Review by Belle Mcintyre Looking Back, Looking Forward: 20 Years of the New York African Film Festival, is dedicated to commemorating 50 years of African Cinema. It began at Lincoln Center from April 3 – 9 and continues at the Mayles Cinema and BamCinematek in May, where selected films will be shown.

The four films which I saw were all wonderful in different ways with diverse styles but the thread that connects this group seemed to be the tension between tradition and modernity represented by opportunity and freedom.

Death for Sale (Morocco/France/Belgium, 2011) is another tale from the gritty underbelly of a town without pity. It centers on three slacker friends living dead end lives of quiet desperation as petty criminals in the town of Tetouan, Morocco. Their ringleader, Allal has just been released from prison and now that he is back he is anxious to get back to business as usual. The only snag is that Malik has fallen under the spell of a beautiful hooker named Dounia which is distracting him from the crime business, although he needs money more than ever in order to even get close to her.

When a raid on the bordello lands Dounia in jail Malik starts sending food to her via one of the jailers. Eventually he comes to the attention of the corrupt Inspector Dabbaz, who takes a liking to Malik. When Malik’s uncle who has married his mother and who Malik hates with a seething passion, causes the death of Malik’s sister - he goes off the rails and vows to make him suffer. He plants drugs in the uncle’s shop and then informs the inspector who pulls a raid, finds the drugs and carts the uncle off to jail.

The inspector is grateful for this tip which makes him look good and asks what he can do for Malik. Malik asks for Dounia’s freedom. And Dabbaz delivers in spades. He putsDounia up in a hotel which he pays for. But it is a Faustian bargain. He wants Malik to act as a snitch and give him more tips so he can make more arrests. Malik quickly accepts but has reservations about being a snitch. After all, there is honor among some thieves.

Meanwhile, Allal is planning a heist of a major jewelry store which will involve car theft and guns. The police inspector is getting more impatient with Malik for not delivering any tips. And then Allal upsets the balance with a treacherous betrayal against Malik. There is also a subplot concerning Soufiane, the third member, who is rescued from some thugs by a group of fanatical Muslims and brainwashed into a hatred of Christians, which the jeweler is. So finally out of desperation and revenge Malik delivers the tip. Only Malik escapes, but he loses Dounia and the loot and we are left wondering just what went down. We do not know if Dounia, Dabbaz or both of them betrayed him.

How this all plays out is both twisty and clever. The plotting is intricate and unexpected and the tension is sustained until the final frame after the heist. It is an exhilarating exploration of the balance between loyalty and survival.The director, Faouzi Bensaidi, plays the sinister inspector Dabbaz. The cinematography uses the beauty of Tetouan, Morocco as a background to great advantage while also referencing film noir in the more intimate scenes. It was Morocco’s submission for the Oscars in 2012.


Image Courtesy of African Film NY