Café Désirs, a three character driven reality drama, is a poignant documentary written and directed by critically acclaimed Quebecer Raymonde Provencher who shines a light on male masculinity and sexuality in Algeria through the eyes of three young Algerian men, Malik, Badredine, and Oussama, living in the City of Constantine.
Many of the scenes take place in Cafes, a bastion of male domain, where men rule and women are shunned except, however, in Badredine’s café, where women are welcome in the afternoon but seldom visit. We first meet Malik, a twenty something student, taking coffee at a Cafe. We follow him as he walks the streets of Constantine as he window shops, steps into a shop and then continues his stroll in the streets of his city. Malik narrates how much he loves Algeria and how much he misses the cafes when he goes abroad. He tells us about the frustration that abounds in Algerian society and how difficult it is for a boy to be affectionate with a girl for it’s not tolerated. He goes on to say that Algerian society is repressed. The use of close ups juxtaposed with wide angle shots of the men as they each narrate their lives, which is used throughout the film, creates intimate portraits of them. We are then introduced to Badredine, inside his cafe, who says that cafes have always been off limits to girls, and then to Oussama, an unemployed graduate. We see Oussama walk the streets of the city, taking a moment to shop or look and finally stopping for a coffee at an outdoor cafe. He narrates that he is dissatisfied with his life because he can’t find what he’s looking for and lives with certain frustrations and that life is complicated for Muslims since they are not permitted to have sex before marriage.
The film cuts to a shot of Malik looking out his window. Provencher juxtaposes images of his neighourhood as he narrates his backstory. We learn he lives with his mother and grand-parents, and that he would love to have his own place but it isn’t possible. The film continues with Malik on his campus narrating an incident where he was told that it was forbidden for him to sit on the grounds of his university campus. When recounting Algeria’s recent history, Provencher brilliantly weaves in footage of Algeria in the 70s and 80s followed by footage of Algeria’s bloody civil war which frames and contextualizes the lives of these three young men growing up in a repressive regime where everything was forbidden.
The film cuts to Oussama commenting on Algeria’s dark decade where everything was forbidden as he takes a ride on an aerial tramway over the city. He opens up and tells us of a recent trip to the desert he took where he met someone but that nothing came of it except that the connection turned his life and world upside down. The film continues with Oussama visiting his grand-parents’ house. On their terrace, a place where he feels safe, he talks about his youth. He says that as a child he sensed that he was different from others but the same. He talks in a roundabout way about homosexuality but doesn’t call it by name and how it is not accepted. It was not okay for him to study with a school girlfriend but it was okay to hang out with other boys where things could happen. He survived his neighbourhood because he was able to defend himself and had an edge, older brothers who could offer some protection.
The film cuts to Badredine on his way to the gym. He narrates that he likes to work out because girls like men with muscles. He also tells us that exercise is a great stress reliever. The film cuts to his cafe and we learn that he is a fireman and see his Facebook pages. He tells us that he is different from the other guys on the street who flirt with girls because he considers flirting degrading to women. Provencher cuts away to scenes of men ogling women. Badredine tells us Algerian men live with sexual frustration because everything is haram, forbidden. He tells us that he kicked out a guy from his café who was taking liberties with a girl, and that he doesn’t approve of his sisters dating.
The film cuts to Malik and his two friends sitting at an outdoor cafe taking about women and Algerian society. When the conversation turns negative, Malik interjects and sets the record straight for his two friends. The film cuts to Malik seated in his apartment talking about sexual frustration and that it is a form of oppression. He says most Arabs have a pornographic society but not the Algerians. The film cuts to Oussama who says that people seek out isolated places inside and outside the city in order to feel free and to get away from “people who devour each other with their eyes and words.”
The film cuts to Malik who meets up with Oussama in a cafe where they have a tete-a -tete. But even in a cafe, they aren’t really free to talk about their own frustration and Malik tells Oussama to lower his voice.
The film continues with Malik talking about his early life. He tells us that he was bullied growing up in his rough neighbourhood, and wished that he had an older brother or sister. The masturbation he witnessed in the stairwells of his building was horrific. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Malik standing inside the entrance of his building which is somewhat dimly lit opens up and tells us that he was cornered by a neighbor when playing outside his building as a young child and sexually assaulted. You feel his pain and suffering. He says that many frustrated people who have trouble with their sexuality take it out on other adults and kids, and that they even talk about it to their friends in the coffee shops. Malik is unable to tell his mom about himself or his experiences for the fear the impact it would have on her. Family and social pressures prevent someone from coming out or outing oneself despite the Koran forbidding homosexuality.
The film cuts to Oussama and Malik visiting a majestic spot overlooking a beautiful gorge. Here, Malik introduces the topic of suicide and tells Oussama that he tried it once. The juxtaposition of the beauty of the surroundings with the tragic topic of suicide makes it another visually powerful scene.
The film cuts to Badredine and his friends sitting in his dimly lit shop with the curtains drawn smoking a hookah. They agree that their society is sexually frustrated and the secret ritual which men including married men use to relieve the frustration is the only solution for Algerians. The mingling of the sexes is taboo in Algeria where segregation of the sexes is imposed. Badredine introduces another solution to his friends. He tells them about finding relief with other guys. They laugh at his suggestion. In a close up shot, Badredine says that homosexuality in Algeria has to do with frustration where women are not available, men need an outlet and two men together doesn’t arouse suspicion.
The film cuts to Oussama in the dusk at a scenic spot listening to music then cuts to a scene of him sitting in a stairwell hinting in a roundabout way whether God really does disapprove of sex same relations and then back to him standing in the dusk high above the city. The films cuts to Malik who says that the Prophet Mohammed enjoyed a fulfilling sexual life and that he wanted it for others but ideology got in the way. The film then cuts to Badredine talking about his ideal woman and that for marriage girls needn’t be virgins.
I particularly like the editing of the film as it moved fluidly between each of the characters allowing for the different perspectives, and I loved the shots of the City of Constantine which situated their stories in a cultural context which gave their stories incredible depth and meaning. Kudos to Malik, Badredine, and Oussama who risked much for opening up and sharing with us their lives, experiences and perspectives, and to Provencher for creating a documentary that shines a light on a culture where sexual freedoms and expressions are taboo. I highly recommend Café Désirs. You won’t be disappointed.
Café Désirs will be playing at various theatres:
TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 on April 30 @ 9:45 p.m.
Scotiabank Theatre 4 on May 1 @ 2:15 p.m.
Scotiabank Theatre 14 on May 6 @ 12:30 p.m.
Tickets can be purchased here!