Culture

Brussels film brings gritty reality of Molenbeek to big screen

In 'Black,' Aboubakr Bensaihi, right, plays an Arab Romeo to Martha Canga Antonio's Juliet. Photo courtesy of TIFF

BRUSSELS: In a city locked down on high alert, one cinema dared to open its doors to show “Black” – a tense, violent, thriller version of Romeo and Juliet set among the gangs of the deprived Brussels district of Molenbeek, blamed for fomenting suicide attacks.

While schools, shops and the main cinemas stayed shut as authorities hunted suspect Islamist militants, the independent Aventure (Adventure) cinema in central Brussels put a message on its website saying it had decided to open its doors in case people wanted distraction.

A dozen people sat down to watch “Black” – a film that, even before the attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 were linked to Molenbeek, was an unsettlingly authentic take on life in Brussels’ deprived neighborhoods.

Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, two Belgians with Moroccan roots, it empathizes with those who grow up believing the color of their skin and the district where they live can mean they have no future.

“People think you are a drug dealer or a terrorist,” Arbi told Reuters by telephone. “For a lot of young people, it’s difficult to get out of your group of friends. There are only examples of not getting a job. They think why should they even try.”

Based on a book by Flemish writer Dirk Bracke, the film won the Discovery Award for emerging talent at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

The male lead Marwan (Aboubakr Bensaihi) is from Molenbeek, as is his and three other characters in the film – none of whom had professional acting experience.

Mavela (Martha Canga Antonio), Marwan’s “Juliet,” is in reality from Flanders. For the purposes of the film, she is a member of the Black Bronx gang that hangs out in Matonge, an African area of Brussels named after a district of Kinshasa, capital of Congo.

Just as Juliet, a Capulet, can never love the Montague Romeo in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Mavela is banned by her peers from a romance with Marwan, a Moroccan from the rival 1080 gang.

Director Fallah lived in Schaerbeek, another edgy district of Brussels next to Molenbeek, while Arbi grew up in Antwerp.

Both had shared “the crazy certainty that they wanted to be filmmakers” and met at film school in Brussels, Arbi said.

Before “Black,” said Arbi, the pair had filmed previously in Molenbeek but before then, “It was really the place where nobody shot a movie.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 25, 2015, on page 16.

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