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Schwestern – eine Familiengeschichte / Sisters

Director: Yamina Benguigui (France, Algeria). Year of Release: 2021

Nohra has just moved in back with her mother Leila – never a good idea at her age. Norah is already blaming Leila for ruining her life when she divorved her abusive husband, Norah’s father. Nohras’s elder sisters, Zorah and Djamila get drawn into the dispute. Zorah is putting on a play based on their difficult childhood, and starring her daughter. Djamila, who is trying to succeed in politics, is particularly unimpressed.

The sisters – and their mother – are particularly affected by their father’s abduction of their brother Rheda, 30 years previously. While they have prospered – to a greater or lesser extent – in France, Rheda has lingered in Algeria. Although they don’t seem to have much to try to track him down until now, suddenly it’s time

Coming at a very fortuitous time for the plot development, the father has a heart attack, causing the sisters to make a pilgrimage to Algeria, where they can tie up some loose ends. Even if this development is a little too convenient, suddenly the plot gets a whole lot more interesting

Algeria is in the throes of revolution, and the women’s hosts are a little too busy trying to overthrow the old regime than to help them work through their personal traumas. Whether deliberate or not, suddenly the family crisis that we’ve just been watching seems a whole lot more trivial

The trio’s heritage is questioned. Their relatives in Algeria don’t fully accept them as “real” Algerians. Initially at least, their battle with the Algerian authorities – combined with flashbacks to a similar struggle fought by their mother – is shown as something separate to that of the Algerians of all ages who are streaming onto the streets.

This circle is squared in one of the final shots. Two of the sisters join one of the demonstration, between them carrying a banner attacking patriarchal oppression. It seems that the issues have finally come together.

But I fear that there is one problem. The banner that they are carrying is in French. There is an ambiguity, possibly deliberate, in their support for the demonstration. Do they see it as a continuation of the Algerian liberation struggle in which their father was involved and the Arab Spring, the decade of protests against Western-backed dictatorships, or is it a Western fight against Islam?

I raise these points as genuine questions. I think that there is a lot of nuance in the film that as a non-French, non-Arab, non-Algerian, I fear that it has largely passed me by. The fact that scenes from the recent demonstrations are there at all adds a deal of excitement. I just fear that they may be being misappropriated.

Whatever the subtext, this is a film that gets a lot more interesting in the final third. It raises a number of important issues, and concentrates on female migrants, who are largely ignored by Hollywood and beyond. Ok these women are from the secular middle class, but at least it’s a start

And yet, despite all the family tragedy, for the French scenes I felt fairly uninvolved. It may be because I’m not a sister, I don’t have sisters, but the endless falling out and making up left me a bit cold. In particular Nohras’s melodramas didn’t move me much.

But it’s interesting enough, and it goes have Isabell Adanji in it. There are definitely worse films out there. But I had the feeling that it could have delivered much more.

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