“This place is absolutely crawling with Muslims”.
Rachid Bouchareb follows up his influential tale of France’s hidden Algerian war veterans with a story about London after the July 2005 bombings.
It is essentially a culture-clash story – London as seen from the eyes of a foreigner. Bouchareb – himself not from London – uses two characters, one white, one black, who are also foreigners in this multicultural city. They are scared, lonely, lost and desperate. They are fearful of each other, but eventually come to depend on one another.
Elizabeth lives on the island of Guernsey – technically not even part of the UK. Ousmane travels from France. They are looking for their children, who they haven’t heard from since the bombings which blew up a bus and three tube trains, killing 52 people.
The film weaves in TV news footage of that tragic day in 2005.
Elizabeth arrives in London, and can’t quite believe where her daughter has ended up living. In a street full of people speaking strange languages and eating unusual food. She is even more shocked when dreadlocked Ousmane approaches her. He has seen a ‘missing’ poster which Elizabeth had pinned up, and recognises the girl in the image – it’s the same girl pictured in his son’s class portrait.
Ousmane breaks it to her that her daughter has been taking Arabic classes at the local mosque. Fearing the worst, she calls the police and has him arrested.
She heads to the mosque where the culture clash dialogue is played out: “this…it’s just a language isn’t it?” she says, pointing at the Arabic alphabet on the blackboard. But she still can’t understand why her daughter was taking lessons: “who even speaks Arabic” she exclaims.
They seem so different, but Elizabeth and Ousmane, are both on the desperate trail of their missing children. From police station, to hospital, the pair are literally walking the same path. It’s not long before they realise that they have more in common than it would initially seem. It turns out that their children are in a relationship.
Elizabeth and Ousmane are both foreigners in the huge metropolis, they’ve both drifted away from their children and can barely even recognise them. And they both work on the land. At one point, Ousmane explains how he cares for trees, Elm trees. Elizabeth tells him that some of the few surviving Elms are on her island.
Bouchareb paints London as a depressed, grimy, grey city. And for these two newcomers, more at peace with nature than the big city, searching for their missing – and estranged – children, that’s exactly how it must seem.
It’s more than a culture clash story. It’s a story about the desperation and hope of those who arrive in London on the trail of something that always appears to be just out of reach.