09 March, 2010

Qu'un seul tienne et les autres suivront (Silent Voices) (2009)

Eloquent on incarceration

Qu'un seul tienne et les autres the original enigmatic title that young French director Léa Fehner has given this "prison" drama, though it may not meet the exacting demands of genre classification set by No matter. The film kept the audience in utter silence for two hours, as we followed the trajectories of several of society's silent and invisible people, whose lives intersect with the prison system.

My one fear going into Silent Voices was that the web of stories would be too conveniently woven together, Babel-like, at the end. Not to fear - the director is going about bringing us all to the prison's visiting room, a place she knows well, to show us the human stories, the collateral damage, represented by those seated around each table. And we care about them as they reach the climatic moment of visiting day.

Oh yes, the tables. Visits here are not behind bullet-proof windows, but are in a controlled space divided into carrels. Léa Fehner spent several years as a social worker in that very environment, so her scripting and direction has the authority and credibility of an eyewitness. But, as she told Le Soir's Fabienne Bradfer recently, this is not a documentary. Hence her choice of professional actors, many of whom are at the very beginning of what promise to be long careers. Ditto for Léa Fehner.

What a team this is - and that is the term Fehner uses for a cast from the diversity of French society. The film's non-prison settings are in Marseille and Algiers, two rather similar cities on opposite sides of the Mediterranean. Veteran actress Farida Rahouadj plays Zohra, a grieving mother trying to understand why her son was murdered. If ever there was the face of Algerian stoicism masking inner pain, it is in her performance.

Relative newcomers Reda Kateb (who had a small role in Un Prophète (2009)) and Belgian Pauline Etienne are revelations, as is Vincent Rottiers, who we'd previously noticed in A l'origine (2009). Director Fehner sees her team as a keeper. Indeed she'd already cast Russian actress Dinara Drukarova in Sauf le silence, a 2006 short also about prisons.

Maybe that's no surprise. As she told Fabienne Bradfer, Léa Fehner went to a secondary school located next to a prison, and once witnessed a prisoner's wife conducting an unofficial, shouted 'visit' with her husband through layers of fences and walls. Thanks to a chance encounter, she grew up to provide us with this excellent work that merited its Cannes nomination as best first film.

If only all high-school students were so inspired...

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus

120 mins. In French and Arabic.

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