Film Reviews

TIFF Review: ‘My English Cousin’

An astutely observed portrait of masculinity and migration

Courtesy of TIFF


My English Cousin
(Switzerland/Qatar)
Dir. Karim Sayad
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)

Meet Fahed Mameri. He’s the cousin of director Karim Sayad. Fahed’s life fuels his cousin’s documentary and his dull, tedious routine provides a thoughtful portrait of contemporary migrant life.

One might think that Sayad’s “English Cousin” enjoys the fast life in London where he can zip around on the tube and indulge in the metropolitan lifestyle that makes its way into movies and images overseas. Not so much. The film observes Fahed in the portside working town of Grimsby, where he emigrated from Algeria in 2001. Unlike fast-paced life in London, Fahed’s days are a blur of alarms, commutes, and shift work. He clocks 50-hour weeks to get by, putting in double duty slinging shawarma in a pizzeria and punching in time at the local manufacturing plant. Call My English Cousin a droll study of expectations versus reality.

In Grimsby, the film captures the dizzying cycle of Fahed’s days through repetition. Alarm, eat, commute, work, work, commute, sleep, repeat. This mechanical process isn’t really living. Fahed’s relationships are strained and awkward at best as he shares a home with some flatmates of the Craig’s List variety, all of whom have a tall can in hand in virtually every shot (when they’re not at the pub). Even stranger is Fahed’s marriage to some woman who lives elsewhere. He visits her once or twice and one can assume their marriage a transactional affair to keep him in the country. Maybe he loves her and maybe she’s just camera shy, but an overwhelming sense of loneliness blankets Fahed’s life in Grimsby.

His trip home isn’t any more promising. His relatives nag him for material goods to display his affection. He gets into a screaming match with his mother over his upcoming (second?) marriage. Nothing is going well, but at least he’s alive and safe in Grimsby as protests swell around Algeria.

The film marks Sayad’s sophomore feature after 2017’s Of Sheep and Men and like his first film, My English Cousin is an astutely observed portrait of masculinity. Where Of Sheep and Men stirringly juxtaposed man and beast, My English Cousin contrasts Fahed’s old home in Algeria and his new one in Grimsby. Sayad sees how straddling both worlds leaves Fahed like many other migrants: he is placeless, an exile within his own country, and without anywhere to comfortably call home.

Fahed is an unconventionally charismatic character. He always has a smile on his face even as he staggers bleary-eyed to work or uses whatever free time he has watching TV. He’s frank but pragmatic in his opinions as he tells his cousin about the struggle to adapt to England’s workaholic-and-take-away lifestyle, but generally upbeat even when he longs to return home. This portrait of Fahed’s boring but “better” life provides a useful entry to the canon of films about migration and migrant experiences. It simply shows us the tedious alternative to a life of unrest.

TIFF runs Sept. 5-15. Visit tiff.net for information and tickets.

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