“London River,” directed by Rachid Bouchareb, starring Brenda Blethyn and Sotigui Kouyate.
In English and French with English subtitles, 90 minutes.
US release December 2011. Premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2009.
Misery is said to love company and that’s certainly the case in Rachid Bouchareb’s powerful, if small, film about the personal impact of terrorism. Set against the backdrop of actual events – four bus and train bombings that occurred in London on July 7, 2005 – the film explores the often impenetrable divisions caused by class, race and culture.
The film masterfully captures the panic and chaos that ensued in the immediate aftermath of the explosions, as visibly terrified friends and relatives scoured the streets for news of their loved ones. In addition, the spontaneous memorials that sprouted up alongside missing person posters pasted onto building walls give filmgoers a vivid glimpse – enhanced by archival footage – of the impact this act of terrorism had on both local residents and visitors. What’s more, when the final tally of the attacks is revealed – 52 commuters dead and more than 700 injured – the audience, like the Londoners of nearly seven years ago, confront feelings ranging from fury to bewilderment to sadness.
That said, “London River” is not a political film. It never debates the strategic use of violence, but instead, zooms in on Elisabeth [Brenda Blethyn] and Ousmane [Sotigui Kouyate], parents of college-aged children who were studying in London at the time of the siege. Elisabeth is a widowed farmer from Guernsey, a small, insular, community in the Channel Islands; when she is unable to reach her daughter, dread sets in and she sets out for the city to try and track her down. What she finds when she arrives shocks her: Daughter Jane lives in a rundown, mostly Muslim neighborhood, surrounded by people who speak Arabic, with nary a Christian church in sight. That the streets are lined with stores that cater to a largely immigrant population horrifies Elisabeth, and her racism is anything but subtle. “This place is crawling with Muslims,” she tells her brother when she phones him. “Jane was learning Arabic and I have a terrible feeling she’s being converted. I met an African who has a picture of her in the mosque.” Her revulsion is dramatic and gut churning – a knee-jerk response to the realization that she knew almost nothing about her only child’s interests or aspirations. Later, as Elisabeth begins to unravel what happened to Jane, we see her world become further upended. In fact, as the friendliness of people in the community touches her, we witness her movement away from the automatic condemnation of all things unfamiliar.
But let me get back to the story. As Elisabeth combs the streets in search of Jane, she notices a tall, reed-thin black man who seems to be following her. After a day or two spent pretending that she hasn’t seen him, the two haltingly converse and Elisabeth ascertains that Ousmane, an African Muslim who has been living and working in France for the past 15 years, is doing exactly what she is doing, in his case, looking for a son named Ali. The man, played by the superb Sotigui Kouyate – he died in 2010 at the age of 73, making this his final film – is at first an annoyance to Elisabeth. Over time, however, the pair’s tribulations lead to bonding, a fact that is heightened after they discover that their kids had been romantically entangled. Yes, it’s contrived, but the acting is so good and their pain so heartfelt, that it barely matters.
As the search for their kin intensifies, the two – who could not be more different in terms of temperament or style – are able to find common ground. While this could easily have become sappy or overwrought, it doesn’t. According to Bouchareb – who also directed “Days of Glory,” “Outside the Law,” “Baton Rouge,” “Little Senegal” and “Dust of Life” – “My film is less about the bombings themselves and more about the meeting between these two characters that takes place in its wake. That’s what is important to me, that these two people who meet are united by the same problem, which is their desire to find their children. Events such as the attacks of 7/7 naturally divide people, but at the same time, they also bring them together. They need one another. People have to come together in the face of such crises. It’s an obligation.”
And so they do – at least in “London River.” The film, which won the Silver Bear Prize at the 2009 Berlin International Film Festival, is a celebration of love over hate. While some of the dialogue is stilted, the movie is nonetheless touching. Blethyn’s portrayal of a woman whose world has been split open is harrowing. Indeed, even when her prejudice is cringe inducing, her struggle to uncover what happened to Jane – actor Blethyn never allows the character to become maudlin or shrewish – is deeply affecting. Likewise, Kouyate. Although I wish he’d challenged Elisabeth on her narrow-mindedness, his ability to focus on their shared anguish – born of recognition that the search for their kids was the one and only reason they’d entered each other’s lives – elevates the appeal of “London River.”
At the same time, this intimate glimpse into grief and loss intentionally sidesteps questions of faith and culture. In fact, “London River” looks at the myriad ways in which people are, quite simply, people. At one point in the film, Elisabeth admits this to Ousmane. “Our lives aren’t so different,” she tells him, as if this were a revelation.
“Rarely do we see people sitting round a table for days on end conversing, talking things through. No. Instead, we see people armed at war,” Bouchareb told reviewers when the film was first released in Europe. “The problem begins at the level of personal relations and the solution can only start here, too … Whichever of the four corners of the globe we might live in, in our thoughts, our feelings, our fears, our joys, our hopes, our worries, our lives, we’re not so different at all.”
Elisabeth and Ousmane came to this conclusion the hard way. Perhaps the rest of us can learn from their example.
Copies of “London River” can be purchased from Cinema Libre Studio, www.cinemalibrestudio.com.