‘Bastardo’: An Exercise in Genre-Splicing
Bastardo, the feature-length fiction debut of Tunisian filmmaker Nejib Belkadhi, is an exercise in genre-splicing. Deploying the production values of popular commercial cinema, the film constructs a magic-realist rise-and-fall saga atop a strong current of social commentary.
It tells the story of Mohsen, who as an infant was abandoned in a rubbish dumpster. He is found by the kindly Am Salah (Issa Harath), who lives in a slum on the edge of Tunis.
A thuggish butcher runs this informal settlement as a mafia mini-state. It is his wife, the fearsome Khadhra (Lassaad Ben Abdallah in drag), who nicknames the infant Bastardo, which proves to stick to him better than Mohsen.
A few decades, Mohsen (Monoom Chouayet) is employed as a security guard for a Turkish shoe factory set up in a Tunis free zone. He’s infatuated with a factory employee named Morjana and when he sees her and some men stealing factory inventory, he agrees to turn a blind eye.
When he refuses to give her up, the Turks sack him. To add insult to injury, billboards of Morjana’s successful shoe line crop up throughout the film, a leitmotif of his own decline.
Foiling Morjana’s selfish acquisitiveness is the sweet-natured Essengra (Lobna Nooman), who is cursed with the “power” to attract bugs, which means she is always crawling with cockroaches and such.
Though Essengra and Mohsen like one another, she has fallen into habitual sex with the loutish Larnouba (Chedly Arfaoui), Khadhra’s son. The mother and son retain the family rackets like a sinecure and all neighbourhood businesses must pay them kickbacks, just as the residents must pay for the privilege of living under their protection.
Things start looking up for Mohsen when a mobile telephone company realises that his slum, being in the middle of a vast area where the company’s signal doesn’t reach, is the best location for a telecoms aerial. Since his house happens to be slightly elevated above the rest, Mohsen stands to gain from a monthly stipend for hosting the device.
His taxi-driving pal Khlifa (Taoufik El Bahri) is more ambitious. Now that there is coverage, he realises there will be a huge market for used mobile phones. He quickly corners the market and cuts in Mohsen on the profits.
In Mohsen’s success lie the seeds of discord, as he and Klifa do not pay kickbacks to Khadhra and Larnouba, and with it his personal corruption.
Writer-director Néjib Belkadhi captured the attention of film festival audiences with his 2006 feature-length doc VHS Kahloucha. A hilarious profile of the amateur filmmaker who earned celebrity status among the popular café set in Tunis with his no-budget VHS action movies – produced and directed by (and usually starring) himself, the film also provides an insightful glance into a seldom seen shard of Tunisian culture and society.
Feature-length documentary and fiction remain distinct forms and moving from the former to the latter has proven a vexing challenge for even the most talented filmmakers.
The film’s greatest strengths reside in its documentary sensibility. Belkadhi is an old hand in Tunisian television and the film’s populist film language and ribald sense of humour ought to earn it wide exposure in that medium. Arguably television is the best delivery system for the particular brand of social critique that lies at the heart of the film.