by Fabien Lemercier
- The Franco-Greek director Basile Doganis explores identity, dual belonging, migrants and mourning in his tragicomic first feature set in Lesbos
"Let the dead rest in peace and take care of the living." It’s the conflicting world of a young woman who is both in mourning and on a sunny holiday to the Greek island of Lesbos, that the young filmmaker Basil Doganis decides to tackle in his first feature, Meltem (released in French theatres by Jour2Fête this week), which broaches the broad questions of cultural identity that are currently plaguing a number of European countries. Because today's migrants, stranded at the borders, offer a somewhat strange reflection of long-gone ancestors to European descendants (provided that we agree to look in the mirror), who now fully integrated into their nationalities but still conscious of their roots.
Meltem approaches this complex topic in a fairly relaxed manner when three friends from a French culinary school touch down at Lesbos airport in July 2015. Elena (Daphne Patakia) spent her childhood in Lesbos with her French mother and Greek father-in-law Manos (Akis Sakellariou) before moving away to live with her father in France. Nassim (Rabah Nait Oufella) and Sekou (Lamine Cissokho), two jolly old souls, accompany her on holiday. But the tone of the film takes a heavier turn when we find out that Elena’s mother died suddenly died some time ago and her daughter has yet to fully process it. A painful mourning process subtly begins to bubble under the surface, and the young woman has a number of mood swings, refusing to speak Greek and preparing her mother's house to be handed over to the municipality (and forcing her kind father-in-law to leave the premises in the process), all while touring the island with her two friends. Trips to the beach, swimming, boat and quadbike rides, local events and meals on the terrace come one after the other, while Nassim seems to have his eye on Elena, despite being reluctant to take the plunge. The trio soon meets Elyas (Karam Al Kafri), a Syrian man who wants to get to Athens in order to find his mother, who he has been separated from. Manos (who is working on a DNA databank to identify drowned migrants) warns the impulsive Elena: ‘If you help undocumented migrants, you will be considered a smuggler,’ while Nassim and Sekou laugh after being confused with refugees, given that they are actually in possession of French passports...
By mixing the shadow of death (of Elena’s mother and migrants alike) with the radiant light of the film’s setting, and dramatic emotions with a summery lightness and a hint of comedy (carried well by Nassim and Sekou), Meltem (the name of a strong dangerous wind, but also that of a strong woman, Elena’s ancestor) manages to find an interesting angle to promote a humanist message about how cultures intermingle and become entangled. The spirits gather around a fire, finally realising that they are much more alike than they first thought. They remember their roots and awaken their shared identity, which becomes a source of solidarity, rather than tragedy.
(Translated from French)
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