On the Edge (2011) — Image via epicentrefilms.com

On the Edge

Directed by Leila Kilani (2011)

Leila Kilani’s On the Edge (Sur la planche), which screened on Saturday as part of the Walker Art Center‘s A Riff on the Rif series curated by visual artist Yto Barrada, paints an unflinching portrait of personalities intimately shaped by exploitation. The French-language title of Kilani’s film translates literally into English as “on the plank,” an apt description of the lives her characters lead in the shady underbelly of the Moroccan city of Tangier, always being prodded just a few more steps toward oblivion.

On the Edge (2011) — Image via epicentrefilms.comOur primary guide through this world is Badia (Soufia Issami), a 20-year-old woman from Casablanca who has come to Tangier seeking opportunity. Badia, a sort of cynical cousin to the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta, moves through life with frantic determination, communicating with others — and, in frequent voiceovers, with the audience — in allusive sentence fragments that she spits out in a harsh, guttural tone. By day, she and her more passive friend Imane (Mouna Bahmad) — of whom she is fiercely protective to the point of possessiveness — peel shrimp at a processing plant where they are paid by the kilo. By night, they pick up men at local bars and then burgle their valuables to sell on the black market.

One night, while plying this trade at the home of a gangsterish character, Badia and Imane meet Nawal (Sara Bitioui) and Asma (Nouzha Akel), two stylish local girls who live with their parents and work more favorable jobs at a textile factory in one of Tangier’s export-oriented “free zones.” After collaborating on a theft from their host, the four girls start spending more time together, getting increasingly bold in their larcenous activities. Imane starts to see Nawal and Asma as friends, but Badia keeps her distance, suspicious that she and Imane are simply being groomed to do the more privileged girls’ dirty work. Ultimately, these tensions, as well as Imane’s mounting frustration with Badia’s controlling behavior, drive the film to its conclusion.

On the Edge (2011) — Image via walkerart.orgClose-ups predominate throughout On the Edge, and as the camera hovers around its subjects, it often succeeds at uncovering emotional states that the characters are reluctant to express through words. During these moments of insight, we come to see how Badia and Imane, in particular, are torn between their feelings of friendship and loyalty toward each other and their ultimately diverging views on what they need to do to survive and build lives for themselves within the constraints imposed upon them by their social positions.

The four lead actors, all of them reportedly nonprofessionals, do an excellent job of inhabiting these nuances, with Issami turning in the most memorable performance as the self-consciously tough, abrasive and seemingly “crazy” Badia. Visually, the film highlights the distinctions between the various worlds between which the characters move, from the fluorescent-lit shrimp plant to the shadowy nocturnal bars to the tightly packed factories and warehouses of the free zone. As for the plot, what could be a relatively simple crime story gains something from the fact that many key events — and, even more so, motivations for the characters’ actions — are only partially revealed, forcing viewers to engage more closely. Overall, the impression left by On the Edge is of a world that is more than a little out of balance, where nothing is certain and nobody is reliable — not a very happy vision, perhaps, but a compelling one.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.