I have some mixed feelings in me after seeing La Fille de Keltoum a.k.a Daughter of Keltoum (2001), the latest installment in First Run Pictures' series Global-Lens Collection. A fascinating yet angry tale about a Swiss woman's journey back to her native Algeria this film is often as disturbing as the highly-acclaimed Cannes winner Osama (2003).
Rallia (Cylia Malki) embarks on a journey to the heart of Algeria where she believes her mother Keltoum (Deborah Lamy) resides. Brought up by her adoptive parents in Switzerland who many years ago visited Northern Africa Rallia encounters a world she does not know how to accept: poverty, abuse, and lawlessness are everywhere. Yet the young Swiss' desire to meet face to face with Keltoum leads her to a remote village high in the rocky mountains of Algeria where supposedly she was born. But…Keltoum is nowhere to be found.
A film that certainly reminded me of Tony Gatlif's latest picture Exils (2004) about a Parisian couple determined to walk from the heart of France back to their native Algeria Daughter of Keltoum is a magical tale of hope revealing some of the most beautiful vistas from Northern Africa I have seen in a long time. Tagged by many as a "road movie" with a strong exotic flavor Daughter of Keltoum also relies on a familiar structure that manages to combine impressive cinematography with some very strong acting.
Daughter of Keltoum however is not all about striking images and haunting melodies. Put aside the stunning cinematography and this production easily becomes one of the harshest critiques at the current status quo in Algeria I've witnessed in quite some time. From the controversial scenes of female abuse to the nearly documentary-like episodes of gut-wrenching poverty captured by Mehdi Charef's camera the story highlights the dark corners of a society many Westerners are probably unfamiliar with.
After nearly two hours of blissful imagery however I am somewhat undecided what the true goals of this Flemish-Tunisian production were. The harsh criticism which Daughter of Keltoum seems to be feeding off (I sense a great deal of anger in Mehdi Charef's approach to the subject matter of this film) is slowly but surely replaced with a rather questionable finale which left me slightly disappointed. I expected to see a greater emphasis on the struggle of the main character to reconnect with her lost mother and sadly what Daughter of Keltoum offers in its closing scenes is anything but fitting to the enormous potential the story initially suggested.
Nevertheless I am certain that those of us who have little exposure to recent productions dealing with the harsh living conditions in North Africa will appreciate the opportunity which Mehdi Charef's film provides to glance a step farther from the notorious beaches Algiers is known for. The premise of Daughter of Keltoum while not as strong as I expected is still good enough to hold your interest should you have any interest exploring. I can not help but think however that the inevitable comparison this film will evoke with Exils will make it look slightly inferior.
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and enhanced for widescreen TV's the treatment First Run Pictures have provided for the R1 release of Daughetr of Keltoum is a bit disappointing. What we have here is a PAL-port of the Studio Canal R2 disc which reveals mild "ghosting", some less-than impressive colors, and a contrast that is a bit weak.
Edge-enhancement is also probably going to be rather problematic for those of you with more sensitive home equipments as during the desert scenes I was bothered by the look of the film. To sum it all up I think that as with many PAL-NSTC ports this film lacks the proper quality it deserves. This is not a terrible effort, in fact I think that tube-viewers will be marginally pleased with the print herein reviewed, but the fact remains that improper conversion will always produce questionable results.
How Does the DVD Sound?
Presented with its original French-Arabic 2.0 DD audio track (as I understand the recently released UK disc boasts a more elaborate 5.1 mix) the DVD indeed sounds very well. In fact, I must point out that in contrast with the video presentation there is hardly anything here that I am unhappy with: dialog, though rather sparse, is easy to follow and very clear, and I did not notice any detrimental occurrences worthy of noting. All in all a stellar audio presentation!! Unfortunately the film comes with imposed (white, rather large) English subtitles.
There isn't much on this DVD in terms of extras, only a few generic supplements: Director's Bio, Film Notes (text format), Photo Gallery, and a gallery of trailers (original film trailer included) for other productions from the Global Lens Series.
I am going to recommend this film even though its video presentation is slightly flawed. Quite frankly, I have the feeling that I am being a bit harsh in my judgment of it. So, if you are yet to see Exils I recommend you first take a look at Daughter of Keltoum and then proceed with the former. You will be quite impressed!
This being said, I would like to mention that First Run Pictures have brought some real jewels of world cinema to the US market via their Global Lens Series. Yet, as it is the case with so many films entering the US the DVD treatment they get is rather disappointing. I truly believe that with a proper treatment (a properly-converted NTSC print with a strong progressive image) First Run Pictures and their films will find a very, very large contingent of viewers willing to collect their products. So, what would it take to make that extra step in the right direction?