London River (2009), directed by Rachid Bouchareb; screenplay by Bouchareb, Zoé Galeron and Olivier Lorelle
<1> Despite its title, London River does not contain a single shot of the Thames; instead the title poetically evokes the people who flow through the city and are drawn together. Rachid Bouchareb is best known for his epic, Days of Glory (2006), about North African soldiers fighting to liberate France during WW2, and for Little Senegal (2001), which explores the legacy of the African slave trade in contemporary New York. In London RiverBouchareb brings together Olivier Lorelle (co-writer of Days of Glory) and Sotigui Kouyaté, the star of Little Senegal, in another drama of migration, prejudice and our common humanity. But unlike his earlier work, this film is on a much smaller scale; it is also deliberately, but disastrously, shorn of political context.
<2> London River tells the story of two middle-aged single parents who come to London in the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in 2005 in search of their missing children. Elizabeth (played by Brenda Blethyn), who was widowed in the Falklands war, travels from Guernsey, where she has a small farm; Ousamane (played by Sotigui Kouyaté), who left his wife and child in Africa 15 years earlier, comes from France, where he works as a forester. The parents discover that their children were lovers and finally — I don’t think this is giving away a secret — that they were killed on the bus in Tavistock Square. Despite the inclusion of extensive documentary footage of the terrorist attacks and the use of hand-held camera to capture Blackstock Road where the students lived above a Halal butcher’s shop, London River is more like a fable than a work of social realism.
<3> As a fable, the viewer is more likely to accept the coincidence that the missing offspring were lovers, and indeed to swallow a series of parallels. Both parents are close to nature in a way that their urban children seem not to have understood: Elizabeth’s daughter was ashamed of her mother’s weather-beaten hands, while Ousamane’s mission in life is to save elm trees. Both children were brought up by single mothers and became strangers to their parents. The parents are devoutly but quietly religious: in the opening sequences we see Elizabeth listening to a sermon about loving your enemy and praying for those who persecute you, which cuts to Ousamane in an olive grove turning to Mecca to say his prayers. The symbolic patterning serves to underline the film’s basic message about overcoming misunderstanding to achieve mutual respect and love. Elizabeth is at first wholly suspicious of Ousamane, whom she reports to the police. She is frightened by multicultural London (‘This place is crawling with Muslims’); when she discovers that her daughter and his son were studying Arabic in the local mosque, she assumes the worst: ‘Who speaks Arabic?’ Bouchareb delays the discovery that the children have been killed, allowing Elizabeth and Ousamane to draw closer to each other as they search the hospitals, morgues and police stations. Gradually Elizabeth comes to recognise that differences in creed and colour are superficial: ‘Our lives aren’t all that different’. It isn’t a lesson that Ousamane needs to learn: although he doesn’t know what his son was searching for in London, and for a moment suspected he may have become involved in terrorism; unlike Elizabeth he is not prone to the suspicion of strangers.
<4> London River is perhaps most interesting, not as fable about overcoming difference, but as a master class in different styles of performance. In an interview with Stuart Jeffries, Bouchareb explained that since 9/11 he had wanted to make a film about ‘a Muslim and a Christian, linked by tragedy, struggling with their differences’. The London bombings ‘catalysed the idea’ and Boucherab says he wrote the scenario specifically for his two leading actors. The Malian actor, Sotigui Kouyaté, who died in May this year, was described in his obituary as ‘an important bridge between African and western culture’. It was for Kouyaté that Peter Brook created the role of the Sufi mystic, Tierno Bokar, based on a real-life West African prophet of tolerance and self-sacrifice. Ousamane’s association with trees in London River also recalls Brook’s description of Kouyaté’s ‘extraordinarily tree-like character’. If Ousamane seems not to be a fully realised character this is perhaps because Kouyaté is playing himself, or at least the persona of Kouyaté that Brook made famous: ‘He was inseparable from his own African soil, rooted in its social, cultural, family and spiritual structures and traditions. … At the same time, when he was in the context of the west, he was totally open to the world around him, seeing it clearly in all its good and bad qualities, but without ever judging or becoming hostile. Like a tree, he was unbending in his core, but reaching out, responsive, quivering in reaction to every fine current with which he came into contact’. Kouyaté, who won best actor prize in Berlin 2009 for his role in London River, said that the film was ‘made by love’. It is certainly a powerful performance: with his long dreadlocks and staff he is shown walking stoically through the streets, mystically drawing others too him and deflecting aggression. It is an astonishing feat especially considering that he is given very little dialogue: simply by his calm and charismatic presence he assumes the role of prophet of tolerance and self-sacrifice.
