There is this passage from a famous speech by André Malraux to the Assembly which opens the way for us. On November 24, 1959, the Minister of State for Cultural Affairs responded to the objections of Communist deputy Fernand Grenier (former resistance fighter and film specialist). After some considerations of a technical nature, the author of The human condition comes to the central point of his intervention, the accusation of censorship and partiality in the allocation of funding brought against his government (remember that the Algerian war then plunged France into a continued political crisis):
II is in the power of anyone in the world to judge a film other than on its images. We must take responsibility, even if we judge a film harshly, according to absolute standards, we must decide on its realization and never on its intentions »1.
More than 60 years later, the question of intention remains central. It is at the heart of many film productions, and more broadly artistic2. She crosses The Young Imamfourth feature film by Kim Chapiron, and conditions a good part of its reception.
In a short scene that provides the key to understanding the ethical problem faced by the film’s characters, the former imam, Abdelaziz, reminds his young and ambitious successor, Ali (Abdulah Sissoko), of the primacy of the intentional element in Islamic:
You know one of the most important foundations of Islam: actions are only as good as intentions. God judges our actions based on our intentions. Ask your intention.
For its part, critics almost unanimously praise the director’s intention to deal calmly with a subject deemed sensitive, Islam in the suburbs. And Chapiron’s bet is, in a way, successful. The Young Imam calmly evokes the daily life of Muslims in France, the bonds of solidarity that unite them, the problems and contradictions that run through the community.
A breath of fresh air in an asphyxiating political climate. But are good intentions enough to make a film a good film? ? Nothing is less sure. After all, cinematic hell is paved with it.
The mother-son relationship at the center of the film
The film opens with a painful trajectory common to many immigrant families. Ali, a turbulent teenager, is sent to the country (Mali) by his mother, exasperated by his behavior. In the village Koranic school, he learned discipline, the repetition of simple gestures, getting up at dawn for ablutions and prayer, the humility of group life. All under the benevolent patronage of Cheikh Boubakar (Issaka Sawadogo).
When he returns to the neighborhood a decade later, Ali is transformed. The restless kid is now a peaceful young man. After some trial and error, his erudition and his art of recitation (tajwid) make him the imam designated by a small community of faithful wishing to breathe new life into their mosque. But intoxicated by the success of the videos of his sermons posted online, Ali skips the steps and finds himself embroiled in a pilgrimage scam to Mecca.
Kim Chapiron et son coscénariste Ladj Ly (Wretched) were inspired by the misadventure that an imam really experienced in the Paris region. But the common thread of the film is not so much the intrigue linked to the scam as the complex relationship that Ali has with his mother (Hady Berthe). This is the strong point of the film. Especially since the mother-son relationship is little invested in what is known as suburban cinema3even more when it comes to Afro-descendant families.
The Young Imam takes the opposite view of the archetype of the immigrant parent overwhelmed by the way of life and the aspirations of his children. The mother is certainly attached to traditional values, but she is also a woman of her time, endowed with a strong personality, hardened by hardships, who raised her three children alone after becoming a widow. Intractable in business, a skilled negotiator, she set up her own business in the neighborhood.
A flat treatment
The difficult relationship between a mother with a touchy character and a son ready to do anything to obtain his recognition is the major asset of the film. The screenwriters had the good idea of highlighting Muslims from sub-Saharan Africa, who generally suffer from a lack of representation: invisible as blacks when it comes to Islam in France, they are also invisible as than Muslims when discussing the black condition in the country.
For this more family than social drama, Kim Chapiron has chosen to be slow. An imposed form if you want to show the intimate, the unspoken, the doubts. This rhythm, calm, is put at the service of a subject which is just as much. We are poles apart from baroque aesthetics and the bloated staging ofAthena, by Romain Gavras, with whom Chapiron founded the Kourtrajmé production company in 1995.
Yet it is through staging that The Young Imam fishing. By wanting to be sober too much, the film becomes flat. Whether it is the village in Mali or the cities of Montfermeil, the spaces are little exploited. There is no movie plan in The Young Imam. So much so that the final result is closer to the TV movie (a good TV movie), than to the cinematographic work itself.
This lack of amplitude in the production echoes not only the minimalist message of the film, but also the limited space that exists in France to treat and welcome in a non-sensationalist way productions whose theme is immigration, Islam, the suburbs. This narrow shape is also in a way that of the Muslim condition in France. A condition suffered for which the director is not accountable.
Rather Mecca than the town hall
In the press kit that accompanies the release of the film, Kim Chapiron evokes his primary intention:
I have always lived with people of different faiths, including Muslims. There was a great tenderness between all of us. The Young Imam was born to want to evoke this. Among other things, I wanted to film the Muslim religion practiced by an immense silent majority.
This desire is commendable. But is the bet tenable in the current context? ? Showing the peaceful life of a community of faithful gathered around their mosque can only be done at the cost of certain simplifications. The director chooses to avoid the institutional question. The faithful live in a vacuum, preoccupied more with Mecca than with the town hall. You hardly ever see the outside of the city.
Except for the benevolent municipal staff with whom Ali’s sister Iman (Anta Diaw) works, no institution appears. An absence all the less justified since Ali is enjoying growing success on social networks, gaining influence, giving conferences and attracting more and more people to his mosque. Elements that would have aroused the interest of certain media and the intervention of territorial intelligence (especially in Montfermeil).
This bias testifies to a reluctance, already palpable in Wretched by Ladj Ly. The absence of social criticism (which, let us remember, is a function of cinema, not a genre4) is even one of the characteristics of films stamped Kourtrajmé. Here, the question of power is limited to that of the influence of the imam on his flock. No one ever makes the slightest political statement. However, who can claim to be a Muslim in France without taking a position? ?
As if the negative of the figure of the indoctrinated omnipresent on the screen (The Disintegration, Look for the Woman, Young Ahmed…) was the apolitical Muslim. Or rather uncritical. Because Imam Ali takes positions on social issues (we recognize here the consensual touch of the Islamologist Rachid Benzine, adviser on the film).
Ali enjoins Muslim men and women every time to smooth things over. He thus considers that « the Quran does not have to be defended » (explicit reference to a coverage of Charlie Hebdo), or even that the trade-off between wearing a headscarf and employment must be in favor of the latter. In all circumstances, it is up to Muslim people to adapt. With the idea that it is they who are responsible for the problems linked to Islam in France.
Behind the benevolent intention of the film appears its reconciling function: to reassure a non-Muslim audience about the inoffensive character of Muslims ; reconcile them with social reality as it is. The Young Imam offers the smooth image of a community held artificially at a distance from any social, media or political consideration. However, who today claims to talk about Islam in the cinema without taking a position ?
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