentiment and accept the essence of sexuality as an enactment of urges). Other times, particularly in the second category, this project stumbles (e.g., a number of long, silent, lingering shots which place actors as ciphers in arc-less time for no apparent reason). When it works and when it doesn't, and why, offers as much to consider as the themes and drama being explored.

There is a particularly excellent moment that comes in the final seconds of the film (no spoilers; I promise). Reminiscent of "Rosebud" from Citizen Kane, we reunite with an unexpected totem from Abdellah's childhood that underscores the the poignancy of Salvation Army and which has tremendous cinematic value, especially as it functions like a sensory oasis in an otherwise vacant landscape.

As a moment, it more than redeems any earlier missteps in the storytelling. As art more broadly, it provokes unsettling questions about identity, suggesting that time and space can alter only our manifestation of our origins, not the origins themselves nor their place within us.

Go and see Salvation Army, not to learn another person's story, but to learn about your own.

Click here for more information about Reel Affirmations' screening of Salvation Army on Friday, February 27. The film's trailer is below.

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