… AND THEY ALL lived happily ever after. The classic love story is easily the one that’s the most well-used in storymaking contexts. But Clio Barnard’s work Ali & Ava comes with a special twist that force the cliched mould deliciously out of shape. It is on this year’s European Film Festival, which is structured to be hybrid; offering limited screenings and online access in Johannesburg and Cape Town between 13 and 23 October, in Mbabane, eSwatini between 21 and 23 October and Maseru, Lesotho, between 28 and 30 October.
It is in this context where we meet Ava (Claire Rushbrook), who has her heart and life dizzyingly full of children. Big and small children, aggressive and needy ones. Some are hers, others are her job. She’s Irish and has weathered her own share of disappointments with an outward toughness. But the regularity of work, and a strong motherly instinct keeps everything afloat, albeit sometimes in a haze of sadness. As a performer, Rushbrook is luminescent in the complicated sense of self she gives Ava, conjoined with an inner beauty that balances the idea of a hard-working saint with a flawed woman, alone, but never self-pitying.
And then we meet Ali (Adeel Akhtar). He’s part of the Kashmiri community in North of England and has his own broken dreams and intact secrets that he hides behind an infectious laughter and musical sense of self. Music, indeed, is his lifeline to a level of freedom that his family ties and social expectations don’t condone. Ali has an empathy that reaches beyond his own self-interests, and an ability to make children dance or laugh, thus lifting his own and their spirits simultaneously. He’s a Sad-Sack kind of bloke but one whose story unfolds beautifully, to reveal a rich inner life which needs no justification or pity.
As these two beautifully cast characters make themselves known to you in the audience, and to each other, you are privileged to get to meet someone else. Sofia. Played by ten-year-old Ariana Bodorova with an astonishing understanding of mental illness or desperate insecurities in a small child, Sofia is the catalyst is this understated and beautiful little tale.
It’s not a girl-meets-boy story in the way in which contemporary filmmakers have retold the story until it is tired with platitudes. It’s also not a pity party of a tale. It’s a work, like Paul McGuigan’s lovely piece Filmstars don’t die in Liverpool, which is less about sex or lust than about the laughter that comes with love, and the courage to be that that laughter brings.
With beautifully considered transitions between scenes and contexts, Ali & Ava is as much about difficult children as it is about violence in close-knit communities and people who make judgements over the private lives of others. It’s also about how the air in contemporary society in this part of the work is thick with discrimination, but the film is not a political diatribe. It’s about what makes you dance. And it is about why that is more important than anything else.
Ali & Ava is directed by Clio Barnard and features a cast headed by Sienna Afsar, Adeel Akhtar, Zahra Arfan, Uzair Ali, Sharon Bailey, Jack Barker, Shazia Bibi, Barnabás Bodor, Ariana Bodorova, Fatima Bodorova, Liam Bruce, Raymond Colemen, Tasha Connor, Maxine Crome, Vinny Dhillon, Claudia Dinova, Amelia Dulay, Willem Evans, Jake Fell, Mez Galaria, Isaac Gale, Natalie Gavin, Mona Goodwin, Ryan Hall, Moey Hassan, Austin Haynes, Rocco Haynes, Sydney Grace Hinchcliffe, Amir Hussain, Noorje Hussain, Rashid Hussain, Siraj Hussain, Kamal Kaan, Laiba Kazmi, Elliott Liversidge, Travis Liversidge, Ady-Lee Lowther, Billiejo Lowther, Elliemae Lowther, Ruby Lowther, Patrick McCann, Barnabás Nagy, Sarlota Nagyoya, Barry Nunney, Krupa Pattani, Seb Peters, Runa Regum, Mya Rubery, Claire Rushbrook, Kai Scott, Rian Scott, Ava-Mae Shackleton, Macy Shackleton, Thomas Skelly, Bernard Sparkes, Brooke Sugden, Disha Suleman, Zak Sutcliffe, Alfie Lee Tetley, Shaun Thomas, Ellora Torchia, Mia Woodley, Clare Wright, Abid Yaqoob and Matt Zina. Written by Clio Barnard, it is produced by Tracy O’Riordan and features creative input by Harry Escott (music) Ole Bratt Birkeland (cinematography), Maya Maffioli (editing), Shaheen Baig (casting), Stéphane Collonge (production design) and Sophie O’Neill (costumes). In English, it is part of the 9thEuropean Film Festival South Africa, screening in Johannesburg, Cape Town and online, 13-23 October 2022; and Mbabane at the Alliance Française, 21-23 October and Maseru at the Alliance Française, 28-30 October.