Thoughts on ‘Ben and Ara’; the 2015 movie directed by Nnegest Likké. Spoilers ahead!
I stumbled upon ‘Ben and Ara’ while searching for movies with female Muslim lead characters. The cinematography was un-spectacular, the storytelling was simple, the acting was mediocre at best, but certain themes stood out to me strongly. The movie revolves around forbidden love, but not quite told as usual. The antagonist force between the two main characters isn’t family or society, rather the main obstacle to their relationship are the differences between their personally held worldviews.
‘Ben and Ara’ tells the story of two PhD candidates at the department of religion who are from disparate worlds. Ben is the epitome of secular atheism/agnosticism, and perhaps even hedonism. Ara is a practising Muslim, active in her local community, and living at home with her mother, who pressures her to get married. There is nothing particularly spectacular about their relationship — they are not star-crossed lovers madly and passionately in love. They are regular people dipping their toes into a foreign cultural and romantic experience.
As PhD students in the religious department, their dissertation topics bring them together. The debates they have around the interaction between philosophy and theology are subtly connected to the dynamics of their relationship. On the surface, Ben’s thesis is what gives him reason to invite Ara to his house and for them to sleep together, but on a more profound note, their discussions are symbolic of the opposing worldviews that shape their relationship.
In the first scene where Ara took off her headscarf in Ben’s bedroom, I shut my laptop out of sheer exasperation. I agree that the about-to-unfold premarital sexual activity meant that a headscarf was out of place, but the visuals of her removing it were not what I was expecting. She unravels it with little hesitation or apparent discomfort, which is amusing but slightly incredible. Given the fact that she expresses intense regret and guilt in the scene straight afterwards, it seems disjointed that she did it with zero second thought.
I give the scene the benefit of the doubt, concluding that it was an attempt to portray a heat-of-the-moment decision, but even with that considered, the hijab (and its removal) seems to represent something deeper throughout the movie. When following Ben to a rock and roll bar, she takes it off her head and puts it around her shoulders as soon as she walks through the door. She takes it off again in her honeymoon phase with Ben, and it seems to be symbolic of her ability to step into Ben’s non-religious world. Returning to her own values, it’s worn when she is praying, but otherwise, her exploration into secular living demands that she takes it off. I wish there was more representation of the emotions and inner dialogue Ara faced at these junctures.
This isn’t surprising in the world of ‘hijabi’ movies. The removal of the hijab carries connotations of liberation and freedom, even if accompanied by guilt and feelings of loss. While Ara’s removal of the hijab may seem symptomatic of the plague surrounding Western filmmaking in portraying Muslims, the undertones in the film seem more positive when it comes to her reasoning at these points. In other films, the guilt that characters feel when removing the hijab is meant to make us pity the poor girl upset over an imposed piece of cloth and guilt-tripping ideology. Her feelings are rarely more complex than concern over her parents’ or community’s response. Though Ara’s relationship with the hijab is very hard to understand, and her taking it off is far from subtle, it is interesting to try and deduce her personal relationship with the clothing of her faith.
Ara’s story seems to contain more depth. She is portrayed as someone who knows why she does what she does, and her feelings of guilt have to do with her betraying her own values and the effects on her relationship with God. It is refreshingly personal.
Muslim Representation in ‘Ben and Ara‘
The representation in ‘Ben and Ara’ is decent; all things considered. A practising black Muslim woman in academia is not the most common sight on screen, after all. Portrayals of her community are not laden with stereotypes of hidden women and oppressive men. It appears that beyond bare-minimum, research was done on Islam, even if certain Arabic terms were pronounced a little funny.
The film’s prayer scenes are awkward and amusing. One particular scene features Ara and three other women praying so far apart that it seems socially distanced. But generally, it seems as if efforts were made to preserve the accuracy of Islamic practices.
The movie’s ending saves it, but the plot seems unnecessary. I would award some points for getting a black Muslim woman in academia on screen, but beyond this, it seems hollow. Her identity seems to be a tool, except for some artistic scenes of a folk religious ritual on a beach in Cameroon. The mention of her academic endeavours was minimal in comparison to Ben’s. Her hopes and dreams post-PhD received no mention, and the function of her character seems to be solely romantic. This is frustrating and throws any benefits of representation back to square one. But like I said, the ending could potentially be seen as saving this in some way. It highlights her autonomy and prioritisation of her values and happiness, and it sparks some dialogue on the force religion has in societal, personal and interpersonal relationships.
