Written and Directed by Mo Dabani
Starring: Nouha Dabani, Maryam Ouyahya and Bekkay Al Marsini
It can be hard sometimes, when reviewing a film, to detach the film’s quality from its good intentions. No one wants to be the person that says that a well-meaning film highlighting important themes, or telling an important story, is actually, as it happens, not a very good film. If a critic can find a way to characterise the film as not merely poor, but actively harmful, despite its aims, then they don’t have to feel so bad about it. No such claim could be made of Salima, a 2018 Moroccan film about children with cancer: it is an entirely honest attempt to raise the issue at hand, and no harm could come from it. It just happens to completely unsuccessful.
Director Mo Dabani starts us off with a bit of horror. Blurry fades, post-Blair Witch black and white shots of stark forests, a close-up of a ladybird, a zoom into a flower, with rumbling accompaniment by the score, and before we know it, even a creepy clown (Bekkay Al Marsini) is peering out from behind a tree. Then, a girl waking up – all that we’ve seen was her nightmare. The girl is Salima, of the title, and she is in a hospital ward, breathing tube attached, fighting cancer. She explains her fears to a nurse attending her (Maryam Ouyahya), who tells her, motherlike, that now she is a big girl, and no longer has such phobias of clowns. The palette remains ugly, grey and washed out, but this feels like something beyond the filmmakers’ control, rather than a deliberate evocation. As Salima goes on, it never returns to its opening intention to scare; in fact, the clown becomes, in the girl’s later imaginings, a somewhat benevolent figure. The nurse is never told this, but she is evidently telepathic, because she decides to dress up as a clown for the next time she wakes her patient from sleep.
Not only is this a bizarre idea for how to broach, and approach, the topic in question. It also fails in practice, the shoddy editing, poor cinematography (the low budget not excusing distractingly bad shot selection) and the lifeless score conspiring to somehow strip of their pathos things which one would think are inherently moving. Unfortunately, this means that when the title cards arrive with the tragic and horrendous figures of child cancer cases in Morocco, especially leukaemia, they feel like a separate announcement, and not, as they should, the objective approval of a subjective story, the hard facts to impress what we have just been induced to feel.
The three actors, for their part, do a perfectly fine job within the limited scope they are given. It feels overdone, but it is always worth acknowledging a convincing child performance when you see one, and Nouha Dabani certainly gives us one. But in her case, as well as Maryam Ouyahya’s, it is hard to say just how effective, and affecting, she could have been in the hands of a more assured director. Thus, for all its noble ambition to give us both the interior life and the exterior reality for a young cancer patient, Salima comes across as a film attempting brave tonal shifts without first managing to nail any of its individual tones. But it feels improper to end so harshly for a film of this nature. Let’s just say, a shorter version of this could well prove useful on television, if only to spread the news of its alarming statistics, and spread awareness of the need for improvements.