Thursday, June 21, 2012

Taxiphone (orig. El Mektoub) [2010]

Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing

Taxiphone (orig. El Mektoub) directed and co-written by Mohammed Soudani along with Lorenzo Buccella and Quittierie Duhurt is a Swiss and Algerian film (English subtitled) that played recently at the 10th Annual Chicago African Diaspora Film Festival held at Chicago's Facets Multimedia Theater between June 15-21, 2012.

It is about a young unmarried Swiss couple, Oliver (played by Pascuale Aleardi) and Elena (played by Mona Petri) traveling from Algiers, the capital of Algeria in North Africa by the Mediterranean Sea to (yes, to the actual) Timbuktu in the nation of Mali in the middle of the Sahara Desert.  Oliver had been hired to drive a large dump truck there from Algiers.

About 10 minutes into the movie, somewhere in the middle of this journey between Algiers and Timbuktu, the truck seriously overheats and breaks down.  They manage to get the truck towed to a town existing by an Oasis along the route.  But what now?

The only telephone service in the entire town is provided by a single shop (a "mektoub"...) run by Youssouf (played by Sid Ahmed Agoumi) located near the town's central square.  Anybody needing to make a call out of the town needs to go there to place the call.  Needless to say, Youssouf's little "mektoub" becomes a very interesting place.  Everyone from merchants and businessmen to wives with husbands working (illegally) in Europe would come to Youssouf's "mektoub" to place calls.  (Viewers who'd remember the Brazilian film Central Station [1998] would find similarities to this film.  In Central Station, one of the main characters in the movie made her living by operating a small table at the central train station in Rio de Janeiro where illiterate workers who had come to work in Rio de Janeiro from the Brazilian hinterlands would come to dictate letters to her intended for loved ones back home.  In this movie, Taxiphone, the wives/families of loved ones working in Europe would come to Youssouf's shop for the chance to be able to talk to them).

But it's also frustrating.  The phone service does not always work.  People have to be patient.  And the local residents are generally used to this.  Oliver is not.  Trying to find someone to fix the truck or at least to get the parts for the truck proves ... very, very hard.  At one point, Oliver loses his temper with Youssouf telling him: "I'm tired of hearing 'maybe' of 'if Allah wills.'  When are my parts going to arrive?"  Youssouf smiles.  Then after Oliver leaves the shop, he says in exasperation: "I've been living with 'maybe' and 'if Allah wills' all my life, welcome to the Third World ..."  Later Youssouf adds his own frustration about his town's situation: "We used to be a proud people traversing freely a land without borders and no one could touch us.  Today we're reduced to working illegally overseas or selling junk over here."

Indeed, an American viewer could experience this movie as presenting _in real life_ some of the "post-Apocalyptic scenarios" in Hollywood films exemplified, perhaps, by the Mad Max [1979, 1981, 1986] films.  This is the second African film, the other being the Congolese film Viva Riva! [2010], that I've seen in recent years that had this "post Apocalyptic" feel to it.  Now to be clear, the Mad Max films were very violent.  There was NO VIOLENCE AT ALL in this film.  (Viva Riva! had more violence).   Still the Algerian Oasis town in which this story played out was very, very isolated and it felt like it was truly "at the end of the world."

Still there's a lot going on in the world of this Oasis town in the middle of the Desert that perhaps would be missed if we were interested in simply "getting from here to there."  And this then becomes the meat of the film.

Here it becomes obvious that while both Oliver and Elena were obviously of the adventurous sort, the two approached their journey from Algiers to Timbuktu very differently.  Oliver was really driven by "the bottom line," arguably almost a "mercenary instinct."  He was being paid to drive a truck from Algiers to Timbuktu and that was what he was going to do.  Since he was so concerned about getting the truck working again, he probably had some sort of an investment riding on it.  As such, his being stuck at this Oasis in the middle of Algeria's desert was a unmitigated disaster.

Elena, on the other hand, was traveling with Oliver for the adventure of it.  She didn't know anything about trucks.  So when it broke down, she wasn't overly concerned about it.  Indeed, it wouldn't help a single bit more if she was concerned about it.  All she could do is to offer Oliver "a shoulder to cry-on" (and if one's honest, initially "a bit more...") every so often when he got frustrated.  But the truck wasn't going to get fixed by her.  HOWEVER, while Oliver spent his energy trying to get the truck fixed, Elena got to "explore," and not so much "geographically" the town and its surroundings, but instead explore/become interested in the people and their way of life.

To this end, of learning about the culture, both Elena (and Oliver) had some useful skills.  Being Swiss, they spoke three languages -- French, German and Italian.  Indeed, one gets the sense that if Oliver did not speak French, the whole opportunity of driving a truck from French/Arabic speaking Algiers to French/Arabic speaking Mali (presumably for some profit) would not have even come up.  And since many/most people in Algeria speak both French and Arabic, the search for parts to fix the truck was not and out-and-out impossibility.  But here Elena comes to really shine.  Most of those residents from the town who had gone to Europe to work were working in France, Italy or Germany.  Indeed Elena's knowledge of Italian helped her help a wife of one of these workers communicate with one of his bosses in Italy when she got a message that he had gotten hurt in some way.  As a result of her interest/helpfulness, the women in the town come to adopt her.

And this becomes all the more interesting as a lot of those women who adopted Elena as one of their own wore headscarves (and therefore one would expect them to be rather "conservative").  But this was also taking place in Algeria.  Some of the women _did not_ wear headscarves and presumably ALL/MOST of them had relatives who did not.  Indeed, one of the women that Elena meets had a head-scarfless cousin who was returning/visiting from (as it was presented, almost) "hippie liberal Algiers."  In any case, it's another reminder to us here in the West that the Moslem world is far more diverse/complex than at times we may assume that it is.

Finally, someone like me, a Catholic priest, certainly would notice the "lifestyle arrangement" of the unmarried central couple in the story, Elena and Oliver.  And here I would honestly note that it should not surprise _anyone_ what more or less obviously happens to this couple as the story plays out.  It would seem that they had been together only for "the adventure" of it all (symbolized by their "driving a truck through Africa").  And while things went well, they were happy together.  When "the truck broke down" however ... well ... and why would anybody be surprised?

So theirs was a "lifestyle choice" that wasn't exactly thought-through.  Now we could choose to live life in a manner that is "not thought through" / "not serious" but at some point ... one has to say that kind of "lifestyle choice" becomes rather shallow.   We're called to be more than merely "shallow..."

Still, what a well-done and thought-provoking film regardless!

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