... is no problem in downtown Dubai, where wealthy Arabs own the place, and driving anything less flashy would be suspect.
In Brussels, however, where Arabes are largely relegated to buses and the metro, people might get the impression that the car's either been stolen or bought through drug deals. This cliché-overturning image is at the heart of Nabil Ben Yadir's understated comedy.
In the case of "Les Barons" (official site), this group of mostly unemployed guys from the "ghetto" (variously known in French as le quartier or la zone) just want to show off and pick up girls. So they've chipped in with 8 unequal shares from their welfare allowances or black market jobs to buy the upmarket car.
This good-hearted story of underdogs who might just do well was not the broad, obvious comedy that we sort of expected to see. Much of the humor consists of inside jokes, often dealing with the delicate territory of relations between first and second generation Moroccan Belgians, whose parents have high hopes for them to follow in their footsteps: blue collar job security, filial loyalty, semi-arranged marriage followed by grandchildren.
But what if you want to be a standup comedian? Is browbeaten Hassan, played with subtle grace by Nader Boussandel, going to stick with his dreams or obey his father, a salt-of-the-earth immigrant who wants his son to get an honest job?
Some of the brothers and sisters from the hood do well, especially Malika, Hassan's childhood sweetheart who now presents the evening TV news. The impossible dream? Well, not really: here in Belgium, both of the main francophone channels' TV news programs are anchored by women of maghrebi origin.
Director Nabil Ben Yadir has fun with other insider references, both to films and to Belgium's complex mix of languages, ethnicity, and regions. His casting of veteran Flemish actor Jan Decleir (star of the excellent 2003 thriller The Alzheimer Case) is a nice touch: here he plays greengrocer Lucien, whose vegetable stalls make a nice lounge for our Barons with time on their hands. This time, it's not Alzheimer's but Parkinson's disease that afflicts the actor.
Likewise, Baron-wannabe Franck is played by non-Arab Julien Courbey, who wanted to be an Algerian in the 2005 comedy Il était une fois dans l'oued. Poor Franck, he just wants some "respect" from his maghrebi friends, but it's just like Steve Buscemi's hangdog "Donny" in The Big Lebowski - everything he says is dissed.
Les Barons comes at an interesting time, when Belgian media are contrasting the relatively benign (or at least laissez-faire) attitude of Brussels' francophones on the question of urban security with an alarmist (some might say racist) view among many in the country's Dutch-speaking Flemish majority. In truth, as a 2008 article showed in Le Monde Diplomatique, many of the young immigrant-origin Belgians - even though born and raised in the country - are "foreigners inside their own city" and rarely leave le quartier.
This is also Nabil Ben Yadir's own story - he knows how difficult it is to take that step away from the confines of the urban immigrant ghetto: "If you leave le quartier, it's a bit like treason... the first step is complicated... for me, it was making my first feature film." Read his entire interview here (.pdf, in French).
Ben Yadir's first step is no baby step. This is a very subtle, funny, and touching film. One that deserves wider international distribution than it's likely to get as "the first comedy on Belgium's immigrant neighborhoods."
(Poster from Films.ma)