- Concrete Valley
- Directed by Antoine Bourges
- Written by Antoine Bourges and Teyama Alkamli
- Starring Hussam Douhna, Amani Ibrahim and Abdullah Nadaf
- Classification N/A; 90 minutes
- Opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto July 21, expanding to other Canadian cities throughout summer
Concrete Valley, one of the more formally inventive Canadian films to come along in some time, opens with a language lesson. Sitting inside a dour room, Rashid (Hussam Douhna) is making an effort, as best as he can. He was a doctor back in Syria, but is now situated in Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood, a sort of “arrival city” for recent immigrants. Rashid naturally struggles with his English, but the entire set-up, which spikes on a series of misunderstandings, is serving a dual purpose. Director Antoine Bourges is announcing, from the start, that his film is about the universal struggle of communicating. Not only in the lingua franca of it all, but in telling one another our hopes, pains, ambitions.
Having been in Toronto for five years now alongside his wife Farah (Amani Ibrahim) and their young son (Abdullah Nadaf), Rashid is a shell of a man whose cracks are hiding in plain sight. Yet he cannot find the words, in any language, to explain his fractured existence. He tries to recapture his professional glory by going door-to-door in his apartment building making amateur house calls. Rashid comforts, listens, flirts. But he cannot shake the reality that he is caught between two worlds, tongue-tied in all manner of speaking.
Farah, too, is adjusting to her new life, though she approaches her situation as a series of challenges to overcome rather than resignations to accept. An actress back home, Farah dives into local activism to compensate for her dead-end retail job, finding common cause and friends. And as her community spirit starts to burn, she is forced to reckon with the man she shares space, but not necessarily a home, with.
Between chronicling the couple’s quotidian existence and simmering spats, the Franco-Canadian director Bourges paints a portrait of a world that is both refuge and limbo, not only for Farah and Rashid but an untold number of immigrant families who populate the film’s margins. Shot in the thick of Thorncliffe Park after Bourges became fascinated with the slab of Toronto highrises after driving past the area every day on the Don Valley Parkway, Concrete Valley takes the concept of storytelling immersion seriously.
With the exception of Ibrahim, the cast is composed of non-actors, many residents of the neighbourhood who are appearing onscreen here for the first time in their lives. But the performers’ sometimes stilted, halting line-readings circumvent a sense of amateurism due to the film’s central thematic preoccupations – every character here is learning to live a new life, unsure of themselves, their language, their place. The result is rather thrilling, with Bourges, his co-writer Teyama Alkamli and his cast building a different kind of cinematic storytelling right before our eyes.
Ibrahim is wonderful, but Douhna is a true one-of-a-kind discovery, peeling away layers of Rashid slowly, almost imperceptibly. How Bourges and his non-actor actor managed such a trick is one to be studied and appreciated for years to come – a performance utterly devoid of cliché.
Sensitive and intimate might be the obvious adjectives for such a film, but Bourges is also intent on making Concrete Valley quite funny in parts, the humane humour balancing the ever-present anxiety that exists in many of Thorncliffe Park’s hallways and crowded elevators. And the entire world-in-miniature is captured with a spare sort of isolated beauty by cinematographer Nikolay Michaylov (Anne at 13,000 ft.) – never have pharmacy shelves and faded apartment lobbies looked so enigmatic.
The latest release from MDFF as the Toronto-based film production company expands into distribution – following Maiden and Queens of the Qing Dynasty – Concrete Valley marks an adventurous, richly rewarding new chapter in pushing the possibilities of Canadian cinema.