Cannes 2011 Review – La source des femmes

At the early screening of La source des femmes on Saturday, the film elicited some booing at the end. There have been reports that the gala screening on the other hand had the longest standing ovation for films in competition. Neither of these reactions is really merited, as the Radu Mihaileanu helmed comedy-drama is a bog standard, but totally inoffensive, look at the position of women in rural Arab society. Based on a true story that happened in Turkey, the film has its heart in the right place, but its positive message is unlikely to change the position of many women in similar situations as the one depicted in the film.

Set in a mountain village in an unnamed country (most likely Morocco; the Arab dialect spoken is Moroccan), the film tells the story of a group of village women who, fed up with the unwillingness of the men to help them with the straining task of fetching water from a mountaintop source each day, decide to organize a 'love strike': no more sex until the men either help with the water haul or arrange for running water to come to the village. At the forefront of this 'revolution' is Leila (Leila Bekhti), wife of the village's school teacher Sami (Saleh Bakri). An outsider in the village (she was not born there), and married to a progressive husband, Leila urges the women to fight for a better life. Not all the women want to go against tradition, and it earns her the scorn of her mother-in-law (Hiam Abbass), so it is only with help from the well-respected widow Mother Rifle (Biyouna) that Leila manages to organize the strike. As if the opposition of both the men and the more conservative women is not enough, things are complicated by a journalist coming to the village, who turns out to be a former sweetheart of Leila before she was married off to Sami. This puts her at risk of losing one of her strongest allies, her husband.

The position of women in Islamic societies always incites heavy debate in the West. While perhaps not as bad as often thought, certainly not in larger urban areas, there is no denying that the emancipation of the Arab world has a long way to go. As the Qur'an explicitly states that it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife, and as many women still see themselves as 'breeding cows,' making a film where these notions are openly questioned is in itself positive. Problems like the illiteracy of women in these rural communities, as well as the taboo of women reading the Qur'an (though many would not be able to) are also touched upon, even if slightly unrealistically. The problem, however, is that the women (and men) who should see this film, because they are actually in this situation, are unlikely to do so simply for lack of access to it. The current wave of revolution that is sweeping over the Arab world should be followed by a second one, a 'domestic revolution' that gives women more equality in the household. But as long as their idea of love is still formed by watching sappy Mexican soap operas instead of films like this, La source des femmes feels very much like preaching to the choir.

What also lessens the impact is that the story is told in a very conventional way, with Leila running into obstacle after obstacle in her quest for equality, only to have them removed around the next corner. The film takes its time to reach a conclusion, but what that conclusion will be is never in doubt, so the last half hour had at least this reviewer thinking, "let's get that water running down the damn mountain already." Another problem is that the film is infused with comedy, which often makes light of such serious issues as domestic violence and rape. Director Mihaileanu wanted to make a film with a positive message, but the seriousness of the message is sometimes lost in comedy and easy resolution. The only real risk the script (written by Mihaileanu himself in cooperation with Alain-Michel Blanc) takes is the frequent use of metaphors and prosaic language, often in song, that is prevalent in Arab culture. This might scare off some audiences, although one opening scene in which women in the steam room talk about sex indirectly shows in a playful way how in this community things are often said without saying them directly, something that could help Western audiences understand Arab culture a little better.

As it is, La source des femmes is a film that will not make a lot of waves. With a slightly different approach this could have been a more powerful statement for women's lib in the Arab world, even though the end result should probably be instigated from within that world itself. Yet this slightly too Western, but more importantly too weak, look at the issue will merely entertain audiences for its 130-minute running time, only for them to forget its message soon after.