Streams: A decadent look at Tunisian society
In Streams, Mehdi Hmili tells the story of his country’s decadent society through the collapse of a family of three. The director, best known for his feature film Thala My Love (2016) and his shorts The Night of Badr (2012) and Li-La (2010), presented his new effort in the Filmmakers of the Present section of this year’s Locarno Film Festival (4-14 August 2021).
The action takes place in Tunis and centres on a working-class family. Amel (Afef Ben Mahmoud, recently seen in Majdi Lakhdar’s Before It’s Too Late) is a caring mother who works in a factory. She hardly makes ends meet and is extremely fond of her only son, Moumen (newcomer Iheb Bouyahia), a young talented football goalkeeper.
Meanwhile, his alcoholic father (and former football player) Tahar spends his days drinking beer in a bar and humiliating both.
"Hmili’s drama depicts the collapse of a working class family to denounce the social contradictions of today’s post-Ben Ali Tunisia"
The turbulent family life seems, at least in part, sweetened by the genuine love between Amel and Moumen, plain to see on screen from the very beginning. In their first scene, mother and son are at home and the sudden appearance of a rat prompts a bizarre mix of disgust and fun. The episode is closed by a moment of candour, which effectively suggests to the spectators how strong their bond is.
Despite the hard times, they are going through and the absence of a responsible head of the family, Amel believes in Moumen’s talent and the hope for her son to achieve his dreams keeps her alive.
This precarious order of things is set to end when Amel meets Imed, a wealthy businessman who claims he can help Moumen with his sports career. One night, Imed and Amel dine together, and the man offers the woman a ride, who reluctantly accepts it.
Instead of bringing her back home, Imed stops the car somewhere in the woods and starts abusing the woman. Right after, a police patrol catches them and the officers start questioning both. It’s a farce, as the police commissioner has already decided to imprison Amel and to accuse her of adultery and prostitution. Meanwhile, the rapist is free to go home. This traumatic encounter marks the beginning of Amel and Moumen’s descend into the abyss.
After some time, Amel is released from prison, but she can’t find her son. The scandal ends up destroying the boy’s promising career, who has left home and is now addicted to drugs and works – together with other teens his age – as a sex slave for a local pimp.
This long premise serves as a powerful set-up for the other two-thirds of the plot. Hmili follows, in parallel, the spiral of sex and violence involving Moumen and his companions in misfortunes along with Amel’s desperate search for his son.
How far can this devastated mother go to save Moumen? This is the main question explored within Amel’s storyline. In one of the feature’s most iconic scenes, she seems to have found someone who could provide precious hints to find his son.
The stranger, however, asks her to talk in private and demands a sexual favour in return. Amel instinctively pushes him back and leaves the car. A brief close-up of the woman follows. For a few seconds, she seems to break the fourth wall, making crystal clear her dilemma and sharing her pain with the viewers.
"The film is a frenetic, action-packed journey, wherein Hmili manages to build up an engaging narrative, and to create a strong empathic bond with the viewers"
From that moment on, the woman fully realises that she is now part of a new reality, made of even more violence and humiliation. There, her words or actions have no influence and she is just considered a servant, at best.
Abandoned by a judgemental, brutally unsupportive family, through her wanderings Amel discovers a dense nightlife jungle, populated by oppressive, nymphomaniac men alongside women who – in most cases – live a life of submission in absence of any other way out.
The performances gifted by Ben Mahmoud and Bouyahia are heartfelt and breathtaking, both bolstered by an excellent ensemble of actors. Visually appealing cinematography, courtesy of DoP Ikbal Arafa (Railway Man, the TV series Jnoun El Kayla), portrays the characters’ turmoil, often through hand-held shots and highly emotional close-ups.
The film is a frenetic, action-packed journey, wherein Hmili manages to build up an engaging narrative and to create a strong empathic bond with the viewers.
Hmili’s drama depicts the collapse of a working-class family to denounce the social contradictions of today’s post-Ben Ali Tunisia, a country that leaves everyone alone with their own insurmountable problems. All in all, Streams is a touching, urgent tale of hope and despair set in Tunis’ underworld of crime and prostitution, and one of this year’s unmissable titles from Middle Eastern and North African cinemas.
Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Cork, Ireland.
Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni