The saying “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you” rings true in Tunisian director Mehdi Barsaoui’s gripping drama, A Son. Fares (Sami Bouajila) and his wife Meriem (Najla Ben Abdallah) are part of the affluent chattering upper-middle-class. As such, the closest the couple comes to politics are dirty jokes exchanged at parties relating to an impending Islamist takeover of Tunisia, as well as tidbits on the news about neighboring Libya’s civil war.
This clean separation between the couple’s domestic life and the outside world is erased one day while driving close to Tunisia’s border with Libya. Along with their young son, Aziz (Youssef Khemiri), the couple is caught by an ambush of bullets fired by terrorists. Aziz is wounded in the attack and is rushed to a hospital where Fares and Meriem are informed that their young son is in urgent need of a liver transplant. Unfortunately, neither parent is an organ donor candidate for their son due to legal and medical reasons.
“…neither parent is an organ donor candidate for their son…”
At this point, A Son shifts the tension in the direction of the family in crisis. As the clock ticks, the couple’s son gets closer to death, and secrets from their past emerge. We witness the unraveling of a family and a romantic relationship as the obstacles in finding a matching donor mount. But, Fares is approached by a mysterious man offering him an under-the-table solution involving organs from Libya.
Barsaoui does a magnificent job as both director and writer. He crafts a narrative that oscillates between the macro and the micro, the political and the domestic. The tension he conjures in both spheres is phenomenal as viewers feel the double weight of possible impending tragedy. The entire project could not be pulled off if it were not for the performances by Bouajila and Abdallah. Both actors convey a deep love for their son. The anxiety aroused by the potential death of their son is palpable and heartwrenching.
North Africa is a complex region. We are aware of Libya’s difficulties both during the Gaddafi years and throughout the post-Gaddafi era. Tunisia sparked off what eventually became The Arab Spring. Post-Arab Spring, the country has had its fair share of political turmoil. Movies like A Son bring to audiences the complexity, the tragedies, the humor, and the humanity of the people of the region. Mehdi Barsaoui also makes it clear that boundaries are never as impermeable as we think. Libya’s problems become Tunisia’s and vice-versa. Politics, war, and corruption are phenomena that are very difficult to isolate and put in a bin. They inevitably spill over into our domestic lives.
"…makes it clear that boundaries are never as impermeable as we think."