I apologize for paraphrasing Roger Ebert’s film as empathy quote, but it tracks for many films. This is especially true for ones that come from international markets. Movies depicting racial and religious minority groups in those foreign countries. I’m still on the fence when it comes from one of those films, the French and Canadian production of Soumaya. But instead of starting with the film’s protagonist (Soraya Hachoumi), a fictional version of a real French Muslim woman, I want to talk about one of the supporting characters.
That supporting character is Kais (Khalid Berkouz), a lawyer who basically defends police from police brutality cases. He’s taking on one of those last cases with his racist colleague Severine before switching sides to join Mariam (Sonya Mellah). Mariam defends citizens whom are the victims of either government of business institutions. One of the first cases he lands deals with the titular character. Soumaya loses her executive position at an airport security firm, Fesco. That’s because the French police raided her house, suspecting her being an Islamist. Because Fesco can’t have Islamists dealing with airport security, she had to go.
Soumaya has two directors, Ubadyah Aub-Usayd and Waheed Khan. The latter worked in different short films before landing this film, his first full length feature. The brevity of that previous work seeps in here because of the short cuts it uses, especially in fleshing out its characters. The few pieces of criticism I’ve read about this film wrote about how mustache twirly the white characters are. There is, and I swear to God, a subplot involving Soumaya’s white ex Jerome as he goes to Morocco and has a Driving Miss Daisy friendship with a Moroccan driver. I have two points regarding that criticism, the first being that there is the one good white person in here, Aurelie.
Despite breaking the bad news to Soumaya, Aurelie still wants to reach out to her. She even gives hints to her about the confidential correspondences that might help the latter’s case. Second, that the paper thin characterization of the white characters would normally not be a problem. But it doesn’t flesh out Kais and Soumaya neither, regardless of how much screen time they get. Strangely enough, I want more. The film should at least show Soumaya’s last days at Fesco. Or Kais’ last days as whatever the French version of a DA is. Instead, the first scenes show both losing their jobs.
Soumaya might also be the titular role here but the film is much about Kais but not always in a good way. Taking on Soumaya’s case has a lot of hurdles, which include both of them having to interview the other Fesco employees. One of them actually becomes more radicalized because of losing his job. Kais is having doubts about taking on Fesco. And that’s because it seems like half of the people who work with him now aren’t helping him. In fact, they’re going against the racist republic that he apparently loves.
Sure, there’s enough of Soumaya in here, who is in the same line of fire as her brother Sinan (Islem Sehili). She wavers between taking on Fesco or dropping the case. And she has great, didactic monologues here, but it’s like I didn’t get to actually know her. Her fight and reconciliation with Sinan also makes no sense. Nonetheless, this is an important topic. This is a step in the right direction but I hope future movies tackling themes like this do a better job.
Soumaya comes to virtual theatres in February 11.
- Rated: NR
- Genre: Drama
- Release Date: 2/11/2022
- Directed by: Ubaydah Abu-Usayd, Waheed Khan
- Starring: Khalid Berkouz, Sonya Mellah, Soraya Hachoumi
- Written by: Maryam Um-Usayd, Ubaydah Abu-Usayd
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