Review: Effortlessly excellent film, Ali & Ava, with a glorious play list of songs

I was enchanted by the romance-drama, Ali & Ava, a British, film written and directed by Clio Barnard. This jewel of a film with a glorious play list of songs, is screening online at the European Film Festival South Africa- October 13 to 23, 2022.  I loved this film. It is a love story, underpinned by an acutely nuanced social/cultural and political commentary. Tickets for online screening are free (geo-blocked to South Africa) but tickets apply for cinema screenings.  Ali & Ava is screening on Sunday October 23, at The Labia, Cape Town (R70) and at Ster Kinekor The Zone, in Johannesburg (R80). Booking:

In Ali & Ava, Clio Barnard takes us through the budding relationship between Ava (Claire Rushbrook) and Ali (Adeel Akhtar) in Bradford, West Yorkshire, England. Once Bradford was a thriving of hub in England’s Industrial Revolution (famous for its textiles and wool industry). In the mid-20th century, Bradford, like many similar cities in the UK, went into decline and lost its power as an industrial boom town and it faced poverty and unemployment. In Ali & Ava, Clio Barnard conjures up a vivid portrait of Ali and Ava – two working class people – grinding along their respective tracks. In various synopses for the film, Ali is described as a British born Pakistani landlord and Ava as an Irish born mother and grandmother who works at a kindergarten. They are two people from different cultural and social spheres. They connect when Ali, drops the daughter of one of his tenants (he is a landlord) at the school where Ava works. Ali gives Ava a lift home, from work (he has a car, she does not) and in that drive home, they discover that they both adore music –albeit vastly different types of music.

Songs are the armature of Ali & Ava- from the beginning as we see Ali, dancing on the roof of his car and belting out, I Know – MAROT RemixOnipa. I was hooked. Then comes Ava standing in her home, singing and dancing with her children and grandchild to AR Rahman’s, hypnotic Chaiyya Chaiyya. I became familiar with Chaiyya Chaiyya, from the 2006 Hollywood film Inside Man, directed by Spike Lee, starring Clive Owen. The song was originally used in the 1998 Bollywood film Dil Se [composed by Rahman]. When Inside Man came out, I was intrigued to know how Chaiyya Chaiyya ended up the an American bank heist/Holocaust story film. Spike Lee apparently used it because he liked the sound of the song. In the course of writing this review, I looked it up and learned that Chaiyan is a Hindi word that translates to ‘shade’ in English and that the song may be loosely translated as ‘let’s dance to the music of romance/love’. The song sets the tempo for the narrative as Ava and Ali dance to ‘the music of romance/love’.

Ali and Ava croon along – to an eclectic mix of songs – including Bob Dylan – and to each other. It is not simply a sound track but a diegetic use of song and that propels this stirring love story along. It is an effortlessly excellent film with superlative performances by Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook, amplified by sheer joy as their characters dip into songs, creating the soundtrack of their lives.

Ali & Ava won the best music award at the British Independent Film Awards 2021. I read that when compiling the music for the film, music supervisor, Connie Farr and composer, Harry Escott, consulted Akhtar and Rushbrook and asked them about their music tastes and choices, “to get an idea of what they connected with personally.” []. There is an early scene in Ali & Ava, when they dance on a sofa-boat (sofas pushed up to each other) in Ava’s home. The room is a mess- crammed with toys. The two adults dance and sing and have fun as they transcend the routine of their lives and the magic begins.

✳ Featured image supplied by European Film Festival (SA).