The Worthy (2016)

While no one here at Cinemaholism HQ can attest for certain what the first Emirati film is, we can definitely assure what the first film from the Emirates to get reviewed here is. I did some digging into, and the director of today’s subject, Ali F. Mostafa, has a Wikipedia page tied for the oldest with one Tariq AlKazim, and with multiple credits for each. Suffice it to say, I’ll be keeping an eye on their development and upcoming works. In endeavoring to understand the nascent Middle Eastern cinema-scape, I will look with an eye for content conveyed with a loose examination of the proficiency of the techniques used to deliver said messages. The Worthy, currently on Netflix, will be assessed along those lines of intent versus method. In what is ultimately a chamber piece, the ascribed sci-fi genre undertones prove nonexistent. The film begins when, on a deserted freeway, a semi approaches the camera to pick up a hitchhiker. A voice-over relays an encounter by the narrator’s father, i.e. the driver, his propensity to help strangers and reluctance to bring up the past that led to current times. Times that necessitate periodic trips to the city for essentials.

Before the truck stops at the mouth of an off-ramp, the hitchhiker, referred to as the Seer, warns of the Black Banners (could it be ISIS?) as he departs on foot. Director Mostafa makes a point of framing the overhead road sign, which reveals no geographical identifiers; street names in Arabic along with a generic typonym and an exit number. The film title arrives with the narration resuming, detailing an apocalyptic outcome stemming from clashing parties that culminated in one band polluting the water sources and wiping out entire cities. With a societal collapse in full effect and no governing bodies, the narrator’s explains how his group had taken refuge in an abandoned factory sustained by plentiful water supply. Fierce territoriality and survival of the fittest seem to be the law of the land—water and ammunition its precious commodities. With the physical setting unnamed but the language and conditions indicated, the dystopian features of a stateless milieu would eclipse any advertised sci-fi underpinnings.

What sets things in motion occurs shortly and abruptly when the opening scene transitions into the next, the bland, brutalist, Baathist- or communist-era structure, much wider than it is high, looms in the dark of the night. The camera cranes over the rubble-littered lot ending at the roof, several stories high, where two men stand guard and play chess at the same time. The narrator spots a distressed woman approaching the gate and alerts his father inside who orders a formation be set up atop the building covering for the group below. The woman is used as bait when one, then another, drifter emerges and demands water in exchange for her release. In the fracas that follows one of the deserters turn against his own mid-fight and the main aggressors are subdued by all. Shoaib (the Biblical Job) the father agonizes over granting the surviving deserters, an Arab man and a Kurdish woman, reprieve or shelter. Which brings to the speaker, Eissa (from Jesus), his sister Maryam (Mary), his watch duty shift-mate Daoud (David), and Qais the backup who joined Shoaib at the gate. The community has basic ground rules as regards safety and upkeep; night watch is conducted from the rooftop, weapons are locked in an armory, and the rest make themselves useful.

These self-imposed mandates have seen them through three-hundred-and-eighty days of peace and relative quiet since arrival at the former plane factory but the central struggle would spring not through a flaw in their vetting process perfected over said period but rather circumstance. With Mussa, the male drifter, saving the group leader’s life, it is a matter of precedence if the courtesy of temporary housing turns into a separate arrangement for the two strangers. That one is skilled with the knife, while the other (Gulbin) speaks no Arabic and exhibits a fearful disposition towards her companion, points to more than what his story lets on; that of two passers-by. Eissa, the narrator, approves of their admission into the fold while Shoaib is apprehensive of anything more than hospitality, but none of this matters, as when it is time to hand over his weapon, Mussa stabs Shoaib and kills him. He flees, leaving Gulbin behind, and begins to target the group from outside and putting the squeeze on by cutting off their water supply. As the group is forced to venture out, the water tank is destroyed putting the survivors into uncharted territory; a void in leadership, mounting casualties and newfound destitution. Mussa proves deadlier than first impressions revealed, and more battle-tested as he singe-handedly wreaks havoc on a dozen armed opponents on their turf but to what end?

The alpha and omega. The chosen and the worthy. Shoaib had already committed two egregious mistakes in allowing outsiders in without first disarming them, which goes against whatever dogma Mussa spews about worthiness for survival. A self-appointed arbiter for some twisted world order that functions as a triage system for the living, which is apt considering he enters the warehouse like an agent of death first, and a destabilizing entity, the very same microbe that contaminated the water supplies embodied. I did not appreciate the naïveté that compromises solid fortification and harmonious sanctuary so easily for the sake of plot just as I was not too enamored with bullet time slow-motion making a late, late comeback. To break or to not break tradition and protocol, that is the question. But in its defense, the environs, the lighting, the foreboding skies, all cohere and are well congealed toward a satisfying aesthetic despite minor clichéd kinks. And with a cast spanning the Fertile Crescent, the aftermath boasts a pan-regional, cosmopolitan scope, calling to mind the Cradle of Civilization both that of old alongside contemporary pathos. The film even manages to reflect its country of origin by featuring one local actor. Just like Dubai.

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