This past Sunday I caught a screening of Masquerades (Lyès Salem, 2008) at the Sydney Travelling Film Festival in Newcastle. I’d been keen on checking out the TFF, which is run by Sydney Film Festival, since first hearing about it. The TFF holds mini-festivals year round in fourteen small and medium-sized towns all over, from Wagga Wagga to Alice Springs. I think it’s pretty special for Australia’s premiere film festival to bring it to the people in such a big way. I’m fascinated and heartened by any enterprise that gets independent or foreign films into multiplexes; and some of the towns on the itinerary are pretty remote. (As it happens I also had the pleasure of working for a few weeks with Sarah, the SFF staff member who pretty much runs the whole thing. She’s a cool lady.)

Masquerades was on my radar because it hails from Algeria (with French production support). I worked last year at the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi (now known as the Abu Dhabi Film Festival) and the experience awakened in me a strong interest in the cinema of those regions. Beyond that the film came recommended: renowned as a crowd-pleasing comedy, it won awards at the Dubai Film Festival and played at SFF last year.

Masquerades is the debut feature from director and co-writer Salem, who also stars in the film as Mounir, the young patriarch of a comically dysfunctional family. Salem’s triple duty as auteur/comedian may be one reason his onscreen persona comes across as a bit of an Algerian Woody Allen in his moody self-deprecation. Roberto Benigni is probably a better comparison; like Benigni, Salem is a gifted physical comedian with an ultimately generous worldview.

The plot turns around Mounir’s bumbling attempts to marry off his narcoleptic sister (Sarah Reguieg), not knowing his best friend (Mohamed Bouchaib) is her true intended. Their foibles are a constant source of gossip and outright entertainment for the residents of their remote village. Focusing on marriage and family, Salem gets right to the heart of Muslim society, and he does so with a deft approach that leaves room between the jokes for a knowing depiction of the claustrophobic lives of the poor and forgotten.

With a vast desert wilderness as both backdrop and motif, the film has a naturalistic yet rich style that really brings out the details of Algerian village life: the dusty streets, the beat-up cars, the cool, dark, tiled places where people sit on the floor and have coffee and conversation. But the film is firmly located in the present day. I like the way Mounir spends most of the film wearing an England football tracksuit, while other residents of his village rep Italy and Brazil. It’s a good prosaic touch — this is just how guys all over the world dress these days, and often the poorer they are, the more it means to them. Meanwhile a running contrast is set up between the reality of the characters and their imaginings (and occasional glimpses) of how rich people live. Sitting in the lobby of a posh hotel during one of his capers, Mounir spots a presumably wealthy white guy walk past with long hair and an unkempt hipster style. “And that’s what they call class,” he sneers incredulously.

Masquerades has slapstick touches; maybe a little more than my liking. There are a couple of moments when it resembles the kind of cute but shallow indie fare I tend to avoid. But Salem is very canny, with a light touch, and he knows just when to change the tempo to a more quiet or reflective mode and take the film to another level. The comic tension is built on the choices people make with limited opportunities, and Salem works a sense of melancholy into the climactic scenes. Throughout, he manages a delicate balance between respect for tradition and a helpless yearning for something — or somewhere — else. The acting is terrific, especially that of the women: Rym Takoucht, as Mounir’s wife, and in particular Reguieg as his sleepily adorable sister turn in nuanced and touching performances. Salem himself is brilliant onscreen, with his twitchy body language and array of bug-eyed facial expressions — and the ability to communicate love for his family and friends beneath his bad moods. He seems destined for a bright career on both sides of the camera.

The film certainly ought to have wide appeal; though it was screening at noon on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, there was a decent turnout of area residents — including my wife’s parents, who loved it. Masquerades is not exactly innovative, but it represents what the Travelling Film Festival is all about: letting the folks in Newcastle check out an intelligent family comedy from a place that in our media would usually receive negative media attention or none at all. That’s a reason to be glad for its existence, but Masquerades is a very strong debut, as poignant as it is charming, and worthy all on its own.