FILM / CULTURAL PERSPECTIVES
Late for My Mother's Funeral
By SHERIF AWAD
Penny Allen is a French-American writer, filmmaker and translator who worked on environmental issues in the United States and Europe from 1987 until 2002. Allen also worked as a public welfare worker, a university instructor, a journalist, and a community organizer in local land-use planning. “Late for My Mother's Funeral” is the name of her latest documentary that was filmed at times in Algeria, France and Morocco over the course of three years. Allen draws an intimate portrait of an Algerian-French-Moroccan family following the death of their mother Zineb, a notorious smuggler of gold and jewels. This true post-colonial story evokes the multi-faceted mourning of Zineb's ten children and the influence of political context on their lives with humor and pathos. It is a panorama about a family caught in a web of nationalities while identifying with none of them. They aren't really Algerian, or Moroccan, or French. Their identity lies in the grave with Zineb, their recently-deceased mother.
The film brings the mother to life through the memories of the family. She was a woman of great determination; capable of resolving any problem, even deportation. Organized around scenes developed through improvisation, the film portrays each of Zineb’s sons and daughters, now adults, revealing their stories through many of the difficulties encountered in living between Eastern and Western cultures and ethnicities. One of the ten adult offspring is Abdeljalil Zouhri, now a fisherman in his fifties, who returned to his estranged siblings in Algeria after spending years in France. Despite his choices, Abdeljalil experiences a profound malaise, both in his cultural identity and his personal identity. The film conveys Abdeljalil's malaise through the reconstitution of his mother's personality to attend the wedding of the youngest daughter, who will now be married off by her brothers and sisters according to the tradition of arranged marriage. As we understand from the family, the mother was an extraordinary woman who had broken through the limitations of her culture. She had raised ten children by a man consistently absent from the home she created for them all until she finally divorces. She re-marries. She carries on a dangerous occupation; as a jewel-smuggler to support her family. She launches a business with her youngest daughter, the one who will now be traditionally married off by her siblings after their mother's death. All the brothers and sisters have been educated thanks to the authority and charisma of their mother, but they still oblige this youngest daughter to marry as traditionally dictated.
The 90-minutes documentary was filmed over the course of almost three years, based upon approximately nine weeks of shooting altogether, in order to follow the story as it evolved. Allen also edited and re-edited over the course of a year, making it almost fours years. Allen met Abdeljalil Zouhri, the main character, about twice a month for at least a year, but without the intention of doing a film about him or his mother. Abdeljalil wanted to talk about the relations and history between Algeria and Morocco until he started to bring on the history of his family being influenced by several books he read including “The Harem and the Cousins,” by anthropologist Germaine Tillion. Then, when Abdeljalil’s mother died, and when Allen learned what a personality she had been, a gold and jewel smuggler raising ten children alone, and when Abdeljalil revealed his own existential crisis in a very touching way, Allen wanted to document the story on film .
The director was introduced to the subject of her previous 2007 documentary “A Soldier’s Story” in a similar way. During an airplane flight, Allen sat beside an American sergeant returning from Iraq. As they talked, he showed her horrifying battlefield images that he had taken. Using those images, along with other videos and photos, the director compiled a documentary about the horrors of war and its devastating psychological effect on those who wage it.
Born in Cairo, Egypt, Sherif Awad is a film / video critic and curator. He is the film editor of Egypt Today Magazine
( www.EgyptToday.com), and the artistic director for both the Alexandria Film Festival, in Egypt, and the Arab Rotterdam Festival, in The Netherlands. He also contributes to Variety, in the United States, and is the film critic of Variety Arabia
( http://varietyarabia.com/ ), in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Al-Masry Al-Youm Website
( http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/198132 ) and The Westchester Guardian (www.WestchesterGuardian.com).