Venice 2022 review: Dirty Difficult Dangerous (Wissam Charaf)

Dirty Difficult Dangerous is a beautifully crafted film that has echoes of many of the great magical realists of the past embedded deeply in its fabric.”

How do you solve a problem like social inequality? This is the question being asked by Wissam Charaf in Dirty Difficult Dangerous, his extraordinary sophomore feature film in which he continues to construct a stunning world from the small fragments of impeccable empathy for those who don’t normally have their stories told on such a platform. The narrative is set in the suburbs of Lebanon and centres on two visitors to the country – one a Syrian refugee and the other an Ethiopian immigrant – and follows them as they fall in love, fighting against the obstacles to their relationship, and searching for meaning in a world that sees their existence, both individual and as a couple, as barely valid. Dirty Difficult Dangerous is a beautifully crafted film that has echoes of many of the great magical realists of the past embedded deeply in its fabric, focusing on an unexpected pairing of two tenacious young souls that find themselves drawn from entirely different cultures and parts of the world, but somehow coming together in perfect harmony. This is captured with brilliant audacity by a director whose sympathy for the human condition is reflected in absolutely every frame of this film, which celebrates the unexpected serendipity of interpersonal connection.

From its first melancholy moment, it is easy to tell that Dirty Difficult Dangerous is a film of deep compassion. While far from the first film to address themes such as the immigrant experience or the trials and tribulations of refugees, it takes a distinctly different approach to the subject matter. Throughout the film, the director utilizes a more placid tone, examining the relationship between Ahmed and Mehdia through a series of delicate glimpses into their lives, both separately and in the few fleeting moments that they share with one another, which are the most striking parts of the film. The film observes their lives in Lebanon as filtered through their relationship, which is in turn constructed from the gentlest caresses, rather than the more stark, harsh commentary that often forms the foundations for similar films. Charaf composes an atmosphere based in magical realism, with the downbeat story of these two lost souls being softened by a lighthearted but respectful tone. This allows the director space to prioritize the relationship between the two main characters, rather than allowing this poetic story to get lost in the midst of a far larger narrative that normally manifests in films investigating the contrast between refugees and their surroundings.

However, despite the tone being considerably lighter than films that tread similar narrative territory, Dirty Difficult Dangerous is not nearly as passive as it would seem. Beneath the tranquil, endearing surface of this film is a story about the experience of being an outsider in a country in which your very presence is viewed as an impediment. These characters are mostly not welcome in Beirut unless they’re shown to be serving a particular purpose – Mehdia is appreciated when she is in servitude to her employers, but is immediately punished when she shows the slightest semblance of humanity in the form of a private interaction with Ahmed, who spends his days traversing the streets of the city trying to find a job that will move him out of homelessness, only to be confronted with disdain from those who see him as merely an unnecessary migrant. We tend to gravitate towards those who share similar experiences with us, and here we encounter two people that are drawn together, whether by some serendipitous spark or purely because they are outsiders in a society that struggles to embrace those who need the support and guidance the most. Dirty Difficult Dangerous interrogates the shifting class system, and portrays it with a combination of delicacy and forthright honesty, which draws out the poignant details from the story and explores them thoroughly.

Dirty Difficult Dangerous is a film that requires very little persuasion when it comes to describing its merits. What starts as a tender love story eventually becomes a hauntingly beautiful account of individuality in a world being driven to the edge of sanity by social and cultural inequality, caused by factors that are far out of our control, yet it is normally those that are most vulnerable that fall victim to its malice. Charaf is offering something quite extraordinary with this film, diving deep into the lives of these characters as they navigate their surroundings and learn about the realities of not being wanted. The film is not afraid of introducing its ideas through a slow-burning, carefully paced series of episodes in their lives, since this approach allows us to meditate on the minutiae, observing each intricate detail, each containing ideas that eventually build to the gorgeous, life-affirming crescendo that ends the film. Endearing but never meek, Dirty Difficult Dangerous stands firm in its steadfast beliefs, examining a range of different ideas and compressing them into a singular vision that reminds us of the unimpeachable value of tenacity and persistence. This proves that the cliché that love can conquer any obstacle is certainly not without value, even if these socio-cultural battles continue to impact a disproportionate number of people who simply set out to find a better life for themselves, regardless of the challenges that they may encounter.