Wed, 07 Jun 2023

Postcard from Cannes #3: About a Boy

21 May 2023, 23:47 GMT+10

As Cannes festival goers dodged raindrops and puddles during another rainy day on the Croisette, other storms were brewing inside the cinemas. Namely in the form of two films - one from Jordan, the other from Australia - both tackling religion, women's rights, and the emphasis society places on the boy child.

Despite their polar opposite cultural origins, both films have a boy at the heart of their stories. Both deal with the weight of tradition and religious conventions bearing down, particularly on women and girls.

"Inshallah a Boy" is the first feature by the young Jordanian director Amjad Al Rasheed, screened in competition as part of the Critics' Week and the first film to represent Jordan in Cannes.

Set in Amman, it recounts a contemporary story, seen through the eyes of Nawal, a young woman whose husband suddenly dies, leaving her in charge of a young daughter Noura. She quickly discovers that she is at the mercy of her in-laws, who legally have the right to claim her home.

This is because, although she provided most of the house payments, her husband never signed a document to prove her ownership. Without his signature, and without a son to inherit, she is facing a gloomy, uncertain future.

Praying for a boy child

As a single mother, she is obliged to count on the help of neighbours and relatives for childcare while she works as a private nurse.

Why doesn't she remarry everyone wonders? Her brother-in-law even goes as far to file for custody for her daughter. But she refuses to be bullied and to gain precious time, she lies and says she's pregnant, hence the hope that she will have a boy "inshallah" meaning God willing.

Time is suspended and the audience waits. Can the birth of a baby boy save her? What begins as a ruse actually ends up happening, leaving the end of the film at a question mark: what will happen now?


"The film really starts once people leave the cinema," Al Rasheed told RFI after the screening in Cannes, explaining he wants to start a discussion in society. Having witnessed a similar story involving a female relative, Al Rasheed said he felt this taboo needed to be addressed.

The result is dark and oppressive, filmed mostly inside stuffy rooms with little light. The only spark of hope coming from Nawal herself, played by the Palestinian actor Mouna Hawa. This comes from her fighting spirit and the love she has for her daughter, characteristics Al Rasheed says he borrowed from his own mother.

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For the rest, he acknowledges the research and screen writing talents of Rula Nasser and the French writer Delphine Agut.

It is not a pretty film with a Hollywood happy end. It is nearly documentary-like in its steady rhythm. But it is a story that needs to be told.

A spark in the dark

"The New Boy" from Australia's Warwick Thornton, running in the Un Certain Regard category, confronts the country's colonial past and in particular the legacy left by the introduction of Christianity on indigenous people.

Set in the 1940s in a remote monastery and farm in South Australia, it centres around Aswad Reid an 11-year-old boy who is dropped off in a hessian sack by police officers one dark, gloomy night.

With a mop of wild, straw-coloured hair and without any prior experience in acting, he ends up stealing the show. With natural ease, he rivals attention for the camera from co-star Cate Blanchett.

Blanchett is weary and rebellious nun, Sister Eileen, struggling to keep the farm running since the death of the head priest Dom Peter.

In fact, she lies about his absence and fakes his signature so as not to alert the authorities to the situation, fearing for what might happen to the young aboriginal boys in her care.

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When it is revealed that the new boy, who speaks no English and only gets "baptized" at the end of the film, has what seems to special healing powers, Sister Eileen's faith begins to falter. This collision of worlds turns the small community on its head.

Blanchette, whose company Dirty Films co-produced the feature, told reporters the role of Sister Eileen was originally written as a man. When discussing the preparation of the script, the question of gender came up, and with Thornton it was agreed that writing it as a nun would open up a larger palette of editorial choices.

Speaking to the Women in Motion press conference on Saturday, Blanchett underlined how important it is to have women in producing roles, actively seeking out diversity in the industry.

"Making a film is all about having a conversation and challenging assumptions," she said. "Until now, the industry has been too homogenous, with not enough generational diversity."

Challenging fear

The project was a long time in the making - 18 years the idea sat in a bottom draw until it was coaxed back into the limelight.

"The new boy is this spark. He challenges our fear. He opens up our minds to what is right and wrong," Thornton says in his director's statement.

"A lot of Dreamtime Aboriginal stories run on the same moral basis as Bible stories - if you do this you'll get in trouble, so don't do it," he explains.

"Aboriginal people are generally happy to embrace Christianity alongside their own spiritual beliefs, but it doesn't happen the other way around. Christianity must conquer."

Is the new boy a form of messiah? Does he represent hope or chaos? The film does not offer a conclusion, nor a judgement, but rather an arc of feelings.

Thornton, who won the Camera D'or in Cannes for his first film Samson and Delilah in 2009 delves into his cinematic soul to offer a visually stunning and intimate exploration of topics often brushed aside.

Originally published on RFI

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