Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

'The Source' (La source des femmes)

Saw ‘The Source’ at the Cornerhouse last night with friend Ruth. Having slept on it, I’m still not entirely sure what I think of the film.

This is the official blurb:

With a backdrop of stunning Maghrebi landscapes, The Source is a heart-warming contemporary fable of female empowerment from Radu Mihaileanu (The Concert). Set in a remote village where the women must trek across the drought-ridden land for water every day while their unemployed husbands sit idle, The Source sees the inventive mutiny of these female villagers who one day refuse to work any longer.

On one level, it’s a basic Lysistrata story of women who go on sex strike, although the film was apparently more directly based on events in 2001 in the Turkish village of Sirt. The impetus behind the insurrection are the hardships – including repeated miscarriages – suffered by the women as they tramp up and down rocky hillside paths to fetch water each day. The men dismiss demands to spend the money which comes into the village with occasional tourist groups on a pipeline, citing ‘tradition’; the women counter that once there was a balance between their labour and that of the men who worked the fields and defended the community. In a time of peace and drought, however, the men simply spend their days drinking coffee and getting fat. The gender roles bargain has fallen out of kilter.
The film is beautifully shot, taking full advantage of glorious Moroccan scenery and some equally picturesque cast, of both genders. From the feminist perspective, there are some attractive (but not over-sentimentalised) portrayals of women-only spaces such as the hammam and childbirth celebrations. And while the general touch is light and there are some laugh-out-loud moments, the film doesn’t pretend that the sex strike doesn’t have serious consequences in the form of domestic violence and marital rape.
As many of the reviews have suggested, though, this is a flawed piece of work. Most of the characters, despite the efforts of a stellar cast, are a little one-dimensional (Hiam Abbass‘ bitter mother-in-law; various nasty husbands and young, lusty wives), and some seem superfluous. The film is too long, with a love-triangle plot in the middle which diverts attention from the main issues and adds unnecessary length. It tries to tackle a few too many issues: there is a nod to the lurking presence of Islamic fundamentalists wanting to take over the village mosque, portrayed as ‘traditional’ in a benign, slightly Church-of-England-vicar kind of way; to the cluelessness of European tourists, lied to by their guide and giving money to the village which is quickly absorbed by the men; and to wider economic and social problems of drought and female education.
I think for me, though, the biggest question mark was over what exactly the film was trying to say. Most male critics have (predictably) concentrated on the ‘Lysistrata’ angle, seeing the outcome as an example of female empowerment/successful uppityness. But actually, success is only achieved through male mediation – that of Sami, the schoolteacher and supportive husband of the main protagonist in the women’s fight, and her secret former-lover, now a journalist who provides the vital link to the outside world (as an aside, Sami, in the shape of actor Saleg Bakri, also appears at the Cornerhouse in the much edgier setting of Sharif Waked’s ‘To Be Continued…’, part of the Subversion exhibition). Depending on how much one trusts the subtitling (and although my Arabic isn’t that hot I have at least one reason to be slightly sceptical of a bit of it. If anyone with fluent Arabic sees this film, I’d be interested to know what they make of the last two lines of the final song, and the translation of them) it seemed to me that in some ways this wasn’t a film about gender so much as generation. Despite that, I always worry about Western-made films (and this is mainly a Western movie, despite the Maghrebi dialect script and the minority Moroccan financing) about Arab/Muslim women, and the extent to which they fall into that ‘let’s save the oppressed women’ agenda which was so manipulated in the war on Afghanistan. Some of the song-and-dance routines, in front of tourists or in the market – had me wondering whether this was pandering to orientalist stereotypes of the picturesque peasant, or subversion of those stereotypes as a form of resistance by the village women. Some moments seemed like slightly clunky adverts for progressive Islam – or maybe that was just the translation. I’m still not sure. I’m not demanding that the film has a clear political agenda, I just get the feeling that this film sort of had one – but wasn’t clear about what it was.

Gratuitous picture of Saleh Bakri (who wouldn't?)

Other reviews:
Variety: pretty scathing
AFP: report from Cannes more than a review, comments from cast and director
International Cinephile Society: mixed
The View from Fez: uncritical

Oh, and here’s an interest short review article on the political economy of the MENA film industries, from MERIP.

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One comment on “'The Source' (La source des femmes)

  1. Pingback: Bodies /  Sarah Irving

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