Né Quelque Part – Homeland - is Mohamed Hamidi’s first feature film starring Tewfik Jallab. It’s not the first time I’ve been struck by the challenges inherent in putting those words across the bottom of the screen.
Translating for the big screen is one of those rare skills that often goes completely unnoticed. When it's done well, it's subtle; a transparent veil which helps the outsider into the story.
The story of Farid Hadji’s efforts to save the house his father built in Algeria – a country he has never set foot in – brings the complexity level of translation and subtitling up an extra notch.
Not only is there the French-Arab idiom of Farid’s French family, there’s also the Algerian Arabic to translate. In the French version, of course, there are subtitles for the Arabic. But once the subtitles move to a third language, what is a subtitler to do? What Ian Burley (of the ubiquitous but almost invisible LVT) did is to meld everything into one stream of English.
For movie goers who depend upon the subtitles, that’s a godsend. It’s a stream of language that leads us into the story without extra drama. But for those who listen to the French, well, it’s a mind-flip. I found myself double checking my brain, as Farid would say something in French, receive a reply in Arabic, and see all of it neatly translated and delivered in English text at the bottom of the screen. It is all the more complex as the majority of Algerians speak and understand French, so conversations on screen happen in two languages throughout the film.
I’ve only seen snippets of the Arabic-French subtitles (which of course were fundamental to the French print), but did enjoy the idea of Farid’s felonious cousin being called “Farid le roublard” (“Farid the dodger” in the English subtitles).
There are a lot of threads in this film, which was an Out of Competition Special Screening at Cannes in 2013. There’s the story of Farid, reluctantly heading to Algeria to - hopefully - save a house his father built for him. Add to that the criminal activities of his cousin of the same name, played by major drawcard Jamel Debbouze (the simple minded grocer from Amélie), an uncertain relationship with French girlfriend Audrey, and the complexities of illegal immigration into France, and there’s a lot to juggle. I found more pleasure in peeking over Farid’s shoulder and enjoying the sparse beauty of his village and the craziness of the local Café Secteur, where an escaped animal provides almost as much entertainment as an overseas telephone call. The ruins he explores were lovely, and I agreed with Farid as he explained to Audrey over the phone, “C’est incroyable” (It’s incredible).
Given the topicality of illegal immigration in Australia at the moment, I was waiting for a more in-depth exploration of this aspect of the film, but in the end, the director chose to use what drove the film along.
It's not a film I would see again, except perhaps to once again appreciate Ian Burley's hard - and almost invisible - subtitling work.