May Allah Bless France! is the autobiographical film of the French rapper Abd al Malik, the story of a peculiar path in a dark and clogged up world.
This film is a necessary immersion in the reality of French suburbs, here in the district of Neuhof, in Strasbourg. We experience with its youth the lack of horizons, the boredom, the drug trafficking and the thefts that give the illusion of the possibility of another life, the parties that start in the afternoon, the shots of heroin, the fights. The use of black and white, as in La Haine, directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, is not always well exploited, but it reproduces rather well the grey horizon that surrounds the youth of the quarter.
Yet this youth thinks that they’re the kings of the castle, that with a few schemes and a few guns, they’ll be able to have access to the material wealth they’ve been denied. That they’re going to have their revenge on those French people who don’t want them there, and who, in this youth’s mind, the cops stand for. Abd al Malik shows that their world and their illusion of power are modelled after films, namely American gangster films, especially the cult one Scarface. Up until the point when one of their own is murdered among his friends in a settling of scores, waking them up to their grim reality made of “piss, vomit and blood”.
At least one hears the wakeup call: Régis, birth name of Abd al Malik. Régis is not like his friends: he’s a good student, he likes literature, and he goes to a good high school, in the city. But like his friends, he picks tourists’ pockets and bags in front of Strasburg’s cathedral, and then agrees to deal hash to buy equipment for his rap band. Like them, he wants to earn money, to become famous and admired. He grew up in this district; he’s under the same influences. It’s not easy to act or see things differently. He’s also “blinded by walls of towers” (“Gravity”, in his album Gibraltar) and he feels “hate: mix of fear, ignorance and embarrassment” (“The Alchemist”, Gibraltar).
We also feel the rapper’s pride, pride of being like the other people living in his district, pride of having been through the same struggles and of having relied on his own resources like everyone else, but also pride of having managed to get through this, and pride of having a gift for words. This pride is a mystery, and we don’t know how to understand the self-satisfaction that appears through it. Abd al Malik seems to continue to be in the contest for domination that prevails over this district’s youth, which has shifted on the grounds of culture and language. Like other rappers, Abd al Malik directs his own autobiographical film, following the example of Get Rich or Die Tryin’ by 50 Cent and 8 Mile by Eminem.
This gift for words, Abd al Malik undoubtedly has it. These words give substance and poetry to the film. The songs’ lyrics, some of which are used in the film and which tell us about the rapper’s feelings and hopes throughout his childhood, are about life in the French suburbs but also about all of our confinements. Thus, we can read in this both a social and political manifesto against the ghettoization of a part of the population, and a universal painting of the human tendency to make everything turn grey, to confine ourselves and to unload our responsibilities on others. “It’s not me, it’s the others”: words we tell the cops who are arresting us because we’re dealing, thought we aim at the friends who aren’t behaving properly with girls when we do the exact same thing (“The Others”, Gibraltar), or reassuring conviction of not being responsible of “the world’s misery” or of our suburbs’ situation…
But Régis also dreams of something more: he dreams of getting his own out of the suburbs, of this enclosed world, he dreams of giving his friends more than hope for a big car and a pretty girl who’ll cook for them, he dreams that they’ll stop being afraid, afraid of retaliation and cops, but above all, afraid of themselves.
The death of his friend is both a reminder of the bitterness of reality and the electroshock that creates the desire for something else for the people living in his neighbourhood. The funeral scene is poignant. The friends and family who are there disappear from the screen, one after the other, replaced by the inscription of their time and cause of death: overdose, settling of scores, suicide…
May Allah Bless France is also a tribute to all the friends and family who died too soon and who aren’t heroes but rather victims of stupidity and indifference, a memorial to all these “tin soldiers” who chose the wrong fight.
Something else opens Régis’s eyes, or rather someone: Nawel, portrayed by the radiant Sabrina Ouazani. Nawel (or Wallen, her stage name) is the childhood friend – only in the film, since Abd al Malik really met Nawel later, in the course of his musical career – then the lover and the wife. She stands for joy and hope. She talks about Sufism in Morocco and says that their country is France, meaning that he’s the one who has to accept himself as French before anyone else can.
In his quest for meaning, Régis turns to Islam. He then takes the name Abd al Malik. Quickly, he’s preaching a radical and simplistic Islam in his estate with one of his friends; Islam which he turns away from when he’s told to stop his music because it goes against Allah’s will, and when other friends show him that the most important thing is his heart’s attitude and not an all-exterior formalism.
One of the most beautiful scenes is set in a Sufi mosque, in Morocco. Abd al Malik goes there to find himself. “On the strait of Gibraltar, there’s a young black who dies his stupid life of gangsta rapper but on the strait of Gibraltar there’s a young man who’s going to rise, who’s going to be the one the towers stopped him from being” (“Gibraltar”).
There, he has a strong experience of the divine. The songs are outstanding. A deep peace reigns in this place. This experience of an overcoming love frees him from his fears, expels the dull hate from inside him. He accepts to be himself.
There are several films in this film, all of which are not as convincing.
We can see in May Allah Bless France a success story. A singular path, which differs from the future of the majority of those living in the suburbs. A story of luck. This film isn’t the most interesting one, and we end up feeling a bit helpless when facing the lack of precise insights and concrete courses of action, which would allow for this kind of path to be more than just chance.
The film is also an initiatory journey, the story of a young man looking for his identity, who is appalled by his situation, who has vague and unformulated fears, who sees an exit in music, who gets lost in a fanatic Islam and eventually finds himself again. This film is more interesting and delicate. There are a few clumsy elements, situations or dialogues we don’t quite understand, and the scenes sometimes seem to come one after the other without any real common thread. But this simplicity also affects us, and we’re pushed by this difficulty to transcribe again a path which is, above all else, an inner path.
There’s also the depiction of the suburbs by one of their children, often violent and raw, especially at the beginning, but also poetic and funny. It’s a hymn to those who live there, who die there so young, who leave for prison or who give it another dimension, as Nawel, who seems to be escaping the codes and models of action and thought of the suburbs. This film is vital. It gives hope without being naïve. It knows the worth of kindness, inner peace and hope, the importance of social links, of education and culture, and isn’t afraid to say it, at the risk of passing for insipid or consensual. This film makes us want to understand, and gives us the desire to act.
Translated to english by Magali Hamilton Smith