Arts Festival

Ahmed’s secret life

ON the edge. Dover-based widow Fatima (Joanna Scanlan) discovers things about her husband Ahmed that break her image of him. Photograph courtesy EUFF

VERY RARELY ARE you privileged enough to experience a piece of work that is so supremely flawless in its articulation, coordination, depth and integrity that it raises a simple tale to biblical heights. Aleem Khan’s debut film After Love, featuring Joanna Scanlan is one such work. This tale of betrayal and loss, love and laundry will be available online and without cost, as part of the 8th European Film Festival South Africa, which runs from 14 until 24 October 2021.

From the film’s downplayed use of strings in its soundtrack to the extraordinary cinematography, where every still is something you could cherish for its sheer stand-alone beauty, to its casting and sense of place, this work is an illustration of the collaborative give and take and complicated wisdom it takes to make a film. Bringing together an Urdu-speaking Muslim family based on the English shoreside town of Dover, with a French connection in the city of Calais, on the other side of the English Channel, the plot is a domestic one where a man’s death leaves his secrets open to exposure.

And these secrets, discovered by his grieving widow Fatima (Scanlan) contorts her ability to mourn, enswathed as they are in a perplexing mystery. It’s so perplexing that it takes her to Calais, to the home of her late husband’s upper middle-class lover, Genevieve (Nathalie Richard). This is the story of a man who lives in two places and who makes parallel lives, with the belief that he’s safe in having constructed two worlds which will not collide.

Only, they do. As they must.

The collision of values and perceptions offers you, as audience, an eye into stereotyping racial assumptions as it tosses together knee-jerk responses to the disrespect of a mother, with time hewn rituals involving washing of the feet and shaving of a baby’s scalp. But it is the monumental performance of Scanlan that holds the work together and lends it a gravitas which is devastating in its humanity. Her character articulates an understanding of womanhood and one of sacrifice as it reflects on humility and grace, adopted tradition and a deep and lasting love.

The film is a masterclass of timing too, meshing the understanding of holding back and leaping forward with a maturity of restraint and an understanding of consequence that will make you sob with empathy and will keep you focused until the very last denouement. In short, After Love, reaches into the unfathomable depths that can touch burgeoning teenage sexuality as it can offer threads of forgiveness. Up there alongside films such as Gabriel Axel’s 1987 work Babette’s Feast, this piece is more than just a story. It is a portrait of grief and reconciliation that underpins what it means to be human in this world of broken dreams and misapprehensions.

After Love is directed by Aleem Khan and features a cast headed by Subika Anwar-Khan, Talid Ariss, Sudha Bhuchar, Elijah Braik, Jabeen Butt, Nisha Chadha, Aaron Chawla, Pierre Delpierre, Narayan David Hecter, Adam Karim, Nasser Memarzia, Jeff Mirza, Nathalie Richard, Joanna Scanlan. Written by Aleem Khan, it is produced by Matthieu de Braconier and features creative input by Chris Roe (music), Alexander Dynan (cinematography), Gareth C Scales (editing), Shaheen Baig and Lucciana de Vogüe (casting), Sarah Jenneson (production design) and Nirage Mirage (costumes). In Urdu and French with English subtitles, it is part of the 8th European Film Festival South Africa, screening online and without cost from 14-24 October 2021. Bookings open on 13 October.

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