I watched The Wedding Song in the rather unusual setting of the old Turkish Baths in Lewes, which were built in 1862 and operated for around twenty years before the opening of more popular baths in Brighton led to dwindling demand and their eventual closure.
The pop-up screening was the first of Lewes Depot Cinema’s ‘Re-imagined Buildings’ Project. Each of its four one-off cinema nights will show a film whose subject matter relates in some way to the building in which it’s being shown. In this instance, the French-Tunisian film The Wedding Song (Le Chant Des Mariées, 2008) contains several scenes in which women congregate in a Hammam, a steam room similar to a Turkish bath.
Before the screening Lewes History Group gave a talk about the history of the building, through its various uses and ownership over the years. It seems this was the first time it had ever been used as a cinema though.
The film itself is set in Tunis, Tunisia, in 1942. The Nazis have started an occupation of the capital and are intent on turning Muslim communities against the Jewish ‘enemy’. It’s a fascinating chapter in history I knew absolutely nothing about.
Prior to the Nazi propaganda and intervention, the Jewish and Muslim communities had lived side by side in relative harmony - despite native Tunisians not sharing the same rights as French citizens. This wasn’t just tolerance, they were often close friends and neighbours. This is illustrated in an early scene between a large group of women at a Hammam as they chat and gossip with great intimacy. However, there is an early hint of things to come when a woman who offers to pay on her next visit is verbally abused by the owner for being Jewish.
The rapidly accelerating racial divide between the two communities is played out in the film through the friendship between two teenage girls on the cusp of womanhood – Nour (Olympe Borval), a Muslim, and Myriam (Lizzie Brocheré), a Jew. Theirs is a story of profound love and companionship borne from growing up in the same tenement block from early childhood. They are seemingly inseparable but, as the Nazi occupation escalates, they are gradually and reluctantly forced to take sides.
The horrors of the Nazi regime and its persecution of Jews has, of course, been well documented through numerous films over the years. Superbly acted and directed, this excellent film is an important addition because it shines a spotlight on a Nazi atrocity few outside the region have probably ever heard about. It’s essential none of them go undocumented.
One especially powerful scene, owing as much to the sound editing as anything, involves Myriam lying terrified in bed at night as she hears the menacing sound made by the boots of a group Nazi soldiers become increasingly louder as they march towards her home.
Much to Myriam’s, and the viewer’s, relief they march straight past. This sense of relief is similar to the emotions evoked by the infamous shower scene in Schindler’s List. It’s almost impossible to imagine living with the constant terror that someone could burst through your door at any moment and drag you away from your home, or worse.
Aside from the political upheaval, the other key theme of the film is the impending, but very different, weddings of Nour and Myriam. Nour is engaged to one of her cousins, who her father will not let her marry until he finds work, and, at the behest of her mother, Myriam reluctantly becomes engaged to a much older wealthy Jewish man, Raoul (Simon Abkarian).
Writer-director Karin Abou chose to set the film around the girls’ weddings as an allegory of the transition from childhood to adulthood, both sexually and, in the horrifying circumstances in which they find themselves, politically.
A scene in which Myriam is brutally prepared for her wedding night is another that sticks in the memory. Indeed, The Wedding Song is often an uncomfortable and tough watch, but never less than compelling. This isn’t just the subject matter, it’s because it's heart-breaking to witness characters you grow to care about suffer as the world they once knew falls apart around them. That’s no mean feat to achieve in a running time of 1 hour 40 minutes.
Moreover, the film doesn’t fall into the trap of cliché and predictability. Characters are nuanced and don’t always behave in the way you expect them to, and often for the better.
There are also moments of redemption, kindness and hope – not least of all in its final reel. Deeply moving, The Wedding Song is hugely relevant right now given the amount of racial tension and divisive propaganda that’s appearing throughout the world and, closer to home, right on our doorstep. If you’ve never seen it, seek it out on DVD.
For details of other upcoming ‘Re-imagined Buildings’ screenings visit the Lewes Depot website.