Who’d be a mother? Ouardia (Djamila Sahraoui, who also directs her own screenplay) is the mother to two brothers on opposite sides of Algeria’s long civil war. Civil wars are famously bitter, fratricidal affairs, whatever the climate, landscape or culture. By paring down action and dialog Sahraoui makes the story of this YEMA (“Mother”) a near universal one, even though rooted in the country and land, the very mud, of Algeria — or somewhere very much like it.
A local audience would know for who and what the brothers were fighting; an international audience could look it up, but it matters less than the personal drama played out here in and around a small farmstead in the hills. This story — or something very much like it — has played out again and again across the world and across the generations. It would strike to the heart of some mother, somewhere on every continent, in every age.
A semi–retired bomb–maker (Samir Yahia), one hand missing after the usual industrial accident of his trade, guards Ouardia at the farm, as she guards there the grave of the best beloved son dug with her own hands. The arrival of the surviving son, Ali (Ali Zarif), bearing his own infant boy, brings the distant war into the household, and unearths an intertwined family drama. Each of the principle characters travels their own arc, a spline of discovery threaded between points of shared suffering and mercy.
Although set amidst rolling countryside the film is concentrated and claustrophobic
Ouardia finds new reserves of dignity and strength, the Guard comes to a new realisation of what is important, and what is possible, Ali finds out how low it is possible to sink. For him, what is not mandatory is forbidden, however human and compassionate it may be, an eloquent illustration of the excesses possible to any man who’s life is consumed by a principle. It could be any principle. Amongst all this new life appears, and the care of it brings some together and drives others apart.
Sahraoui has a clear vision of all these concerns and is well served by the clear, unsentimental photography of Raphaël O’Byrne and unobtrusive editing of Catherine Gouze. Although set amidst rolling countryside the film is concentrated and claustrophobic, often lingering in the dark interior of the farmhouse. Outside, the sky is often blank, misty hills and grey scrub merge into it, reinforcing the impression that this three–hander (plus a couple of brief walk–ons by the Gendamerie) happens nowhere, and everywhere.
The only real failing of YEMA is that it could, unusually for a film these days, have benefited from a longer running time. The characters’ stories unfold just a touch too quickly. The performances are subtle and could have happily taken longer to develop fully.