By Jakob Boer
In the autobiographical documentary Bezness as Usual, Dutch director Alex Pitstra (born Karim Alexander Ben Hassen), son to a Dutch mother and Tunisian father, tries to find his identity. The search leads him to his father’s dubious past as a playboy doing so-called ‘bezness’, a common phenomenon in popular tourist destinations where locals make a living of exploiting the desire for love and attention of wealthy Western tourists on their holidays. He investigates his parents’ failed marriage, examines his own relation to both his Swiss half-sister (from another of his dad’s European amorous adventures) and his father’s new family in Tunisia, and attempts to patch up the troubled relationship with his depressed mother who feels abandoned by Alex. These are only a few of the intriguing, intricately interwoven elements that constitute the plot of the film. Alex finds himself in the midst of clashing cultural values, such as love, family bonds, money, and loyalty, and desperately tries to reconcile these in an attempt to create some sense of unity.
Love is one such cultural value. Alex struggles to figure out his relationship to his father: does his father love him at all and if so, how is this love to be understood? He is afraid of being exploited, of being nothing more to his father than ‘bezness as usual’. Rather than love and support, Alex receives requests for financial aid to support a business adventure or a dentist appointment. However, we also come to discover that his father is equally disappointed in his son. He cannot understand why Alex is so reluctant to support him financially, because he assumes that his son is making money from the production of the documentary about him. So why wouldn’t he be entitled to some of it?
So, we can ask, who is exploiting who? But the question somewhat misses the point. It appears to me that the expectations of both the father and the son are based on cultural assumptions about this relationship and that the signs of distrust merely indicate their mutual misunderstanding of these assumptions.
When viewed from Alex’ viewpoint, we could conclude that his father’s decades-long absence and sudden predominantly financial interest in him testifies to a cold and calculating personality and a lack of paternal love. However, from the father’s perspective, financial support is the best and most natural way of expressing and putting into practise the love for a relative.
Both are left wondering what they have done to deserve such treatment from the other and why the other fails to love more? The way I see it, both father and son are stuck in their own understanding of familial love and consequently fail to see the love the other tries to offer in his own culturally formed way.
The film does a compelling job in dramatically staging this culture war between father and son. Part of the documentary’s appeal is its attempt to give an honest depiction of the relationship. It does not try to hide any of the son-cum-director’s insecurities, doubts, and acts of self-centeredness. No matter how awkward or tense the situation gets, the camera does not look away and no cuts alleviate the viewer’s discomfort as he or she witnesses these intimate family moments.
Bezness as Usual appeals to our empathic and imaginative capabilities by placing us in the midst of a family affair. Being a work of art, it enriches our understanding of the impact of cultural differences on our primary relations by giving concrete form to something as abstract as cultural values. It reflects on cultural conflict by appealing to our abilities to imagine, remember, think and feel far beyond rational argument. The film couldn’t have come at a better time, as these abilities are essential now that we are faced with so many cultural, religious, and ethnic others that urge us to reflect on our own identities.
Jakob Boer (1987) schrijft om te worden wie hij is. Hij denkt/schrijft over, door en met film om de (zijn) mens(elijk)heid te leren begrijpen. Hij studeerde Kunsten, Cultuur en Media (BA) en Literary and Cultural Studies (Research MA) aan de Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.