Berlinale Review: Jibril (2018)

The good thing about first love and teenage years is that this phase is supposed to help us better cope with what’s to come later in life. By learning how to deal with rejection, loneliness, and heartbreak, we’re supposed to build healthier relationships in the future, connections whose sole purpose isn’t simply to fill a void. But well, that’s theory. Life, as we know it, doesn’t always work so precisely, and the heart – that lonely hunter – follows all but straight lines.

Director Henrika Kull’s first feature film, “Jibril“, focuses on the life of Maryam (Susanna Abdulmajid), a young Arab woman living in Germany. She’s the single mother of three girls, a hard-worker who spends much of her free time watching Arab sappy soap-operas about love and drama. She seems to have found a healthy balance between German and Arabic culture, enjoying traditional parties, appreciating music, and working hard.

It is in one of these parties – a wedding – she first sees Gabriel, or “Jibril” (Malik Adan). Maryam seems free, independent, vibrating. Unlike some of her friends who seem more attached to traditions, she has chosen her own path. Instead of a veil, her hair flows free down her shoulders. At work, she constantly and openly refuses the graceful advances of a co-worker. She seems content with herself: but is it so?

When her friends, who are traveling to Beirut, ask her to deliver a package to a man in prison, she soon discovers she’s seen him before. It’s Gabriel, and the two have a flirtatious and surprising encounter that ends with his request for her to return and visit him. She leaves in silence, but if we’ve seen any of her nature by this point, we know this won’t be her last visit.

Kull, who works with the camera in close proximity to her actors, forces us to pay attention to their expressions. What could feel intrusive becomes instead intimate and relies on the work of her highly expressive cast. The story, developed over the course of one year, follows the relationship that develops between Maryam and Gabriel, a man whom, for much of her surprise, seems to not be connected to his own culture of origin. “My father wanted me to focus on learning German”, he says, but Maryam, who knows both languages, insists he tries harder.

But how does one create a healthy bond from across a table – other than by bringing in a massive supply of “Ritter Sport” chocolate? Even if their chemistry jumps to our eyes – plus Blumenthal’s mastery of the “puppy eyes” look – we can’t help but question the nature of this relationship. Is it born out of their construction of one another or is it based on reality? Is it an opportunity that presents itself to a lonely and isolated Gabriel and yet another chance for Maryam to rebel and challenge the expectations of others? Expect no answers, but observe, indulge in what seems contradictory. Maryam, comes a moment, asks for Gabriel to “give her some space”. But it makes sense.

The theme is close to Kull’s work and was also the topic of her 2015 documentary, “Absently Present”, so she – who also edited the film – has a clear understanding of who her characters are, and what drives their actions. At times, however, one can’t help but feel these archetypes are overly explored, beyond what’s needed for audiences to understand them.

Maryam is a daydreamer – one that has most of her life put together, but a daydreamer nonetheless – we get it. So when we’re served a montage that involves her hanging upside down at a park, dreaming her life away on public transportation, and singing and smiling by herself, it feels like overkill. But if these scenes represent a slip, Kull also serves bold and unapologetic moments, like a synchronized masturbation scene – Maryam at home, Jibril in jail – one that is both realistic and elegant.

This story, divided into four chapters – and some sort of epilogue – while doesn’t necessarily walking clear divisions, still suggests this is a relationship that moves along like the seasons – blossoming, peaking, dying and finding its way to be reborn, perhaps? While some may find a difficulty engaging with their plight, and whatever the nature of this relationship and their individual motivation may be, this is not what Kull brings to the forefront. It’s their connection, the emotional toll that results from it, and the eerily similar dynamics that relationships, whatever their nature is, create.

(Photo still courtesy of Carolina Steinbrecher)

Director: Henrika Kull (in her first feature film)

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