KHOURIBGA, MOROCCO — In the closing scene of “Kedach ethabni” (How Much Do You Love Me, 2011), eight-year-old Adel walks out of his grandparents’ house, alone, the same way he entered it. He sits in silence on a wooden bench. Homes full of secrets lie behind him, and a world that he will face alone lies ahead.
With this scene, Algerian filmmaker and screenwriter Fatma al-Zahraa Zamoum leaves viewers at the 15th Khouribga African Film Festival emotionally entangled with the hardships of the child, while drawing a metaphor for human experience in general.
When his parents separate, Adel (Racim Zennadi) is sent off to live with his grandparents. His grandmother Khadija loves to cook the most delicious of Algerian dishes; his grandfather Lunas likes to keep birds as pets. It is through the grandparents’ home that Zamoum offers a vision of the world as a zoo or dysfunctional jungle, which people have to face alone, while continuously suggesting that unconditional love is the answer to people’s problems.
The idea behind “How Much Do You Love Me” is simple. It almost falls in the category of non-plot narratives, and relies on escalating viewers’ emotional and dramatic engagement through the many details Zamoum presents — and a filming technique that relies on close shots — to put the narrative together.
In the beginning of the film, Kadija asks her grandchild how much he loves her. Adel responds by opening his hands just a little bit. But the titular question lingers throughout the film as the main solution to the many problems the characters face in “How Much Do You Love Me,” particularly when these problems affect a child.
Adel sees his grandfather locking up birds in cages as a hobby. He does not understand what could be fun about that and sympathizes with a particular bird after his grandma tells him how it hates the cage and constantly tries to escape. When his grandpa later takes him to the zoo, we sense a deeper feeling of entrapment. In parallel, Zamoum presents Shaymaa, who loves their neighbor and lies to her parents to go out with him. She also removes her headscarf when they go out, an act that seems to shed light on some social and cultural constraints, taking us back to the cage analogy.
To keep viewers engaged, Zamoum tries to be objective. She never makes viewers see through the eyes of the characters. Adel, for instance, knows nothing about the relationship of Shaymaa and the neighbor. He does not see them kissing in the bathroom behind him. But the film allows us to follow the relationship as one of many narratives surrounding Adel and affecting his relationship with others. And when Adel meets his mother after the separation, the filmmaker shows it from a long shot. We do not hear what they say, nor do we hear the grandfather when he comes to take Adel away. His son did not want Adel to see his mother anymore. On the same night, we see Adel starting to outgrow his childhood when he peels the colorful Grendizer wallpaper off his bedroom walls.
But Zamoum tries hard to maintain the sense of warmth and innocence of childhood years throughout the film. There seems to be a feeling of nostalgia for childhood memories. We see Khadija and her neighbors preparing traditional Algerian food for holiday banquets, while Adel and the other children help out, an experience that viewers can immediately relate to. She also sings folk songs to entertain her beloved Adel. Apart from the folk songs, Zamoum relies mostly on natural sounds as a soundtrack to the film. She wants to keep it real, so she avoids any fantastical, dreamy scenes or even flashbacks. This was also key in not overdramatizing the film, a pitfall that many films about social issues often fall into. But the presence of folk music is also part of the state of nostalgia for childhood in "How Much Do You Love Me," and it reflects the values the grandmother is seeking to instill in her sad grandchild.
Although Adel’s love for his grandma grows gradually in the film, it is the very question that remains pertinent. Zamoum seems to pose the film's titular question to every character, who respond through the actions and positions they take. The young neighbor responds by committing to his beloved Shaymaa, and she continues to love him and meet with him despite the risks. He also proves his love when Khadija blackmails him into putting up new wallpaper in Adel’s room for free or else she would tell Shaymaa’s parents about their relationship.
And Khadija answers this question throughout the film by trying to make Adel happy in every way, by cooking his favorite food, and taking him to the zoo and cinema. As for the parents, we see their response to the question when they leave their child alone to face life without their emotional support. But the analogy drawn through Adel is larger. For we are all children in some sense, and the minute we discover that we have to face life alone, we lose our innocence.