Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick is known for politicizing the festival - and therefore often critzised for putting too much emphasis on political, rather than cinematographic standards. Now there was at least one film in competition in 2009 that proved Kosslick's critics wrong: Rachid Bouchareb's latest feature „London River".
The film tells a story not about, but behind the terrorist attacks in London in July 2005 - attacks that are for a long time only like rolling thunder in the distance to the film's protagonists. They are nothing more than images on television, an indefinite feeling that something is wrong, which is gradually increasing as information is surfacing, till the lightning strikes.
A mother and a father both come to London looking for their children. And while they couldn't be any more different on an emotional and cultural level than Bouchareb's two main characters, they are utterly similar when it comes to work, faith, and family matters. There is Elisabeth Sommers, a stocky, likeable widow, who lives and works in Guernsey as a farmer, and Ousmane, a slender African with long grey dreadlocks, working in France as a forester. Bouchareb establishes the similarities between the two figures from the beginning onwards, showing them both as devout religious persons, Elisabeth attending a mass, Ousmane saying his prayers at work in the forest in the opening shot. And they have something else in common, too, apart from religion and their love of nature: children in London, whom they know very little.
Yet while the film emphasizes how similar they are in certain aspects, it needs to rely on the differences in order to propel the action. Not having any news from their children after the bombings, both Elisabeth and Ousmane come to London looking for them. The rest of the story is quickly told: the parents meet, and it turns out that their children where having a relationship - an idea that is hard to embrace especially for Elisabeth. Muslims, Arabs, terrorits are all the same to her. When she encounters Ousmane for the first time, she is so shocked she refuses to shake his hand. The thought of her daughter Jane taking Arabic lessons together with Ali gives her the shudders. So Elisabeth and Ousmane perform the same steps, go to the same places to look for their children, crossing paths, trying to avoid each other.
Brenda Blethyn, playing Elisabeth, manages to evoke the spectators' sympathy, although portraied as narrow-minded and full of predjudices against foreigners. Not wanting to belief her daughter might have died in the attacks, she fervently cares for her animals, plucking lettuce and doing laundry, before finally deciding to go to London. There, she continues to live in a state of denial, not wanting to see the truth about her daughter's life with Ousmane's son. Equally brilliant: Sotigui Kouyaté as Ousmane, who was awarded the Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival for his performance. The Malien actor fully embodies the film's simplicity reducing his face expression to a minimum. He's just there, calm and quiet. Quiet out of fear that his son, whom he doesn't know, is actually one of the culprits.
It's neither the predictable storyline that lies at the heart of the movie's strength, nor the characters that could be emerging straight from a goodwill movie about intercultural communication. It is Bouchareb's minimalistic, unpretentious mise en scène, and the calm, observing camera work. On their respective journeys through the British capital, Elisabeth's and Ousmane's ways meet in a hospital's morgue, where people are called in in small groups to identify bodies that might be those of relatives. Far from being voyeuristic, the camera just looks at the waiting room, showing people coming in and out of the door, their faces blank from the horror they encountered inside. „London River"is not about emotionalizing the attacks, nor about the perpetrators, it's about the impact they had on everyday lives of ordinary people.