September 17, 2021 6:51:34 pm
Ali is British Asian. Ava is originally from Ireland. They live in Bradford, she with her brood of children and grandchildren; he with his large joint family, and an estranged wife. Their coming together is suffused with fun and warmth: ‘Ali & Ava’, directed by Clio Barnard, feels like nicely baked confection just out of the oven, tart and sweet at the same time.
The film opens with a young girl grooving to the distinctive beats of A R Rahman’s ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’, and you know, without being told, just how popular Bollywood music is in certain parts of the UK. Ava sways to the catchy tune, too, and again you know, without her saying it out loud, that she enjoys music.
It’s the shared love of music which brings Ava (Claire Rushbrook), who works as an assistant at a primary school in the neighbourhood, close to Ali (Adeel Akhtar), who appears to spend his time collecting rent from his tenants, and ferrying little kids to school, when he is not in his ‘mancave’, fiddling with instruments, and working on his DJ skills.
Bigotry and active dislike of the other have been so much a part of British racial romances that they’ve turned into tropes.
Barnard is gentle with the jabs she lets her lead characters experience, without turning them into a big thing, and that instantly feels a little different. Ali is berated by a niece of falling for a ‘gori’; Ava’s teenaged son Callum, who is himself the father of an infant, chases Ali out of the house when he sees them together for the first time. It is down to Ali’s large-heartedness that he refuses to take it seriously, and this makes Ava drop her guard: both are surrounded by family, both are besieged by demands on their time, and both find they can breathe freely and be themselves around each other.
What’s also lovely is the way Barnard lets Ava be divested from her function, and allowed to experience her own self.
Rushbrook makes no attempt to act or look younger, but also doesn’t hide the fact that she has desires. ‘We are seeing each other’, she tells her furious son, who doesn’t know just how horrifically abusive his late father has been. She is wonderful. So is Akhtar, so good in ‘Four Lions’, in the way he allows himself to be vulnerable around this woman, who wears her scars with grace. You wish this couple well; you wish them a future together where there will be song, and happiness.
A completely different kind of film, from a completely different part of the world—Djibouti City, in the Horn of Africa — is also about the healing power of love.
‘The Gravedigger’s Wife’, by Finnish-Somali director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed, features a loving husband and wife struggling to make ends meet. Guled and Nasra live with their teenage son Mahad, who has fallen in bad company. They are aware of this, but right at the moment we meet them, they have a bigger problem at hand. Nasra’s chronic kidney trouble needs urgent surgical intervention, and Guled doesn’t have the $5000 that it will cost.
Local legend has it that the dead need to be buried as soon as possible. Guled plays a gravedigger who waits along with his companions outside the gates of a hospital, ready to claim bodies which have barely cooled. This comes off more sad than ghoulish in Ahmed’s hands, who maintains a lively touch throughout the film, never letting it sink into poverty porn.
Nasra, played by the impossibly gorgeous Canadian-Somali model Yasmin Warsame, clearly chosen for her reed thinness, looks the part of a woman literally on her deathbed. Finnish Somalian actor Omar Abdi brings the right degree of desperation in his quest for those elusive funds. Death may be around the corner, but both are determined to live their lives to the fullest: a terrific scene has the two sneak into a wedding feast, because, well, there will be food and song and dance.
Just like ‘Ali& Ava’, this one too leaves you with a smile.
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