Six Feet Over is a dazzling story of cultural tensions in a French Muslim funeral home

Karim Bensalah's film marked its regional debut at the Red Sea International Film Festival

Hamza Meziani stars as Sofiane, the westernised son of an Algerian diplomat in Six Feet Over. Photo: Mad Solutions
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Despite the dead bodies that proliferate Karim Bensalah’s debut feature, Six Feet Over is filled with warmth and tenderness.

The film marked its regional debut at the Red Sea International Film Festival. It tells the story of Sofiane, the westernised son of an Algerian diplomat who is studying in France.

Sofiane is eager to break away from his roots. He insists on going by Sof, refuses to speak Arabic, and tallies the countries he’s visited whenever he’s asked where is from. Trudging along an inebriated, self-indulgent lifestyle, Sofiane’s future in France becomes threatened as his school revokes his visa.

His father helps him land a job at a Muslim funeral home to secure a work permit. Sofiane begins visiting Muslim households to wash and prepare bodies for burial, working alongside the aloof El Hajj. The two soon develop an odd relationship that forces Sofiane to acknowledge his roots.

Six Feet Over is taut with the tension that comes with being a minority in a western country. The clash of culture that Sofiane battles will sharply resonate with those who find themselves walking the tightrope between westernised ideas and Middle Eastern culture.

“I really wanted to point to the fact that when you’re a minority of a country that is not a Muslim country, in this case France, you have to find your own space and to deal with your original culture in your own way,” Bensalah says. “Every Muslim and Arab person is recreating themselves in this situation, and everyone has their own way of recreating himself. There is a variety of interpretation and of how to deal with your original culture in France.”

Sofiane’s cultural turmoil is acutely depicted on screen by Hamza Meziani. The actor’s performance is restrained, and even during heated moments, he just verges on the explosive – presenting a masterclass of nuanced depiction.

You can feel the emotions seething within Sofiane, and Meziani instinctively measures the balance between what is seen and felt.

“Hamza has this rare quality as an actor,” Bensalah says. “At the casting, he surprised me. As a director, I want to be surprised by my actors.”

Meziani says his depiction of Sofiane was greatly informed by the conversations he had with Bensalah. “He told me how the character worked with his emotions, not throwing them, but really having something intimate and more restrained.”

Meziani’s raw talent is paired with Kader Affak’s moving portrayal of El Hajj. The taciturn character, who always makes sure to keep others at arm’s length, beautifully juxtaposes Sofiane’s volatile nature.

“I really wrote this character thinking of Kader Affak,” Bensalah says. “Kader is an actor who really builds his character by feeling what is happening on set. With Kader, I felt I didn't have to talk much and that he will find the character himself. It’s funny because [Mesiani and Affak] don’t come from the same place as actors, but it really matched.”

“Affak is himself a character,” Meziani says. “He has a magnetic presence and the character he plays is someone who's very mysterious. You are drawn towards opening doors to know what’s behind his demeanour, you want to try and understand who he is.”

Bensalah says Six Feet Over is partly inspired by a friend named Mehdi, who he met in France almost a decade ago. Like Sofiane, Mehdi is the son of an Algerian diplomat who found himself working at a funeral home to secure his immigration status.

“I interviewed him, and he told me a lot of stories,” Bensalah says. As he worked on the script with writer Jamal Belmahi, however, Bensalah gradually veered off Mehdi’s story and began incorporating his own experiences as well.

“I realised that I had to take a distance from his [story] and bring the story more to me and my own experience,” Bensalah says. “That’s how I started to build the character of Sofiane and talk about this inner conflict he has. This clash of culture.”

However, Mehdi served as a consultant on the film, ensuring the story stayed true to Muslim funerary practices.

“He really showed us everything related to the funeral practices and how to relate to the body,” Bensalah says. “I invited him to coach the actors and to be on set. And he was a great, great help. He is really one of the most beautiful persons I’ve ever met.”

Meziani, meanwhile, adds that Mehdi’s input was also vital in developing Sofiane’s own relationship with death. “He really talked about the visual of death, the smell that is around, there were a lot of things that were very concrete, and then I used that to inform and create the rejection and fascination Sofiane has with death,” Meziani says.

Before screening at the Red Sea International Film Festival, Six Feet Over was shown in France at the Cinemed Festival. The film, Bensalah and Meziani say, was met with gracious reactions. While audiences at the festival, which caters to films from around the Mediterranean, are acquainted with the themes and topics presented in Six Feet Over, there were also some unanticipated reactions.

“A retired French couple came to see me after the screening,” Meziani says. “They told me they were really touched by the film because it made them rethink their relationship as Christians with death, how they leave elderly people in retirement homes and try to hide death.”

“That’s what I wanted,” Bensalah adds. “I wanted non-Muslim people in France to see the beauty of this culture and not only point to religion as a political or societal topic. It is encouraging to see that people are trying to give this space for new voices and Arab culture to be also considered French.”

Updated: December 13, 2023, 1:39 PM