Inspired by a true story, “Soumaya” is a French drama that walks the tightrope between understanding a “crackdown” after a mass terrorist attack by Islamist fanatics, and resisting it on principle.
It is built around a performance that mixes despair, resignation and sublimated anger. Soraya Hachoumi plays the title character, a woman abruptly fired for “gross negligence” within days of having her apartment raided by a French SWAT team.
She figures, while she’s been summoned to the office of a higher up, that this would be a good time to complain about anti-Islamic harassment from a co-worker. She could not be more wrong. “You’ve changed” (in French with English subtitles) is the nicest thing Aurelie (Sarah Perriez) can manage.
“I doubt this will be ending here,” Soumaya snaps back.
It’s not until she hears her name on TV that we get what’s been going on — glimpses of the police raid, the dismissal thanks to a tip from the prefect of police, how Soumaya “changed.”
Something was going on in her life that got her more actively involved with a local mosque. Now she’s labeled as “connected to the jihadist community” and that her job, working in a Roissy airport management firm, gave her “access to sensitive information.”
The Nov. 15 terror attacks weren’t that long ago. And this “crackdown” has authorities deciding to err on the side of public safety concerns, and they’ve been granted state-of-emergency powers that allow them to act on suspicion, not on cold hard evidence.
Because all they have on Soumaya is that she started dressing more conservatively, got spotted changing out of her hijab in the parking lot, and is listed by name on her mosque’s website as being righteous and “on the path of Allah.”
We’ve seen Jerome (Julien Lheureux) given a lift to the airport by Kais (Khalid Berkouz). Jerome has stared at the crackdown and decided the “love it or leave it” crowd is right. He’s leaving for North Africa — Tunisia or Algeria (it’s not made clear). Kais is a lawyer who has energetically helped defend employers and others caught up in the firings of Muslims deemed “a threat to the Republic.”
When Kais abruptly switches sides after taking one case with his attack-dog boss (Karine Dogliani) too many, he finds himself representing Soumaya as she starts the process of taking her employer to court. Not that she’s crazy about this.
The film settles into Soumaya’s conflicted feelings about how hard to fight her employer and her country, pulled in different directions by her family and her lawyer and fretting about how this is impacting her seven year-old daughter.
The legal tug of war shows just how swamped the system was as this crackdown assaulted civil liberties in the name of public safety.
And then there’s white and liberal Jerome’s trek to North Africa, an idealist confronted with his own unconscious biases about the people.
Directed by Ubaydah Abu-Usayd and Waheed Khan, “Soumaya” makes its points thanks to the compelling performance at its heart. But the script (by Ubaydah Abu-Usayd and Maryam Um-Usayd), direction and editing stumble in their efforts to hide or delay revealing necessary associations.
Jerome is connected to this case, but his connection to Kais and Soumaya is blurred or so slow in coming that it adds to the film’s confusion. Every time the film drifts south to a place never identified where Jerome faces a harsh enlightenment, it loses the thread.
Directors Abu-Usayd and Khan stage some compelling courtroom scenes, and capture police over-reaction in a couple of ways.
The drama is compelling enough, and the messaging is vague by-design and with good reason. But the meandering interwoven stories don’t gel in ways heighten the drama or add weight to the message.
Soumaya the character is on the fence about what happens to her, and the film reflects that. It’s perfectly watchable, but the mixed message is too muddled to have maximum impact.
Cast: Soraya Hachoumi, Khalid Berkouz, Karine Dogliani, Islem Sehili, Sonya Mellah, Sarah Perriez and Julien Lheureux
Credits: Directed by Ubaydah Abu-Usayd and Waheed Khan, scripted by Ubaydah Abu-Usayd and Maryam Um-Usayd. An IndiePix release.
Running time: 1:43