Black. Adil El Arbi and Billal Fallah’s raw Romeo and Juliet

Billal, Adil and in the middle their main man Spike Lee)

‘Black’ is the second film by Adil El Arbi and Billal Fallah, their debut being ‘Image’ (2014) which was basically a feature film made with the budget for a short film (+/- 120,000 Euro’s). A lot of favours had to be asked for that film to look as good as it did, but it was by no means a fully accomplished film.

The film is based on the novels Black and Back (an excellent cover of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black by ‘Oscar and the Wolf’ was perhaps to be expected)  by Dirk Bracke depicting the street gangs of Brussels. It tells the story of Mavela and Marwan who fall in love when they meet each other in a police station after they’ve both been arrested for stealing some stuff. She’s part of the Black Bronx gang from the Matongé quarter whereas he’s part of the rival Moroccan gang named the 1080’s (being the postal code of Sint-Jans-Molenbeek), The film is basically a raw version of Romeo and Juliet.

The film certainly pulls no punches. Especially the early part of the film which depicts the life of crime and the way the youth is interacting with the police may cause some controversy.
Within it’s rawness their is some subtelty that might get lost if you do not pay close attention. There’s a difference in the way the police with a more local Brussels basckground are depicted compared to police officers that are just doing their obligatory ‘tour of duty’ in Brussels. The film gives an honest depiction that’s not just glorifying violence and crime. There are scenes were e.g. the gang members are enjoying their moment of fame while they’re being arrested by the police. But the way women are being treated is certainly not of a glorifying nature. There’s a particularly brutal rape sequence that people may not expect from ‘the huggable Moroccans’ they’ve become to know from their television appearences.

The actors are amazing. Their “16 rough diamonds” as the directors call them, were found by the specially created Hakuna casting agency that has as a mission to bring diversity and color into Belgian commercials, videoclips and films.

The cinematography by Robrecht Heyvaer, also responsible for D’Ardennen (The Ardennes), is excellent. From a pure directing point of view I was expecting a bit more considering what El Arbi and Fallah pulled of on the shoestring budget they had for ‘Image’. Certainly in the early stages of the film the directing duo was trying to impress us with a loud hip hip soundtrack and a constantly moving camera, not the most original directing I’ve ever seen. The candlelit love scene is somewhat cliché but on the other hand more explicit then you might expect.
However, the way Brussels is filmed, the tense atmosphere that’s created, the ‘no-concession’ attitude with which the films was made and the performances they were able to pull out of a cast of newcomers is no mean achievement.

More so than the films of one of their favourite directors Spike Lee, the tone of the film reminded me somewhat of Boaz Yakin’s ‘Fresh’ (1994) and some of the nicely framed rooftop shots bring to mind Matteo Garrone’s ‘Gomorra’ (2008).

Given the nature of the film it’s not that sure the film will become the success that a lot of people are conviced it will be. So let’s start a nice word of mouth.

Jan Bollen

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