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Part of our coverage of the 27th Denver International Film Festival

In Exiles, we take an uneven road trip (and rail and boat trip) with a pair of outsiders, Algerian immigrants in France whose families were forced from their homes when Algiers was colonized by the French. Their erratic journey toward their family’s homeland is layered with the music of many genres and offers glimpses of the cultures of migrating travelers and exiles.

Wanna Go to Algeria?

Exiles return home in the latest from Algerian director Tony Gatlif
Exiles return home in the latest from Algerian director Tony Gatlif

On the soundtrack a Bjorkian singer throws a tantrum about an emergency. A naked man sips a drink and stares out from his high-rise apartment window. A woman in deshabille sits in bed slurping a gooey dessert from a spoon while she thrashes her head in time to the music. He drops his glass outside the window, turns off the music and asks, “Do you want to go to Algiers?”

She rolls in the bed laughing. “Algiers!”

But somehow it is a decision. His passion to delve into his family’s history and homeland gives them all the impetus they need to begin a journey his father had always wanted to make.

Swimming Upstream

Zano’s grandfather had been a hero in the Algerian resistance (against the French). When the colonists came, his family was exiled by the government. For Zano, Algiers represents a trap-door from a materialistic, banal existence directly into his own family’s heroic past. Naima is going home, too, although to what is far less certain. She resents Zano’s privileged background and financial ease. A scar she won’t discuss and an inwardly-focused loathing hint at some maltreatment in her past.

In this episodic and oddly paced drama, Zano and Naima swim against against the flood tide of emigrants and fortune-hunters going the other way, looking for salvation in France. The film follows their sometimes comic road trip as they hop trains and buses, and walk, stopping to work low-paying jobs along the way. “We’re going to France,” say the other fruit pickers in a Spanish orchard. “In Paris you can work with fake papers.” Other compatriots, Arab gypsies en route to Paris, crack up when they hear Zano and Naima are walking to Algiers.

At times intimate and playful, as when they have sex in an orchard, Naima and Zano are often not a happy pair. Naima is wanton and jaded, unreachable. For a while Zano loses his interest in sex, consumed with their voyage homeward, and refuses to sleep with Naima; she retaliates by cuckolding him at a flamenco bar along the way. They are most vivid in their entanglements and spats; she’s the most fascinating of the two for her playfulness and willingness to cross boundaries in front of the camera. But I found it difficult to fully engage with Zano’s impenetrable character, and Naima’s motivations remained uncertain throughout the film.

“Music Is My Religion”

The musical backdrop of Exiles ranges from a blend of flamenco and Gypsy Kings-style vocals to electronica and Algerian trance. I was very impressed when I learned that writer and director Tony Gatlif also wrote the music for this film. The shared influences evident across the various genres of music alone will make this a soundtrack to seek out, should anyone ever release it (hint, hint!).

The soundtrack often turns out to be part of the scene; in early scenes the characters are often lost in their own musical worlds, whether blasting music on big speakers or wearing their own headphones on the train as they try to stay one step ahead of the train collector. In one scene, a fellow traveler asks Zano, “What’s your religion?” “Music,” he answers. Over the course of the film, the music has increasing power and influence in Zano and Naima’s lives.

The Comfort of Strangers

When at last they reach Algiers, Zano and Naima find some of the closure they have sought. He visits his family’s former home. The pictures of his family still adorn the walls and shelves. The tenants explain simply, “When your family left Algiers, my husband broke the door, and we came in. We thought the photos were pretty.” The kind people bring to Zano the tin of photos his family was forced to abandon, along with his father’s violin, and he weeps over their loss while strangers cradle his head.

For Naima, the journey proves even more dramatic. She visits a Sufi healer and enters into a trance in a musical ritual. It is a long and intensely intimate sequence that you wonder whether will result in ecstasy or exhaustion.

“I lived the trance,” said the actress, Lubna Azabal, in a Cannes Film Festival interview, where director Gatlif received a Best Director award for Exiles, “because it’s impossible to act it. It was shot in one take. I have a vague memory of it; I remember waking up in tears in the arms of this generous woman, with the impression of having freed myself of something terrible. We were sucked up into it; we felt it in our guts. It’s very difficult to talk about it.”

Sensory Journey

The film ends suddenly soon after the ritual scene. After watching this film I can barely say their experiences had appeared to give them healing and closure, and I have no idea whether Algiers still holds anything for them.

Despite the flaw of a sudden ending and less-than-accessible characters, in Exiles writer-director-composer Gatlif embroiders the sensory journey of the travelers with rich aural textures, giving us a deeper understanding of a blossoming culture of which we get only the rarest of glimpses.