“We have a relationship to the place that we live,” Saba (Aliya Kanani), a guide from a local community improvement program in East Toronto, tells a handful of volunteers who have given up their weekend to clean up the forest outside their apartment complex in “Concrete Valley.” Farah (Amani Ibrahim), one of those assembled, would like to believe that’s true, though it’s clear she’s never felt quite at home after settling down in Thorncliffe Park with her husband Rashid (Hussar Douhna) and her son Ammar (Abdullah Nadaf) after arriving from Syria where she once pursued a career in acting. Her co-worker at the local drug mart, also an immigrant, seems puzzled why she would want to use one of her off-days picking up trash, but co-writers Teyama Alkamli and Antoine Bourges, who also directs, leave no doubt why Farah would like to be a part of something local, still feeling like a foreigner five years on.
However, “Concrete Valley” intrigues when Farah’s sudden interest in recycling also takes Rashid by surprise, though if anyone knows what she’s going through, it should be him – not necessarily because they’re soulmates since as he mentions in an English class he takes, they were somewhat of an arranged marriage, but because he’s experiencing a similar alienation and he desperately tries to assimilate. The frustrating urge to be useful is a relatively unexplored aspect of immigration stories, but it becomes a driving force in Bourges’ third feature that opens with Rashid walking through the woods just outside the family’s flat, appearing lost, though he’ll insist to anyone who asks later that he wasn’t. A doctor in his past life, he still has that conscientious, insistent demeanor about him, although he spends his days now largely taking Ammar to his soccer games while Farah works, unable to help himself when sitting on the bench to advise others on homeopathic remedies such as cinnamon as a natural blood thinner when he can’t professionally practice medicine.
“Concrete Valley” finds tension in having Farah and Rashid rarely share scenes together, true to their situation where if one isn’t working, the other has to be to keep a roof over their head, but naturally they begin to grow apart when they don’t have a similar set of reference points, a disorienting reality when their past has inextricably linked them to one another. With a cast largely made of up actors appearing on screen for the first or second time, there can occasionally be a slightly stilted quality to the performances, though Bourges will often use this to his advantage when every exchange outside of Rashid and Farah’s home comes unnaturally for the couple, irritating them when they know their true intentions aren’t entirely coming across. Ibrahim and Douhna are also able to express the crucial quality of curiosity as Farah and Rashid, respectively, remaining open to the possibilities of engagement rather than shutting down in despair as the film is careful to introduce others in and around the building who aren’t eager to talk about anything too personal. Even with the sense of disconnection that runs throughout “Concrete Valley,” the film itself makes connections where it counts.
“Concrete Valley” will screen again at the Toronto Film Festival on September 16th at 7 pm. It will be available virtually through Canada starting September 16th through the end of the festival.