100% Arabica – A Review

If you want an insightful film that will explain the problems of Algerian immigrants in France, this is not the film. Yet it does have its moments and is a Raï fan’s attack on those problems, which gives it a certain weight. At the same time the film is a was a young persons film, one of those films that celebrates youth culture and asks why the adult world is so afraid of what the kids are doing these days.

The film follows a Raï band as they try to break out of their ghetto and make a living from their music. They are all former criminals and the temptation to steal is strong, especially since there are not too many opportunities in the ghetto. French discrimination of immigrants is quite well known and the film does not shy away from suggesting there isn’t much beyond the ghetto. While the band and the inhabits of the neighborhood try to live in peace, the local imam tries to get rich by imposing a fundamentalist form of Islam on the neighborhood. The imam is completely corrupt and is only interested in getting more people to support him. He works with the mayor, who is only interested in getting reelected and doesn’t care about what happens in the neighborhood, and takes his money to try and convince the neighborhood it should follow him.

The members of the band, fronted by Khaled, fight against all of these problems. They struggle to get money for a show, struggle against the imam who says music is forbidden, struggle with their parents who think they are bums. As in all musicals, though, the music is all powerful and everyone except the imam love the music. In the end, despite the machinations of the imam, the band celebrates with a triumphal show in the neighborhood and and the imam is driven from the neighborhood in a pork delivery truck. Music defeats intolerance.

The film is supposed to be a comedy and in a way it is, but it is seldom funny. Instead it comes off as a problem film with music. It is much better than Blackboard Jungle which is another problem film with young people’s music, because the musicians made the film. It shows the real preoccupations and problems the Algerian youth in France have. Every element, lack of jobs, corrupt officials, fundamentalist Imams, all have their bases in reality, and in this sense the movie is interesting. However, the narrative thread is week and so many characters come and go throughout the film that no character can develop very much. Everything in the film is for the insiders who can fill in the gaps, who know what it is like to live there. If you are an insider it makes for a pleasing film, if not, it makes for a film that is uneven.

The music, however, makes the film worth watching. There are several good performances by Khaled and Cheb Mami of some of their well known songs. The versions are not the album versions. Khaled has several good scenes where they show him working out a song and he is working with just one keyboard player and no mic. The performance is very intimate and well worth a watch.

In all, 100% Arabica is not one of the best movies but it if you have even a passing interest in Raï it is worth it.