Film Fables and Fairytales

Morocco's "The Unknown Saint" and South Korea's "It's Okay to Not Be Okay" spin beauty from fable.

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This story was originally published on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, on Friderike Heuer’s website heuermontage.com, under the title “Fables and Fairytales.” It’s reprinted here by permission.


Story and Photographs by FRIDERIKE HEUER


Today’s cinematic adventures hail from West Africa and South Korea, respectively. One is a film, the other an extended TV series (the latter weird enough that you might shake your head when contemplating what I spend my time on. So be it; I’ve surprised you before.)

The Unknown Saint by Alaa Eddine Aljem is a wistful fable set in the Southern desert of Morocco. You need a bit of patience for this quiet piece. Its drawn-out arc echoes the languishing and stillness in a drought-stricken West African village. It is also extremely funny, kind of a shaggy dog story, reminding me of the French Jaques Tati movies of yore with their loving humor satirizing humanity’s foibles. Three separate storylines eventually intersect. A thief buries his loot before being apprehended by the police. Released from prison some time later, he finds the site covered by a shrine erected by villagers who are bilking the faithful, who come to be healed, for their money. Misadventures during attempted loot retrieval ensue. The second line concerns a young doctor and his male nurse finding friendship in shared boredom, spurred to playing tricks on the villagers by freely consumed rubbing alcohol (in a Muslim society). Lastly, there is the devoted relationship of son and father who remain isolated after their neighbors all move away to be closer to the fake shrine. In the end that devotion is rewarded, and the good as well as the bad receive their just desserts.

(I spent 3 months traveling in a van in Morocco in 1971. Without a camera, to my eternal regret. Photographs today are the closest approximation to the landscape of the Atlas mountains that I could come up with, taken in Death Valley, California.)

I want to say it is a sweet (if male-centered) movie, but that doesn’t do justice to the thoughtfulness around questioning religion (and substitute worship of money) or around demonstrating reverence towards faith. In fact, that would short-change not just the thoughtfulness but also the courage, given that we are talking about a Muslim filmmaker’s critical take on religion, making fun of religious rules, and making light of digressions. The visuals are glorious if you find desert scapes appealing: I’ve been there, and the emptiness of the landscape is no trick by a clever director of photography. The acting is stellar, particularly by some of the sid kicks who aren’t too busy to look as beautiful as they come. The absolute deadpan wit that lurks unexpectedly around every corner alone makes it worth watching this film. It’s a small gem.

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HOW TO BEGIN TO DESCRIBE It’s Okay to Not Be Okayhailed by the New York Times as one of the best international TV series of 2020? Written by Jo Yong and directed by Park Shin-Woo, this romance, mystery, fairytale and contemporary culture criticism rolled into one is a clever, clever concoction of genres. More importantly, it takes up the topics of neurodiversity (autism) and psychiatric labels (anti-social personality disorder) and gently upends negative preconceptions without moralizing. Across its 16 episodes (don’t worry, you’re saved by the bell; the streaming ends on Netflix ends Monday, August 9) we are introduced to about every archetype in existence and lured into complete acceptance of blurred boundaries between reality and fiction (including a mix of cartoon visuals among the real-life acting).

Fairytales play a major role in the plot, the complicated romance between a fairy-tale writer (princess/sleeping beauty) and an orderly at a psychiatric hospital (prince/a frozen one right out of Andersen’s snow queen…) being just one. There are evil queen mothers and nurturing fairy godmothers, wise men and power-hungry kings, true friendship, true love, jilted ladies, and another hero coming out of left field, saving the day while always having been perceived as the simple child. There are castles frozen in time, and ghosts looming. There are sidekicks, and side plot lines, outlandish fashion outfits for the heroine, and copious amounts of comfort food every two seconds.

Our emotionally frozen hero is the guardian of his autistic adult brother, sacrificing his own life to care for one he perceives to be vulnerable, suppressing his ongoing rage of having been pressed into this service after his mother was killed. Our heroine, given to malice and cruelty, is in reality a victim of parental abuse and traumatic experiences. Their budding relationship amounts to a healing journey across interminable obstacles, endured by the viewer rapt in the radiant physical beauty of these two characters. You come for the mystery and the beauty, but you stay for the sense of extended family connections benevolently including you into an ever widening circle of characters, many of whom reside in one of the major locales of the series, a psychiatric hospital that might as well be a country club. Unconventional psychiatrists know what to do; successful publishers of fairy-tale books don’t. Heroes think they are needed, when they aren’t. Autism that seemingly forces dependence on others becomes a non-issue when artistic talent provides a road to independence.

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It’s a romp, but one that makes you think, with often intensely framed scenes of visual beauty. It is also utterly devoted to happy endings, which I, yes, crave. It does what movies are supposed to do: It moves you. And it has a costume designer who would be welcome to look at my closet should I ever venture out into the world again. … Then again It’s Okay to Not Be Okay is an appropriate approach to one’s wardrobe as well. I think.

Traditional music from Morocco today.

About the author

Friderike Heuer is a photographer and photomontage artist. Trained as an experimental psychologist at the New School for Social Research, she taught at Lewis & Clark College until she retired to pursue art full time. Her cultural blog www.heuermontage.com explores art and politics on a daily basis through photography and commentary. She has exhibited most recently at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and Camerawork Gallery, on issues concerning migrants and refugees. She frequently volunteers as a photographer for small, local arts non-profits. For more information, visit www.friderikeheuer.online.

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