The Turkish refugee crisis and the painful death of the Greek economy are distilled into a nonsensical 97-minute pseudo-musical movie. What could go wrong?
Imagine a musical-movie revolving around two momentous events in history, one that left thousands of families destitute, and another caused by thousands more families being destitute. Now take the musical element of that movie, and make all its songs start up at completely inopportune moments, or at points in the film where no music is actually required in order to get across a particular emotion or plot point. In addition to the utter pointlessness of its musical element, now add a few equally pointless scenes in there too; some full-frontal female nudity and gratuitous fetishisation of lesbianism that is clearly only in the movie to fulfil its director’s sexual fantasies. And if the casual misogyny wasn’t enough for you, put in an extra dollop of trivialisation of other people’s problems – the Greek financial collapse and the Turkish refugee crisis is definitely not an issue at all so long as people have music, right?
It’s almost as if Gatlif really didn’t want audiences to understand his film at all
The movie I’ve just described is real, and takes the form of Tony Gatlif’s newest feature film, Djam. It is the filmic equivalent of the graveyard to which realism goes to die, and music is used as a poor excuse for padding out what would otherwise be a shallow and deflated film. Named after its protagonist, a young and impulsive Greek girl, it makes about as much sense as half of Djam’s decisions throughout the film – which is to say, absolutely none at all. Its attempts at allegory fall completely flat, and the few moments in which it could truly be something profound are wasted on the film’s otherwise ridiculous mantra that music is not just a source of solace in tough times, but literally all you need to live. It is also a Frankenstein’s monster of vignettes and musical numbers, choppily sewn together from piecemeal ideas and themes with no coherence between scenes as one progresses into another. And to top it all off, there’s the fact that half the songs in the film aren’t subtitled. It’s almost as if Gatlif really didn’t want audiences to understand his film at all.
Lack of reason is a recurring theme with the characters, too. Djam herself is a quintessential Mary Sue; a nubile manic pixie dream girl sent to save destitute volunteer Avril from the horrors of having no money and journeying from Turkey to Greece almost entirely on foot. Djam is acquainted with a surprising (and wholly contrived) number of random people that she and Avril encounter on their odyssey, and every rash decision she makes results in minimal consequences, or a miraculously wonderful outcome against all odds. Well, either that, or she just sings another song and all the trouble goes away; all issues forgotten. I kid you not – this actually happens. As for Avril, her character’s continued presence in Djam’s orbit is the entire question in itself. Does she not have a family to return home to? What is a considerably less freewheeling soul doing on a spontaneous road trip to Greece? And most importantly, what is the point of her at all, if the entire focus of the story is going to be about how Djam’s unbelievably good luck and musical skills will save the day in the end?
It ain’t over till the girl with the bouzouki sings seven songs – but you’ll be wishing it had ended after the first
The only two things that save Djam from being as colossal a disaster as the economic crisis it tackles are its cinematography, and the strong performances of its two female leads. Were the musical numbers less ill-timed, their fluid and dynamic choreography would have been a lot more enjoyable, since audiences wouldn’t have to first look past searching for a reason as to why everyone has suddenly burst into song and dance once again. Plus, even though the two protagonists were written alarmingly badly, their actresses’ performances truly carry the movie out of the pit of garbage in which it would otherwise belong. Daphné Patakias is absolutely stunning as Djam, giving a fluent performance in three different languages and throwing herself into her carefree, bohemian role with no holds barred. Patakias is a name to watch, and deserves much better than this confused sprawl of a half-musical – the contrived nature of her character is almost easily ignored due to her visible passion in the role, and her performance in the film’s emotionally-charged penultimate scene is nothing short of gut-wrenching. Maryne Cayon also shines as Avril, her muted affability and charm being the perfect counterpart to Patakias’s force majeure appeal.
Alas, two strong leads and a pretty façade still cannot fully redeem Djam from feeling like a pointless mess. The music may be wonderful, but it is certainly not the be-all-and-end-all to either the Greek Depression or the Turkish refugee exodus. It ain’t over till the girl with the bouzouki sings seven songs – but you’ll be wishing it had ended after the first.
‘Djam’ is now playing at the Raindance Film Festival 2017, taking place from 20th September to 1st October. Information and tickets here.
Image: Raindance Film Festival 2017