‘Ben and Ara’ does a good job of highlighting different religious realities in the world. Ben has a hard time understanding the casual religious plurality that exists in Ara’s Cameroonian background. Ara is seasoned in navigating a world where respect for various religions is needed, given her upbringing surrounded by folk-religious adherents, Christian, and Muslim loved ones in her family.
Opposing worldviews are the main forces that shape the course of the relationship between Ben and Ara. It is important to use the word ‘shape’ rather than ‘limit’ here, as reinforcing the idea that religion and personal values are secondary choices that shouldn’t affect people’s lifestyles (including the choice of a romantic partner) is reflective of a secular paternalistic worldview, and greatly diminishes the importance that belief holds in people’s lives.
Ben is someone who holds this opinion. He approaches religion like mythology. He can respect it, but he can’t understand it nor does he particularly want to. He watches Ara observe her religious traditions as someone would watch a child playing make-believe. He is kind but has little understanding. He also implies heavily that certain restrictions and guidelines are oppressive and are an obstruction to achieving happiness and pleasure in a ‘normal’ secular context. He is staunch in the truth of his worldview and doesn’t see the need to explore deeply or give importance to any other faith systems outside an academic realm. I paint him as an outside observer of religion as an arbitrary anthropological phenomenon. He finds religion fascinating but unnecessary. He is sceptical and doggedly ‘modern’ and liberal. He stays away from it, and it from him, and they get along just fine, which seems to work fine until he falls in love with a woman for whom religion is consequential, at which point we see him as simply unable to adopt the mindset that even considers God as a real possibility.
God is the cornerstone of Ara’s values, and individual liberty is the foundation of Ben’s. Both believe that their happiness lies upon these things; both believe that it is the most sophisticated higher purpose in life. The starting points for everything that shapes their lives are fundamentally opposed.
There is one scene in particular that packed a lot of punches for me. It is a scene where Ara visits Ben to attempt reconciliation after an argument they have. Religious differences are laid bare on the table and Ara takes the opportunity to call out Ben’s Western imperialist view of religion and the implicit judgment and infantilization of practising religious people. He implies that her beliefs are illogical and baseless, and questions her intelligence for leading a lifestyle that places boundaries on her freedom, which he views as essential to happiness. The scene points to the elephant in the room, and with two PhD students arguing, it is no small affair. The lack of a neat conclusion to that argument is pointed and also marks the inevitable impending end to their relationship.
The ending is not exactly a fairytale. Things unravel as quickly as they began, with an abrupt dissolution of their romance and expected future together.
The ending of the film reduces all warm romantic feelings that could have existed in the movie. I could imagine it being used as a PSA by Muslim parents to their daughters: don’t date a non-Muslim boy because he will take no interest in your faith; he won’t stop drinking for you, he will get another girl pregnant, and you will have to abort his unborn child without ever letting him know, and you’ll eventually end up marrying someone from the same cultural background as you anyway. Ben’s world is his default — Ara is the interesting anomaly who bends with the branch of secularism. As she slips off her headscarf in his settings, she adapts completely to Ben’s world while he can’t even stop partying for her.
Admittedly, it is a relatively pleasant alternative to the regular portrayal of Muslim women in films who become involved with non-Muslim (especially white) men. The story is one of liberation from the oppressive family, culture and religion the woman belongs to, conveniently found in the arms of a white man, his atheism, and his Western culture. This rinsed and repeated trope is sickeningly reminiscent of colonial propaganda, with the annoyingly stereotypical representation of Muslim communities and glorification of ‘modern’ ideals.
It is pleasant in this film that Ara asserts her belief in her faith and appears to learn from the mistakes and negative experiences that came with compromising her faith. She settles with forgiving herself from her past and moving forward with her priorities, earning her doctorate in the final scene of the film. This ending ties in nicely with an earlier scene in the film when she explains to Ben the simple process of tawbah; seeking forgiveness and repenting for sins. She appears to act upon it and ultimately finds comfort in it. The film gets some points for its refreshing respect for Muslim women’s autonomy and intelligence, but this doesn’t say much seeing as the bar is pathetically low on average.
There is so much more that could be analysed here: the differences in the compromises made by men and women in relationships, academia, race, culture, the backstory of Ara’s mother, and an array of other factors, including the fact that a ‘Muslim-girl x non-Muslim guy’ film was made AGAIN in the first place. But all that is for another day.
My Rating?: 5/10, all things considered.
Fadilah is a Nigerian-Irish Law student and writer based currently based in Granada, Spain.