The opening shot of Beauty and the Dogs, a grueling, exceptional Tunisian film, sees 21-year-old Mariam jigging, as she applies make up in the mirror. There’s a care-free, joyful aura. Having shown her friend the small rip in her garment, she is handed a, shall we say, more provocative, silky blue dress.
Written and directed by first-timer Kaouther Ben Hania, Beauty and the Dogs is loosely based on real events, but very much amplifies the harrowing experiences of many. A film where sometimes the implications of what the film depicts, are worse than the what the it could show us – if Ben Hania so wished.
Mariam is all too aware, in a more repressed culture, that a revealing outfit can be abstractly problematic. “This is a dress for a fashion model” she states, which also gives us something of her timid nature and lack of self-confidence. Mariam doesn’t answer the phone because it is her father, and he would hear the booming music. Nor does she want a selfie posted on Facebook. She just wants to have some fun, without the shackles.
The film is casually broken into chapters, with numbers on the screen after each prolonged sequence. Into number 2, and Mariam is running, a trauma has hit her hard – a startling contrast to the first segment. For a flicker, we believe Youssef, in pursuit, has assaulted her. But no, he tries to calm her down, and it is not he she is afraid of. Mariam is alarmed by a passing police car instead.
Youssef accompanies Mariam to report the ordeal. However, medical services and law enforcement seem doused in red tape, unwavering procedure. Bordering on the ridiculous, there’s a heavy weight of protocol over personal disposition.
When Youssef loses his patience, the receptionist responds “Why are you yelling at me, am I the one that raped her?” Even a loitering medical assistant, after Mariam hurls on the desk in despair, wipes vomit from her face moments after he had sneezed and claimed he had a virus. We’ve all had run-ins with rude and unethical professionals, but this is atrocious.
The long takes, only cutting for the chapter cards, are breathtaking at times. Not allowing you to be interrupted from the painful game of waiting and searching, dragging out the agony of our heroine. And these single shots don’t compromise on the sharp, kinetic framing and movement.
As the audience, we watch Mariam walks down long hallways, plonked in rooms, constantly shell-shocked and isolated. In the first police station scene, the two officers are so abrupt and unsympathetic, one could believe they are immitating the law in a clichéd spoof. But they’re not, these are the dependable local police force. Rolling their eyes in the background as Mariam struggles to recall the horrific events – they just want her and the problem to simply disappear.
Youssef discovers the police report computer was not even plugged in. Berating the police for the social jokes they are. The dark sarcasm in some of the conflicting dialogue is absorbing – that these people use humor aggressivley. The behaviours of the so-called credibles is, for the majority, aggressive, accusing, and disrespectful.
When Mariam finally gets the opportunity to speak to a female official, it almost settles your nerves. Especially as she is clearly pregnant. That someone can perhaps engage with her point of view, treat her with compassion at least. But when Mariam, scared for her life, frantically begs her not to go home, she is called a whore.
There are glimmers of humane moments, rest assured. Albeit briefly. Like Youssef asking Mariam if she watches zombie movies. His notion that he might be better off being bitten and becoming one. Or that one seasoned police staff shows some concern to follow the complaint through – somehow holding the morals and the decency that his older age warrants.
Mariam is in a flow of obstacles – unable to get into her university dorm; nudged to drop the charges – trapped between a multitude of rocks and hard places. When the obnoxious police take Youssef to jail, he declares “The whole country is jail.” At one point, Mariam runs into a room of caged police dogs – perhaps she would be in better hands there.
Beauty and the Dogs is a powerful motion picture experience, but all so real in its portrayal. In not just the people, the characters woven into this personal story, but one of such countries where people have died for their rights, but enabled monsters to roam.
Mariam, who is threatened that the story of her ordeal could jeopardise the country of Tunisia, represents a harsh reality of misogyny, victim-shaming, and social injustice. And Youssef, bewildered by these cultural frustrations of the Middle East more directly than we are, has a background of human rights protesting which he attempts to exercise with little leeway.
But its a near powerless, laborious journey for Mariam. First-time actress, Mariam Al Ferjani, exudes everything she has, in a painful transition from the enthusiastic, shy young woman, to the terrified, ruffled mouse we follow down corridors of the local authorities meant to protect.
Mariam’s strength is astounding, signaling hope in a world tearing itself apart. As she finally leaves the dingy confines, into the sunny, early morning, with birds chirping, it’s a beautiful relief, but likely a minor distraction to the anguish of her night.
Filmmaker Ben Hania, also fresh to the world of feature film, executes a brave, penetrating tale. Through her writing and direction, Beauty and the Dogs is a thought-provoking, unforgettable film, that remains deeply true, while still being richly cinematic.
See Beauty and the Dogs now: