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LOCARNO 2019 Competition

Review: South Terminal

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- Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche keeps things cryptic in this Kafkaesque tale of a country in meltdown, screening in competition at Locarno

Review: South Terminal

South Terminal [+see also:
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is the sixth film by French-Algerian filmmaker Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche and is his second effort to debut in competition at the Locarno Film Festival. The picture will be released in France in November, courtesy of Potemkine Films. It’s an allegory set in the Mediterranean about a society that has broken down, which wants to make universally applicable points about the Algerian Civil War and the black decade of the 1990s.

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At a military checkpoint, passengers on a bus are stopped and robbed. In 20 years, the bus driver (Salim Ameur-Zaimeche) hasn’t experienced anything like it. Recounting the tale to the police, he reasons that the robbers were criminals in fatigues masquerading as the military. But these are not normal circumstances. South Terminal is about the breakdown of civil society and the fragility of the rule of law.

A patient (Nadja Harek) tells a doctor (Ramzy Bedia) that her husband went to the mosque and did not come home, but she's been warned against reporting him missing. On the surgery wall, the camera pans to a poster for the Museum of Communism in Prague, featuring an angry Russian doll. Why it's on the doctor's wall is unclear: is it a reference to Franz Kafka and his musings on the law, or is it about the French banning the Communist Party in Algeria in the 1950s?

This is the first time that director Ameur-Zaimeche has not acted in one of his own films. Bedia, as the hospital doctor who is receiving death threats, is the central protagonist, and he plays the medical professional as a lumbering figure, someone who is dragged along by events, rather than instigating them himself. The doctor starts out as an idealist, trying to remain neutral and treating all of the patients delivered to his hospital equally, irrespective of their background or affiliation. However, everything changes when his brother-in-law, a journalist, is shot dead. The film then becomes more mysterious – or indecipherable, depending on your perspective – when a group of mourning women sings a Swedish lullaby, which is then followed by the doctor’s friend Moh (Slimane Dazi) singing “I Still Believe I Hear” from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.

The problem with using such eclectic metaphors is that it feels as if the director should be on hand to decipher the film, which is billed as a meeting point between war chronicle and political thriller. This is all well and good, until it becomes clear that said meeting point is more of a roundabout than a crossroads, and the doctor who is having marital problems is a slow-moving vehicle. There is a desire not to set the film in a specific time and place. In this Kafkaesque nightmare, the doctor is kidnapped when he's needed to treat a soldier, and violence is omnipresent – but unfortunately, answers are much harder to come by.

South Terminal was produced by France’s Sarrazink Productions and ARTE France.

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