Backstage

VERDICT: Mysterious personal dramas unfold off-stage when a modern dance company has a bus break-down traveling to Marrakech in Tunisian codirectors Afef Ben Mahmoud and Khalil Benkirane’s intelligently avant-garde on-the-road drama, ‘Backstage’.

Codirected by Tunisian actress, writer and director Afef Ben Mahmoud and her Moroccan husband Khalil Benkirane, Backstage draws on Ben Mahmoud’s own background in dance to plumb the depths of the complicated, intertwined relationships that develop between members of a dance troupe. After bowing in Giornate degli Autori in Venice, its festival tour has brought it to competition in Malta’s Mediterrane festival.

Delicately probing the unspoken or unformed desires and attractions of the dancers, along with their often untraditional sexuality and life goals, the directors and an excellent cast dig out some profundity from what could have been a conventional theater story. The action begins in the middle of a performance. To the accompaniment of Steve Shehan’s haunting Oriental melodies, nine dancers move sensuously on stage, forming couples – including same sex – who dissolve seconds later as the configuration changes. Behind them, screens show a post-industrial world of belching smokestacks and poisonous liquids and gases gushing. (The environment is a recurring sub-theme.)

The acclaimed modern dance company “No Borders”, made up of Arabs from all over the MENA region, is just wrapping up a tour of Morocco when the lead dancer Aida (played by director Ben Mahmoud) is deliberately dropped to the floor mid-performance by her partner and boyfriend Hedi (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui), with whom she is quarreling. It isn’t the kind of career-changing injury that made the heroine of Black Swan turn Soviet agent, but it is painfully incapacitating and, of course, a cruel blow to Aida’s feelings. She not only loves Hedi but is expecting his child.

After this opening trauma, the rest of the film sees the company pile into their tour bus and head off in search of a doctor. Because they are in the middle of the remote Atlas mountains, on a pitch dark road through a forest full of wild animals, finding medical attention is no easy matter. When a monkey brings the bus to a screeching halt, two tires blow out. The driver vanishes into the darkness, in search of spares.

It is at this point that the film takes a major detour from an easily foreseeable race against time to get help, and suddenly becomes a Dantesque journey through a deep forest where the straight way has been lost. One by one the ten characters, who include the company’s tough, silver-haired leader Nawel (Tunisian actress Sondos Belhassen), face their inner demons in a moonlit world out of time.

Nawel’s personal ghost is her husband Nejib, who is missing after being kidnapped in Syria ten years earlier. His brother Hassan (both roles are played by the magnetic Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri) is a leading member of the company, and clearly reminds her of her missing love. It is Hassan who has the unhinged idea of abandoning the bus and walking through the cold woods for help, despite the fact that scouts have reported there are no people, no houses or even lights to be seen. (There are those dangerous wild animals, though, whose rustling in the trees and blood-chilling cries form a steady background soundtrack.) Everyone agrees to follow him anyway, with the men taking turns carrying Aida on their back.

It also becomes clear that Hedi is in love with one of the male dancers, a relationship quite at odds with his former desire to marry and start a family with Aida. He never speaks in the film (perhaps he’s mute?) but conveys enormous feeling through his eyes and body language alone. Actor Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, incidentally, choreographed all the complex dances in the film.

The other side of the motherhood coin is repped, a little too symmetrically, by French Moroccan dancer Hajiba Fahmy in the role of a lithe young woman who puts her dancing body and career over having children, much to the discomfort of her marriage-oriented lover, who accuses her of wanting too much sex.

These little life stories can feel like variations on a theme and tiresomely predictable, and one hopes that Ben Mahmoud’s next screenplays will risk going even farther into unexplored territory, as Backstage tends to do towards the end. As the characters venture deeper and deeper into the natural world, D.P. Benjamin Rufi allows darkness to engulf them; only their outlines appear against the moonlight, while the trees seem to emanate green and pink streaks, like auras. Though the role of nature is somewhat banalized by a monkey attack meant to show nature trying to limit the damage humans do, there is certainly another, more mystical and intriguing connection lurking not far away, one that echoes a certain kind of dreamy Asian cinema.

Directors:  Afef Ben Mahmoud, Khalil Benkirane
Screenplay: Afef Ben Mahmoud
Cast: Sondos Belhassen, Afef Ben Mahmoud, Saleh Bakri, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Sofiane Ouissi, Hajiba Fahmy, Ali Thabet, Abdallah Badis, Salima Abdel-Wahab, Nassim Baddag
Producers: Khalil Benkirane, Afef Ben Mahmoud in association with Isabelle Truc, Tania El Khoury, Ingrid Lill Hogtun, Marie Fuglestein Laegreid, Linda Bolstad Stronen
Cinematography: Benjamin Rufi

Editing: Rawchen Mizouri, Skander Ben Ammar, Afef Ben Mahmoud
Production design: Fatma Madani, Redouane Nasserdine
Costume design: Nezha Dakil, Salima Abdel-Wahab
Music: Steve Shehan
Choreography: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui  beautiful movements and body language
Sound: Aymen Labidi
Production companies: Lycia Productions, Mesanges Films in association with Iota Production, Les Films De L’Altai, Metafora Production, Duo Film, Film Clinic
Venue: Mediterrane Film Festival
In Arabic, French
101 minutes

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