Sleep masque

First-time filmmaker Lyes Salem says Masquerades, set in Algeria and revolving around a narcoleptic woman's twisted love life, has a much deeper meaning than a simple romantic comedy.

The story of a shabby, tracksuit-wearing small-town man who fools his neighbours into believing he's found a love-match for his narcoleptic sister, instantly sounds like an indie sleeper hit. But the film Masquerades wasn't created by Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Jared Hess or any of the current wave of American filmmakers who focus on deadpan comedy, dysfunctional families and heartbreaking romantic relationships. Instead, it was made by the first-time filmmaker, Lyès Salem, and set in his home country, Algeria.

The low-budget drama takes place half a world away from that of Bottle Rocket, Napoleon Dynamite, or any of other films made by the aforementioned auteurs. But just like their breakout movies, Masquerades has seen its following grow steadily thanks to dedicated fans and successful film festival appearances. Two years after its initial release, the movie is now being screened at The Picturehouse in Dubai.

"I'm happy it has found an audience," says Salem, who also appears in the film, playing the character Mounir. "Algeria is considered by the other Arabic countries as something different, because our story is mixed up with Europe, and France in particular. But we don't really fit in anywhere. Our language is not the same as the Arabic spoken in places like the Gulf, in fact this film is subtitled so people can understand it in Dubai."

The movie triumphed at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2008. After fighting off rivals in the Arab Muhr Competition, Masquerades was awarded the Best Arab Film prize, voted for by the International Federation of Film Critics. "When the movie passed through the film festival here, it had already been released in France and Algeria, so we can't say that [winning the award] helped in those countries," say the filmmaker. "But it has helped it to be released here now, and for it to be screened in other countries in the Arab world."

The film sees Salem's character, Mounir, living with his family in the heart of Algeria, Africa's second largest country by area. Despite being a man of great ambition and self-regard, he has few opportunities to better himself in the eyes of his neighbours. Of major concern to Mounir is the future of his sister Rym, who remains unmarried. Although attractive, she suffers from the chronic sleep disorder narcolepsy, which causes her to fall asleep at the most inconvenient moments.

One evening, Mounir declares that he has found a suitor for his sister, which prompts the townsfolk to begin preparing for a wedding. All the while, Rym is secretly involved in a relationship with her brother's best friend, Khliffa. "The film is not just about a man trying to marry off his sister, but a man who wants to be something in his village, that's why he creates the story," says Salem. "It's about men and women, money and traditions."

Although Masquerades can be read as a simple romantic comedy, Salem (who co-write the screenplay) intended it also to function as an allegory for Algeria in the wider world. The North African country has been severely affected by war over the last half-century, including a struggle for independence from France that claimed over a million lives, and a long and bloody internal conflict that only ended 10 or so years ago.

"Rym is stuck between two men," he says. "Her brother wants to protect her, but is stuck in the past and thinks he has to reflect tradition. Her lover, Khliffa, doesn't care about the past and is looking towards the future and modernity. Algeria today is trapped between those two influences which affect everything, even down to the relationships between men and women." The story offers a sense of escape to the characters, but not by promising to whisk them away to another land free of troubles. Instead, the details of Rym's promised love-match change as her brother's lie becomes more and more elaborate.

"He says that [the suitor] is coming from Switzerland, Australia, even Dubai - places that hold a sense of fantasy for people in Algeria," he says. In Salem's metaphor, the sister Rym is a stand-in for his homeland. He gave the character an illness to represent the challenges that the nation faces, such as social ills, unemployment and mass emigration. "I chose narcolepsy because it's the best symbolism for Algeria," he says. "I had to choose some kind of handicap because Algeria had problems. Making her blind wouldn't be very truthful, giving her a sick leg would not work. I chose narcolepsy because it was more poetic. This was the first time that I have seen narcolepsy dealt with in movies."

While discussing the subtext of Masquerades with Salem (not to mention the production and distribution of the movie), it's easy to forget that he had never written or directed a feature film prior to this. After training at the French National Academy of Dramatic Arts in Paris, he spent much of the last two decades as a little-known television and film actor. Among the appearances listed on his IMDb profile are minor parts in Steven Speilberg's 2005 thriller, Munich, and the 2004 Luc Besson-produced action movie, District 13.

"I'm not a director who acts in his movies, I'm an actor who directs movies he wants to be in," says Salem. "For the other [cast members in Masquerades] it was maybe difficult at the beginning of the shooting, but we came to understand each other any everything was good." Despite considering himself primarily as an actor, he is currently engrossed in writing another screenplay about a group of friends in Algeria, this time with a greater focus on the country's war torn past.

With his first outing as a filmmaker proving to be not just a critical and popular success, but a sleeper hit continuing to find audiences two years after its initial release, it's little surprise that Salem plans to continue working behind the camera as well. Masquerades is being screened at The Picturehouse, Reel Cinemas in Dubai Mall until June 16. ogood@thenational.ae