<5> In contrast, Blethyn’s role is written to suit her strengths as an actor in the realist tradition: she does and says more, and we know much more about her. Bouchareb admired Blethyn’s performance in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies for her ability to ‘wear her anguish on her face’. He was adamant that he wanted Blethyn to play Elizabeth and she is utterly convincing as a confused, unhappy and slightly neurotic woman –- a role that she played not just in Secrets and Lies but in the film adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. For Bouchareb the two actors ‘incarnate two different philosophies in their bodies. For Muslims, in the face of fate there is often acceptance. We say, “It is written.” That is where the serenity in Ousamane comes from. For Elizabeth, nothing is written, everything is intolerable and her emotions are evident. As a Frenchman with Algerian ancestry, I am torn between these philosophies.’ The drama of cultural difference was mirrored on the set: since Elizabeth translates for Ousamane in the film, Blethyn had to learn some French (in four weeks). Like his character, Kouyaté spoke no English and so the two actors had to find a way to communicate with each other in the course of the shoot. In vindication of Bouchareb’s faith in communication, towards the end of the film Blethyn and Kouyaté started to improvise. In one memorable scene they sit together on a step companionably sharing an apple, in memorable contrast to an earlier scene in which they sat lonely and separate on a sofa.
<6> But there is, perhaps, something problematic about a white actress playing a fully rounded character opposite a black actor playing a mystic presence. (Bouchareb and Brook are not the only writers to have relied on a charismatic black actor to carry a drama: Kureishi held his hands up to this with Roland Gift as Danny Victoria in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid; Gillo Pontecorvo relied on Evaristo Marquez’s presence to create the slave rebel in Quemada.) It becomes difficult to believe in the story of Elizabeth and Ousamane gradually understanding each other, when we learn too little about Ousamane for him to be a realistic character. We never know why he moved to France or why he had no contact with his son for 15 years. Although families are often separated by immigration, as African fathers work in Europe to provide for their families back home, we have to fill in this back story ourselves because the film does not seem interested in telling it.
<7> There is a further contradiction at the heart of London River. Bouchareb said that ‘the film is not about these London bombings. … The drama could have happened anywhere’. In the same interview he also said that he was inspired by English cinema, in particular the films of Ken Loach and Stephen Frears, which deal with ‘recent politics’. Clearly he was influenced by the use of documentary footage in Frears’ The Queen and perhaps also by Dirty Pretty Things, Frears’ drama about London’s sans papiers. London River sticks closely to the local London of Blackstock Road in a similar way to Dirty Pretty Things, which uses the multicultural Ridley Road market as one of its main settings. The problem with London Riveris that it tries to be both a universal fable (which could have happened anywhere) and a realistic political drama at the same time: in the process it becomes politically naïve. It is entirely legitimate (if not original) for Bouchareb to make the political point that ‘Muslims are as much victims of terrorist attacks as anyone else’. And his desire to make a meditative film about terrorism, which deliberately eschews the sensational, is in many ways admirable. Nonetheless it is a severe weakness that he strips the film of all but the most superficial political analysis. Sadly, it is a pious platitude that better communication between people can overcome prejudice; clear speaking may, instead, only confirm that the grounds for contestation are profound and intractable. Moreover, since the film wholly ignores the causes of the terrorist attacks, as well as the context of British foreign policy, the viewer is left wondering what exactly is the connection between the London bombings and the story of Elizabeth and Ousamane? The only answer the film offers is a hopelessly naïve political parable: catastrophe can be averted if we learn to love and respect the Other.
<8> The end of the film returns the protagonists to their respective homes in Guernsey and France. They have been changed utterly: Elizabeth violently attacks the earth with her hoe, while Ousamane bows his head at the news that another elm tree has died. It is almost as if Bouchareb acknowledges here the limitations of his own scenario as he leaves the viewer with these twin images of rage and despair. Bouchareb is one of France’s most interesting contemporary filmmakers but perhaps he was constrained here by a lack of confidence in his understanding of the British social and political milieu (nearly half the film is in French). Meanwhile, I look forward to seeing his latest, Outside the Law (2010), about the Algerian struggle for independence, which is currently provoking riots across France.
Todd, Andrew. “Sotigui Koyaté Obituary.” The Guardian. 2 May 2010. Web. 13 Oct. 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/may/02/sotigui-kouyate-obituary.
Jeffries, Stuart. “Rachid Bouchareb: My Film about the 7/7 London Bombings.” The Guardian. 6 July 2010. Web. 13 Oct. 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/jul/06/rachid-bouchareb-london-river-interview.
To Cite This Article:
Susie Thomas, ‘Review of Rachid Bouchareb (Dir.), London River’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 2 (September 2010). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2010/thomas2.html. Accessed on [date of access].