Hard bargain: Rabourdin (left) and Emelyanov in Eastern Boys
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Station to station: Eastern Boys is a cool French take on the politics of desire

This gritty tale of eastern European rent boys in Paris might at first sound like Ken Loach gone gay. But the effect is more redolent of a Gus Van Sant spin on Oliver Twist.

Eastern Boys (15)
dir: Robin Campillo

A surreptitious kind of ballet takes place at the start of Eastern Boys, right there among the criss-crossing commuters on the concourse at the Gare du Nord. The participants wear shell suits and hoodies rather than leotards and tutus. Two lads step over a security chain in elegant unison while a clump of boys in clomping white trainers disperse themselves through the crowd like petals scattered to the wind. The film’s surveillance-style camera observes their choreography with cool fascination. These eastern European adolescents are scammers, pickpockets and extortionists. The ones near the top of the food chain measure out their success in iPhones and LCD televisions. For the foot soldiers, it’s Happy Meals.

Their furtive glances have something in common with the cruising vocabulary used by the middle-aged men on the outskirts of the performance. The silver-stubbled Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) is one. He takes a shine to Marek (Kirill Emelyanov), a Ukrainian teenager with a scrawl of black hair and a lupine face: half-Adam Driver, half-Eddie Munster. For €50, Marek says he will do “anything”. Daniel hands over his home address. There is no dramatic music to accompany this scene – the doom-laden chords in your head are deafening enough.

Daniel does receive a visit the next day but it’s fair to say he gets more than he bargained for. In a terrifying home-invasion scene that has echoes of the “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence from A Clockwork Orange, his apartment is overrun with carnivorous young blades. Marek is among them but a different sort of electrifying look passes between them this time, saying: this isn’t over.

Despite some discreetly erotic episodes, Eastern Boys is not really concerned with the carnal. Daniel believes naively that he can divorce his desires from their consequences – that he can use boys such as Marek without considering who they are or how they have suffered (“My name, my family, the war, you don’t care,” Marek complains). Cleaving strongly to the tradition of Fassbinder, the film shows that sex is a political act. The matter of what we do in bed and with whom can be every bit as charged as the provenance of the hummus on our pitta or the vodka in our glass. The gang leader Boss (Daniil Vorobyev) says as much when he flaunts his whippet-thin torso in front of Daniel. “This body is the most important thing God gave us,” he boasts, while his droogs strip the art from the walls.

All of which risks making Eastern Boys sound like Ken Loach gone gay. The effect is more redolent of a Gus Van Sant spin on Oliver Twist, not least because of Jeanne Lapoirie’s dreamy cinematography (warm orange bodies against icy blue backdrops) and Robin Campillo’s lyrical editing. Cam­pillo, also the film’s writer-director, has already shown that he can integrate social commentary and dynamic cinema. Among his previous screenplays is Heading South, which unpicked the politics of desire through a tale of sex tourism in Haiti.

As Daniel becomes more involved in Marek’s life, Campillo guides us fluidly through the nuances of their relationship. Revenge on Daniel’s part gives way to fondness, then paternalism. The closer he gets to Marek, the more he wants to rescue him. But even this apparent generosity repeats patterns of colonialism and ownership: in coming to Marek’s assistance, he risks continuing the commodification that began when he first picked him up at the Gare du Nord as casually as if he were a croque-monsieur.

One of the film’s achievements is to situate these complexities within a tight piece of storytelling. Most thrillers would be undermined instantly if only someone on-screen had the wherewithal to phone the police. Not here, where the arrival of the authorities would bring a different sort of danger – deportation. Nor does Campillo demonise any of his players. Even the intimidating Boss has his share of vulnerability. The one moment that pulls us out of the action is fleeting and specific to UK audiences. It’s unlikely that viewers of other nationalities will find their ears pricking up on hearing, in moments of extreme suspense, a ticking clock remarkably similar to the one used in the cosy afternoon quiz show Countdown

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle