Beauty And The Dogs (Aala Kaf Ifrit)

Tunisia (2017) Dir. Kaouther Ben Hania

MIB’s cinematic world tour makes it first stop in Tunisia, revealing a country that has its own share of corruption issues within those looked upon to protect and serve the people. Kaouther Ben Hania’s harrowing tale of one young woman’s fight against injustice has extra resonance in this current climate of social unrest.

At the Palace Hotel, student Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani) waits in a toilet stall for a friend to arrive with a replacement dress as hers is torn. In contrast to her modest attire, the friend brings a revealing mini dress which Mariam is hesitant to wear but as organiser of the event, she has no choice. During the party, Mariam meets Youseff (Ghanem Zrelli) and they go for a walk along the beach.

In the next scene, Mariam is running away in a blind panic, crying, her hair and make-up a mess, with Youseff in pursuit. A police car drives past upsetting Mariam even more. She was raped on the beach by two policemen whilst Youseff was handcuffed preventing him from stopping them. Youseff insists Mariam files a complaint against the police but getting them to listen to her story is not easy.

Ben Hania loads Beauty And The Dogs with a litany of shocking, officious buck passing situations featuring the worst kind of uppity jobsworths unable to find it in themselves to show even the slightest bit of empathy or sympathy for Mariam in what transpires to be the longest night of her life. Yet the biggest obstacle facing Mariam and Youseff is getting her story heard and believed by people abusing the system designed to protect her.

Despite being just 95-minutes, it is one thing after another, and borders on farce in how Mariam is bounced around like a pinball from place to place because of procedure, laziness, and corrupt forces. Broken down into nine chapters comprising of long single takes, we wonder how one person can endure so much in one night; Ben Hania hits us with a gut punch announcement for a denouement – this was based on real events.

The reason it might appear contrived to some of us is purely cultural and geographical. Tunisia is a predominantly Muslim country though women are seldom shown wearing burqas and such here, but kissing in public is deemed an affront to public decency. The sin card is played a lot in trying to break Mariam down, as is the shame she will bring her family for her lewd actions, an oppressive attitude covered in Middle Eastern cinema many times before.

Representing the men, Youseff is a curious chap with an implied history with the police that isn’t expanded upon though his constant pushing Mariam to protect her rights and stick to her guns suggests he has an agenda he is not revealing to her. His gallantry is the only thing that keeps Mariam going and as the only male on her side, she can’t afford to compromise that.

First Youseff takes Mariam to a private clinic to get a certificate proving she has been assaulted before confronting the police, by they refuse to admit her for not having her ID, which is in her bag in the back of the police car. “That’s the law,” they are told. No ID, no check up. They try the local A&E and eventually Mariam is seen but the doctor there says he can’t examine her without police referral!

So, the night turns into an endless cycle of journeying to every hospital and police station in town, and hitting a brick wall each time, reminiscent of the scathing Romanian drama The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu. It comes as no surprise that almost every police officer Mariam talks to is male, and they’ve all made up their minds that he story is false, but none have the wit or conscience to hide their distrust as they are the law and their word is final.

However, just as a glimpse of a breakthrough appears on the horizon, in the form of a female officer, the spectre of red tape procedure pushes it further back out of view – that the officer is pregnant and is due to sign off the night. Worst still the guilty cops work at the same police station and, quelle surprise, their colleagues have their backs, putting Mariam in a no win situation.

Prior to all of this, Mariam is a beaming, effervescent figure but clearly a girl of principle and modesty, frequently tugging at the hem of her slinky dress to make it seem longer. Naturally, after the attack, the dress becomes a weapon against Mariam by the police, with unsubtle aspersions against her character for dressing in a provocative manner.

By the time the end credits roll, she is a bruised, tired, haggard, pale broken figure, the only residual sign of life being a few embers of defiance in refusing to sign a trumped up statement so everyone can go home and move on. There is no question that Mariam is a totem for every abused woman marginalised and swept under the carpet by a patriarchal society and boys’ club police system, but will it change anything?

The anger Ben Hania clearly feels is not filtered through Mariam as you’d might expect, leaving it to the audience to assume their own rage, whilst she herself remains calm and strictly observant in her direction. The single take format for each segment is so subtle it barely notices at first, but without it the film would lose its immediacy and power to shock. In her first role, Mariam Al Ferjani is an absolute wonder in carrying this film and not cracking under the psychological pressure of essaying Mariam’s ordeal.

Beauty And The Dogs is an incendiary, gruelling, uncompromising watch, its compulsion being its unflinching power in standing up for the victims of sexual abuse and shaming a corrupt system that fails to help them. Essential cinema in its purest form.