The String (aka: Le Fil) is a film about bonds. The bonds that tie us to our family, the bonds that tie us to our friends, and the bonds that tie us to the places we were brought up. Malik (Antonin Stahly-Vishwanadan) is, at first-glance, a somewhat rootless individual. Born into an upper-class Tunisian family, Malik was, from a very young age, sent to a French school. Upon graduating from the French school, Malik decamped for Paris where he attended a French university. So, despite being Tunisian, Malik speaks, acts, and thinks like an educated middle-class French person. But Malik is not French. He is Tunisian and Tunisia is most definitely not France.
Upon learning that his father has cancer, Malik returns home to Tunisia where he finds himself struggling to fit in to the bizarre bourgeois demimonde inhabited by his parents’ friends and their children. This world is one filled with hypocrisy in which elements of Islamic culture sit uncomfortably beside the most vulgar excesses of western capitalism. It is a world in which headscarf-wearing poor Tunisian women carry endless bottles of champagne to wealthy French-speaking Tunisian women who smile benignly at them and tell them that they are good girls. Here, one does not speak merely of class distinctions but of cultural differences as the French-speaking rich seem to inhabit an entirely different world to their poorer and more conservative countrymen. This bizarre cultural infrastructure is only maintained through a disciplined adherence to the principles of hypocrisy.
Against this colourful background, Mehdi Ben Attia tells a story about coming out and learning to relate to your parents on different terms to the ones that characterised your childhood. Malik’s anguish over whether or not to come out to his parents is very much a standard trope in GLBT cinema but by decoupling it from the Anglo-American middle-class backdrops that normally dominate GLBT film Mehdi Ben Attia manages not only to introduce us to a fascinating world, he also brings new life to what would otherwise have been a very familiar story indeed.
Malik’s situation is complicated by the arrival of a houseboy named Bilal (Salim Kechiouche). Much like Malik, Bilal too has recently returned to Tunisia after spending time in France and, much like Malik, Bilal is gay. Despite their class differences, Malik and Bilal notice each other quite quickly, but it is not until Bilal asks to borrow Malik’s shoes that a relationship begins to blossom. When Malik’s parents learn of his relationship with Bilal they are horrified. They are horrified both because Malik likes men and because he has chosen to lavish his attentions on their houseboy.
In an inspired scene, Malik’s ailing father blames all of Malik’s shortcomings on his mother’s refusal to allow him to play with the local Arab kids. Clearly, behind the father’s anger at Malik’s failure to be a ‘real Tunisian’ lies a displaced anger at his own shameless adoption of not only French values but also the French language. Indeed, one of the things that elevates The String’s plot above the standard from closet-anguish to confrontation-happiness arc that is so prevalent in gay cinema is the way in which the film deals with the complex issue of reconciling the individual’s need to be true to himself and the community’s need to enforce certain codes of conduct.
In most Anglo-American films, the closeted individual generally either falls or steps out of the closet and the onus is then upon his or her family and friends to ‘deal with it’. For example, in Chip Hale’s Mulligans (2008), a father comes out of the closet late in life leaving his doting wife to deal with the realisation that she has been tricked into a decades-long loveless sham of a marriage. However, instead of taking the father to task for – a.) deceiving someone who loved him, and b.) cheating on her with another man – the film presents the wife’s resistance to her husband’s homosexuality as hysterical and comedically bigoted.
Similarly, in Simon Pearce’s Shank (2009), a local thug alienates his homophobic friends when he moves from queer-bashing to just plain queer. Again, rather than highlighting the dishonesty and hypocrisy of a character who beats up gay men one minute and then shags them the next, the film surrenders itself to a form of bizarre religious mania as the gay character is practically crucified by his demented and homophobic friends. Given that these are films made by gay people and for a GLBT audience, it is easy to understand why many gay filmmakers are eager to present the act of coming out of the closet in terms of a very simple moral calculus but, as The String suggests, this is largely because we in the west exist in a culture where the collective is expected to play second fiddle to the individual. Tunisia has a very different attitude.
Instead of turning his back on his family or demanding that they suddenly accept his homosexuality and fondness for gardeners, Malik effectively negotiates a truce whereby his family can maintain face whilst still giving him the love and support he demands. So the hypocritical rich people merely add another form of hypocrisy to their long list of sins, and Malik joins them in private vice and outward genuflection to Islamic custom. Everyone’s a winner.
Artfully shot, The String is an intelligent and engaging take on the struggle between public virtue and private happiness. Its colourful setting and not-quite-western value set easily elevate it above the crowd of formulaic and simple-minded dramas that so dominate the gay indie scene. Aside from genuinely having something to say, the film also features some beautifully observed comedic moments that not only lighten the tone but also add depth and atmosphere.