Screens at CIFF: 10/12 & 10/13 & 10/14
World premiere: 26 March, 2013, New Directors/New Films

In a lot of ways, the debut film of director Alex Pitstra, Die Welt, is a paint-by-numbers affair - the lines flawlessly filled in, which not everyone can do, but still - but I think it's fair to start talking about where it begins, with a truly audacious opening scene. Here, Tunisian video store clerk Abdallah (Abdelhamid Nawara) does everything short of begging his customer (Mohammed Hassine Belkhala) to pick any film for rent other than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It is a film that deeply offends him; not on an artistic level (though probably that as well), but because its idiotic reduction of life to what explodes where and who dies as a result has coded in it an anti-Arab, pro-American military message. He cannot simply make this claim and be done with it (it's not like there's any room to argue that Michael Bay films aren't enthusiastic commercials for the U.S. military), but has to state with increasing detail and increasing fervor, eventually offering up a selection of better American-made films that manage to more intelligently depict Arabs as something besides "the brown people who get blown up". The customer looks at him blankly, and says that he still wants Transformers.

It's a terrifically ambivalent scene that encapsulates the heart and soul of what proves to be an ambivalent movie; yes, cultural hegemony and Western imperialism are ghastly realities, but the slick package America sells is still mighty appealing to a lot of people, and while Abdallah has no affection for the United States itself anywhere in the film's 80 minutes, that's not at all to say that he's free from romanticising the Eurocentric culture which finds its most prominent incarnation in that country. The story takes place in 2011, at the time that Tunisia was establishing itself as a newborn democracy, with its first free elections, and Abdallah's story can be read as a metaphor for the country attempting to model itself on the European model while also maintaining something irreducibly North African in its heart, but thankfully, Pitstra and his writers do not insist on this reading, and in fact somewhat attempt to discourage us from going all the way there by grounding so much of the plot in plainly non-symbolic scenes of Abdallah's regular life.

Still, you can't possibly miss how much of this is in some way an echo of greater currents of history, especially in moments like the one where Abdallah caustically conflates Facebook use among Tunisian youth with the widespread unemployment among the same population, one of the most biting of many moments in which the spectre of a specifically U.S. company colonising the world makes its way into the film, and also one of the punchiest bits of humor in a film that has an unexpected but hugely welcome strain of sardonic wit; it wouldn't take too many tweaks for Die Welt to transform into an absurdist black comedy of Kafkaesque dimensions, and there are in fact scenes that play out more or less exactly that way, moreso near the end. And the end, I take it to be no coincidence, is the best part of the film: the bleakest but also the funniest part of Abdellah's quest to become a typical middle-class European, expressed in a very late dream sequence that is, to me, the absolute peak of the whole movie, with a satiric but not over-stressed indictment of Western consumer culture that could not better sum up where the whole story feels like it's been heading all along.

All that being said, this is still, ultimately, the story of a 23-year-old going a little bit crazy trying to track down a girl, the pretty Dutch citizen Anna (Ilse Heus) who becomes the human focal point of all Abdallah's daydreams of life as an immigrant. If the film works, it's not because it's a crafty social satire - which it may well be, but that's hardly the recipe for a rollicking good night out at the movies - but because it's a smart character study, based in an autobiographical "what if?" scenario for Pitstra (raised in the Netherlands by his Dutch mother, not meeting his Tunisian father until he was in his 20s), and anchored by an unshowy but solid and fleshed-out performance by Nawara as a young man whose enthusiasm and cynicism are constantly at war with each other.

That, in turn, speaks the biggest reservation I have with the film, which is that it's not ultimately all that innovative, despite the touches around the edges - a story about a boy who over-idealises a woman and makes questionable life decisions because of that? Ooh, tell me more - and doesn't produce any meaningfully creative images, telling its story with more clarity than inspiration. The opening direct-address rant about Transformers is tremendously self-confident, but it's the only scene where Pitstra does much beyond staging the same kind of semi-long takes that tend to happen in movies like this, with the usual arm's-length medium shots. By all means, the movie is good enough, and its perspective is unique enough to be valuable, but "good enough" isn't really the end point that we want films to strive for, after all.