(Exils, Tony Gatlif, France, 2004)


The films of Tony Gatlif tend to divide audiences. Some find his freewheeling, quasi-musical accounts of the lives of marginal peoples (gypsies, the poor, rebellious youth) liberating, innovative and inspiring. Others dismiss him as a stubbornly amateur, wilfully naive filmmaker, unable to ever successfully weave the sights and sounds that entrance him into a satisfying narrative framework.

Every Gatlif movie also tends to be more of the same – which delights his fans and further maddens his foes. Romain Duris, the director’s favourite alter ago, is back on board as Zano, a music-buff who decides within the first thirty seconds of the film that he wants to flee the Parisian metropolis and (via a trip through Spain) discover his Algerian origins.

He is joined in this quest by his lover, Naïma (Lubna Azabal – even her name is erotic), an earthy character who, initially at least, takes more interest in sex than in the intricacies of political history. But in the Gatlif universe, such indifference can only be sign of some terrible alienation – thus putting Naïma en route to the inevitable collision with a Sufi trance ritual that will crack her defences wide open.

This elongated trance scene will either strike you as the finest spectacle Gatlif has ever put on screen, or the silliest. In the context of Exiles, it stands for the moment where everything comes together: the outward, collective journey into a country’s past as well as the inward, personal journey to the soul’s depths.

Exiles joins a contemporaneous cycle of films from 2004 – The Motorcycle Diaries, the Hindi epic Swades and even the low-budget Australian effort Bondi Tsunami – in offering a colourful chronicle of travel and discovery. But it is also, for Gatlif, a project that challenges him to expand the repertoire of his style. There is the usual complement of lively folk singing and dancing, but also a strong dose of modern techno (co-composed and produced by the director himself). For Gatlif, no form of music can stay locked up its pristine past, and no national culture can halt its vital hybridisation with other, neighbouring traditions.

In response to this type of new, mixed-up sound, Gatlif makes the scenes and shots more fragmented and elliptical than in his previous works. In turn, the narrative line goes more askew than usual. But what the piece loses in overall rhythm or coherence it gains in intensity. More than ever, Gatlif feels free to transform everyday noises (like when Zano, in despair, kicks over empty, discarded bottles in the street) into an intoxicating musique concrète.

I am one of those viewers who laps up each new Gatlif movie, dreaming of a day when his entire oeuvre will be played back to back, non-stop. The imperfections of each, individual film would surely count for little in the context of such a marathon of music, physical sensuality and impassioned politics.

MORE Gatlif: Children of the Stork, Vengo, Swing

© Adrian Martin December 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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