All this teeth gnashing would bely the fact that there were gems to be found on the Croisette, especially if you dug around. Take “Joyland,” which played in Un Certain Regard and received a Special Jury Prize (it deserved even more than that). The first Pakistani film to ever play the festival, Saim Sadiq’s astonishing debut is so tonally precise and rich in performance and narrative that it felt almost criminal how it was outside most people’s consideration.
The shot of a man on a scooter, his face buried in the crotch of a giant standee, is what first drew me to the film. The rider is Haider Rana, played with great sensitivity and inner conflict by Ali Junejo. Living with his arranged-marriage spouse Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), his father (Salmaan Peerzada), brother (Sohail Sameer), and sister-in-law (Sarwat Gilani), the family forms a tight social unit where gender roles are slightly fluid. While Mumtaz works as a makeup artist for brides-to-be, the unemployed Haider does the dishes and cares for the kids, much to the chagrin of his sibling and the patriarch.
When a friend says there’s a job available at a local theatre, Haider encounters Biba (Alina Khan), a dancer with a retinue of young boys that dance behind her during intermission. At first, the fact that she’s transgender seems uncommented upon, but the more subtle considerations of Pakistan’s conservative society gradually come to the fore.
From here, just about every preconception you have about Pakistan and its cinema is upended, and it’s hard not to believe there’s a degree of political and social bravery in the telling of this story that goes well beyond almost any film playing the festival. Every time I feared it would descend into maudlin or predictable storytelling, things were upended, and the complexity of all of it—social relations, family dynamics, religious and cultural expectations, modes of sexuality—were dealt with in ways both subtle and profound. It’s a truly unforgettable film, and a true discovery from this year’s fest.
The same could be said for “Rebel,” Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah’s radical film about radicalization. Best known to Western audiences for helming “Bad Boys for Life,” Adil & Bilall have crafted what’s surely the first ISIS musical, tying hip-hop sensibilities with a dramatic, sometimes action-packed story of a family caught in the trap of broken promises.
Kamal (Aboubakr Bensaihi) is a rapping, motorcycle-riding punk kid from the tough Molenbeek community in Brussels, Belgium. When his criminal deeds catch up with him, he’s forced to escape, finding refuge of sorts in Syria in the hopes of making a new start. Figuring that his abilities with video-making can be of better use that wielding a weapon, he soon finds himself, camera in hand, capturing the atrocities of his newest group of comrades.