Home Video Hovel: May Allah Bless France, by Aaron Pinkston
Abd Al Malik’s directorial debut is a lot like many directorial debuts – it is a low-budget, very stylish and personal film. Noting, however, that May Allah Bless France is adapted from a novel written by Al Malik, which is itself an autobiographical account of his life experiences, these connections between film and filmmaker provide an intriguing possibility. Autobiographies aren’t rare, but autobiographical fiction films certainly are. Being so close to the material brings obvious and unique challenges, which the film wades through with mixed results.
May Allah Bless France covers Al Malik’s life from being a troubled teen in the suburbs of Paris to his conversion to Islam and eventual success as a spoken word rapper. There is a lot of ground to cover, and while the film feels cohesive, it can never adequately delve into any one of its parts. Taking a free-flowing narrative and turning it into a succession of plot-points would be a mistake, but any of the coming-of-age crime drama, rise-to-fame rap biopic, or black Muslim in Paris stories could stand on their own. Ideally mixing these narratives should only become more complex and compelling, but at just over 90 minutes, that’s tough to do fully. Instead, the film gives glimpses into each of these worlds, just enough to build the ground.
Not knowing anything about the film’s creator/subject, a little more insight was left wanting – in two specific areas, especially. First is the interesting perspective of being a black Muslim. They are an underrepresented group in cinema, usually a short-handed stereotype. Even with only a few brief scenes where Al Malik’s religion is highlighted you can see it is a totally unique cultural position. Not only is Al Malik ostracized from the French public for being an African immigrant (a police officer in the film’s opening scene asks Al Malik’s younger brother why he doesn’t go “back home” – a form of racism that African descendants in America experience less than other minorities), he is also looked down upon from the Middle-Eastern Muslims in the community. Because this is where Al Malik would be able to give the most unique perspective, it feels like a missed opportunity.
The film’s other subplot that is strangely light is Al Malik’s rise to success in the world of hip hop. May Allah Bless France is filled with music, but only has two scenes of performance – Al Malik and friends’ first live show and an interesting scene that begins as a performance during a radio interview and morphs into an impromptu music video. Al Malik’s score (yes, he has a lot of irons in the fire) underlines most of the film, so there isn’t a lack of music. Still, the character’s investment, ultimate level of success, and even the full breadth of musical style is all thinly defined by the end of the film.
While May Allah Bless France may lack in narrative content, it is full of narrative style. In other words, the narrative in the the film might be disappointing, but the way it is delivered works. Stylistically, the film employs black and white cinematography and a free-flow camera. It isn’t the best looking example of gritty, lo-fi black-and-white, but Al Malik and cinematographer Pierre Aïm have a clear vision for the look of the film. Particularly in the first act (the criminal coming-of-age section), there is a nice shaggy look which plays into the tone. At times it feels like a camera is peeking in on the characters and their conversations, not supposed to be there but not noticed.
As an unexpected biopic, the film stands reasonably well within the genre. Al Malik’s emphasis on style and tone gives May Allah Bless France much more energy than the typical artist profile. Unfortunately, this is at the expense of the central character’s development, who is surprisingly undefined due to changing beats and gaps in narrative arcs. It would be very interesting to see Al Malik make a film that wasn’t based on his own life. Perhaps he could take more chances with his characters and be a little more focused without sacrificing the stylistic flourishes.