One of my favourite things about Frankfurt so far is the fact that Monday night is Mystery English Language Film Night (known as “Sneak”). You really never know what you’re going to get. We’ve had films as awful as The Change Up and Abduction, and films as mind-blowingly awesome as Attack The Block, with everything you can imagine in between. Last night was the night of Black Gold, and here are some of my amateur thoughts upon its various successes and failings. Will contain minor spoilers, I’ll try to keep it at a minimum.
1. It wasn’t Dances With Wolves.
A big pro. No foreigner waltzed in and showed all those poor, backward people how to make a success of themselves, aside from the baffled Texan guy going, “But guys, you have oil here! Oil!” The focus and the conflicts are kept between the tribes, and the Texans are just one more complication in an already complicated situation. Admittedly, within that framework everything is pretty black and white (“I will trade with the foreigners!” “I will ignore the foreigners!”) but they do make attempts to add a bit of nuance in there from time to time (“I want my people to live better lives with the help of Western progress!” “I am aware that the foreigners have their own interests and they aren’t the same as ours!”) but it often gets lost in the noise.
2. They didn’t know what to do with their love interest.
Seriously, she spends a huge chunk of the film looking out of windows. That’s it. Saying nothing, doing nothing, just looking out of windows. There is, in fact, a line where she says to Auda, “My mother looked out of this window at an unchanging world!” Which, you know, implies that she’d be perfectly happy looking out of the window at a changing world. And to contrast with these moments of political feeling, you have the time Auda’s like “Man, they wouldn’t let me see my father as an emissary even though I’d be totally awesome at convincing him to see our side!” and Leyla’s like, “Oh no, why didn’t anyone think of that?” which comes across as painfully naive. The answer, of course, is because Auda’s a hostage, and Nesib doesn’t want to lose his hold on him, but how would Leyla know any of that? Her main hobby is looking out of windows. She’s kept away from all that. I mean, I have no idea what it’s like to grow up in a harem or be so completely isolated from the world. I don’t know what kind of person I’d become, I don’t know how my personality would be shaped like that. But neither does this film. And if it wanted to follow Auda through his awesome underdog struggles and leave Leyla the way he knew her, as a brief, regular experience only seen at very deliberate scheduled times, then fine. But in showing us scenes of her, shot from the inside of the harem, the film pretends to be giving us some kind of Leyla-viewpoint, and it just doesn’t.
3. The casting is kind of weird.
As is all too common with this kind of film, there are random white people bouncing around in the cast, often for no good reason other than to woo the coveted US and European audiences, because obviously everyone here is white/everything should be marketed to us/ad nauseam. Antonio Banderas probably stood out the most. I mean… really? I guess he’s a bit tanned. And he has an accent. That’s the same as “Arab”, right? So. Um. Yeah. That was weird. He was awesomely dramatic as a villain, but he was still Antonio Banderas dressed up as a sheikh.
I will start by saying the whole film is a big pile of romantic stereotypes. Of course it is. That said, every now and then they’d touch on a bit of depth (albeit clichéd depth – it was very “The Prophet said we should totally jihad against people!” “No he didn’t, actually he said THIS!”) but to be honest, in this climate, it was pretty refreshing to see. It was kind of a relief, though I am aware that saying I’m relieved that we’ve gone back beyond “Islam = Evil” all the way to Orientalist “ooh isn’t this all exciting and exotic” is seriously dodgy. I’m not sure how we got to this place, Society. I think we need to work on this.
5. Adventure/Politics ratio.
Spuggy would have preferred more politics, and I loved the adventure. To me, that says that the film was trying to be too many things. The politics was pretty interesting, I guess? Or it would have been if it had gone deeper into it. It was all tied up too neatly – or what looked like too neatly. I suspect that it was supposed to be a fatalistic ending, but it didn’t come across that way at all. And the adventure? It was like, the beginning was all politics, the middle was ADVENTURETASTIC UNDERDOGS IN THE DESERT WHOOOOO and the ending was politics. It did feel shoehorned in, however much I enjoyed it.
6. It was based on a book.
I haven’t read the book. I know nothing about the book other than this film was based on it. I’m not going to whine about how books are always better than films omggggggg, because I am no longer seventeen and self-important (or nowhere near as self-important as I was then, anyway) but you could tell that the film was based on a book. There were huge gaps where I was thinking, “So tons of stuff happened here that you had to cut, eh? Gutted.” The characters had big white spaces which were never developed on film. You know what I mean, right? There was just so much unsaid. I will admit that I loved this film in its cheesy, overblown, romantic glory, and I really want to read the book, though.
7. Riz Ahmed is awesome.
Believe it. The whole cinema totally fell in love with him.
8. Camels are freakish.
* Interested in this picture? Read Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Assia Djebar. I haven’t read the translation, so don’t know how good it is, but it seems to be highly acclaimed. Also, a literature translation being acknowledged, let alone acclaimed? You have no idea how happy I am right now.