The date was 7/7/05. For George Psaradakis, bus driver for the number 30 bus through London, the day had seemed quite normal. Better than normal, in fact—pleasant. London had just won the bid for the 2012 Olympics, and what’s more, Psaradakis had plans to enjoy a long weekend with his family. Then something went terribly wrong. While the authorities were investigating a series of “power surges” on the London Underground, Tube passengers began to flood into the streets and onto the buses. His bus now packed, Psaradakis meandered through roadblocks and traffic and displaced passengers filling the pavement, haplessly searching for alternative routes. Then, the unthinkable happened. “It was a bang. For a split second I thought I had hit something. It never crossed my mind that it was a bomb,” recalls Psaradakis in a BBC article from July 7, 2006. He remembers his passengers: “They were youngsters, young girls, young boys, they were laughing, chatting on their phones, full of life.” At 9:47 in the morning, a terrorist had finally set off the bomb hidden in his backpack, and—according to the BBC—had killed 13 people and injured more than 110. The “power surges” turned out to be a series of three additional bombs that had effectively shut down the London Underground.
This is the setting for Franco-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb’s film, London River (2009). Bouchareb is best known for films such as Dust of Life (1994) and Days of Glory (2006), both of which have won Academy Award Nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. According to The Independent, Bouchareb’s most recent entry in the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, Outside the Law (2010)—a film about Algerian Independence fighters in the 1950s—caused such a stir in France that riot police patrolled the red carpet during its screening. Yet, unlike Outside the Law’s apparently blatant approach to the theme of discrimination—at least according to the French authorities—London River begins as a quiet, emotive commentary on race relations in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Eventually the story develops into a memoir of two parents learning how to cope with the possibility of tragedy.
The film begins with Elisabeth Sommers (Brenda Blethyn) on her farm in Guernsey, a British island off the coast of France sharing both British and French culture. Upon hearing the horrific news of the terrorist attacks in London, Sommers immediately calls her daughter Jane, only to repeatedly reach voicemail. Concerned, she rushes off to the seemingly foreign locale of London, to Jane’s predominantly immigrant and Muslim neighborhood, Finsbury Park. A Christian, she is shocked to learn that Jane has been learning Arabic at the local mosque. Meanwhile, Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté), who is from Mali and the Muslim father of Jane’s boyfriend, Ali, has also come to London in search of his son. Having left Ali fifteen years ago, Ousmane has been living in France ever since. A promise to Ali’s mother had brought him on the journey to Finsbury Park. Miraculously, everyone in London—including Elisabeth—seems to speak French, from the bodega owner to the police inspectors. Yet, considering that it is a French production, I’m willing to let this detail slide.
Brenda Blethyn says she initially felt a bit nervous about participating in the film. In a Daily Telegraph article, she admits, “The event was still quite recent and if it was going to be a sensationalist movie I wasn’t at all interested.” Yet upon meeting with Bouchareb, her fears were soon eased. Blethyn continues, “He was passionate about the idea of bringing two people of different religions and different cultures from different ends of the earth together to see how they interact and to discover their similarities rather than their differences.” Only occasionally falling within the realm of cliché, London River commemorates the tragedy of 7/7 with a gentle—albeit sometimes uncomfortable—honesty. Blethyn admits that she is proud of the film. She recalls being at a film festival, when a woman approached her with a hug, admitting that she had lost her daughter 12 years ago: “She said she loved the movie, I don’t know why, but she did, and I didn’t pry into how she had lost her daughter, but it was kind of humbling.” Even if you haven’t lost a loved one, the film folds you into the experience of the fear of loss and holds you tight.
Sotigui Kouyaté won the Silver Bear Award for Best Actor at the 59th Berlin International Film Festival. Playing his character as stoic and impenetrable, his performance grounds the film, serving as a way through which to balance the emotional volatility of Blethyn’s character. Yet Kouyaté’s tall, thin frame evokes a kind of fragility, which eventually seeps into his character. As Ousmane and Sommers fight their way together through the bureaucracy of poorly funded response efforts, Ousmane patiently waiting for Sommers to unlearn her inherent racism, the two eventually come to a quiet appreciation of each other. Sadly, Sotigui Kouyaté died this year at age 73.
The beauty of London River stems from its simple honesty. Truly a film about two people navigating their stereotypes of each other and, in turn, finding comfort in shared experience, the film simply uses the events of 7/7 as a plot motivator. Told from the perspective of a Franco-Algerian director, Rachid Bouchareb invites us into his interpretation of the effects of recent terrorist attacks. While London River has been riding the film festival circuit for the past year, keep your eyes open for local releases. It is certainly a film worth watching—just be sure to prepare yourself for the emotional ride.