Just a few minutes into Rachid Djaidani’s fictional feature debut, two characters amble down a street and one complains to the other that in cinematic terms “We do not innovate in France – we follow.” The story that then proceeds to unfold is a well worn tale, essentially a re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet, but with Africans and Algerians playing the parts of Montagues and Capulets. Hold Back (Rengaine, 2012) does chart new waters in its attempts to explore the racial divide between these two immigrant communities in Paris but stumbles in never delivering the requisite emotional beats.
Filmed over several years, with the final edit forged from hundreds of hours of footage, this has clearly been a labour of love for Djaidani, who is himself born of immigrant parents from far flung parts of Africa. The plot that he has carved from these copious reels sees black Christian actor Dorcy (Stéphane Soo Mongo) and his girlfriend Sabrina (Sabrina Hamida), an Algerian Muslim, deciding to wed. Like wildfire, though, rumour of their impending nuptials spreads through the Parisian streets to Slimane (Slimane Dazi), the oldest of Sabrina’s forty brothers.
Whilst Dorcy struggles through his faltering acting career, Slimane scours the city speaking to his many siblings, drumming up support and attempting to track down the man who would defile his family. One thing is clear; Sabrina is not to marry a black man – no way, no how. As these two men go on their differing journeys, the film exposes the myriad contrasting views on the situation from brothers, friends, to Dorcy’s own outraged mother and the couple themselves. In conveying the complexities of planning to build a life together in this hostile environment, the director does an admirable job.
Dorcy must first come to terms with what it will mean to be married to an Algerian Muslim woman when her family vehemently disagree with the match. Slimane on the other hand is responsible for protecting his family, but his angry resistance to his sister’s relationship is streaked with hypocrisy by his clandestine love with a Jewish singer. The problem that Hold Back has, is that in many of the scenes that see these characters facing their demons or suffering the pain of being disowned, the emotion is sketched across the faces of the actors, but not in the heart of its audience.
Djaidani’s film is filled with lighter moments with a couple of dance routines in particular raising smiles, and there is a clever sequence in which the director seems to have lost control of the plot completely only to yank the rug from under you. It is the emotional journey, however, especially Slimane’s, in which the audience wants and needs to invest but even a final confrontation feels a little distant. Perhaps a tighter screenplay in the first place and, dare it be said, a little less innovation might have seen Hold Back providing the emotional heft which it could have done.
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