Beauty And The Dogs

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Beauty And The Dogs
"A tremendously powerful piece of cinema."

Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani) is going on a night out. It's no something she does often - we can tell this from her shyness about a borrowed dress, her worry that her dad will find out (even though she's left home) and her sheer excitement at the prospect, taking selfies with friends in the toilets, laughing and hugging. Inside the club, a young man (Ghanem Zrelli) catches her eye. Her friend immediately starts talking to him, something she complains always happens when she likes someone, but her own interest appears to be reciprocated, and shortly thereafter she leaves the club with him to go for a walk on the beach.

When we next see her, screaming as she runs down the street with him in pursuit, it's hard not to conclude that he has assaulted her; but when he catches up she stumbles beside him and he tries to calm her. It quickly becomes apparent that he's not the one who hurt her. The situation is worse. Mariam has been raped by police officers. Over the course of the rest of the film we follow her through the night and through the city as she seeks justice, and it's this, as much as the unseen rape, that is where the horror of the film lies.

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Writer/director Kaouther Ben Hania bases this film on a real woman's account, but it speaks to the stories of thousands. Though Tunisia has long been seen as a leading light among Middle Eastern countries because it has a legal framework that's comparatively supportive of women's rights (a reputation recently enhanced by the passing of a new law on domestic abuse), there can be a big gap between what the law says and what happens in practice. Mariam knows her rights and is supported by the young man, Youssef, who turns out to have a history of protesting human rights abuses. But talking about rape is difficult for any survivor, and is made much, much worse by the attitudes of the medical staff and police officers she meets.

The French title of this film translates more accurately as Beauty And The Pack, and it's that sense of a pack uniting against an outsider that makes Mariam's situation so chilling. The police focus first on defending their own. Society as a whole seems unwilling to support a woman who was victimised when out having a good time. Not everyone we meet is unsympathetic, but many seem to feel powerless against a system with entrenched methods of making such things go away. Mariam's struggle isn't only psychological - as the night wears on, she will face real physical danger, as will Youssef. Ben Hania deftly makes the point that rape in a corrupt system isn't just a danger for women. And Youssef, for all his sympathy, also evidences his upbringing in a patriarchal society, easily slipping into a pattern of trying to order Mariam around.

This is a gruelling film and one that survivors of sexual violence should watch with caution, but it is a tremendously powerful piece of cinema. This isn't simply a consequence of its subject matter. Al Ferjani is extraordinary in the lead. Present in almost every scene, she delivers the kind of performance that can break an actor, giving it all she's got. It's hard to believe that this is her first film. The rawness of her performance makes it impossible to look away, no matter how much one might want to, and it enhances the complexity of a character increasingly struggling to believe that the events she's experiencing can be real. Mariam's alternating fight and flight instincts compete with a keen intelligence, her internal struggle as dramatic and what's going on around her.

There are many films out there about rape, but few come anywhere close to the impact of this one. Praised at Cannes, it's a forceful piece of work with urgent things to say, and it deserves a wide audience.

Reviewed on: 24 Mar 2018
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A woman meets a mysterious stranger at a party and leaves with him... it's the beginning of a long night in which she will have to fight for her rights and her dignity.

Director: Kaouther Ben Hania

Writer: Kaouther Ben Hania

Starring: Mariam Al Ferjani, Neder Ghouati

Year: 2017

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Tunisia, France, Sweden


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