Alexandria Slater explores symbols of togetherness and their cultural implications in Aleem Khan’s searing feature debut, After Love.
In our era of post-Brexit chauvinism, After Love director Aleem Khan poses the question: “how much of ourselves really belongs to us?”
We know that true identity is a malleable mosaic of traits, influenced by both the environment and people around us. And yet, Western culture is increasingly pandering to an individualistic ideology and ‘every man for himself’ mantra, resulting in feelings of alienation and insecurity. Through patriotic symbolism and a nuanced exploration of cultural ties, After Love depicts the potential beauty of collectivism within countries when fragments of the mosaic are shattered.
After Love tells us the story of Mary Hussain, a widow from Dover who converted to Islam when she married, and her journey of self-exploration after the unexpected death of her husband, Ahmed. Mary (Joanna Scanlan) discovers that Ahmed led a deceitful, double life with a family across the channel in Calais. Seen as the ‘other woman’ through Mary’s eyes, Ahmed’s partner Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) and their son Solomon (Talid Ariss) unknowingly invite Mary into their lives as she impersonates a cleaner. Despite the niche and slightly far-fetched plot, the feeling of being stuck in between limbo—“existing between two worlds and two skins”, as Khan explains—is a universally complex dissociation. Khan takes the fundamentals of this inner conflict and applies it to Mary, Genevieve and Solomon as we watch them try to navigate who they are when the person who influenced their identity disappears.
Drowning in crashing waves of grief and betrayal, Mary’s attempt to grapple with the sacrifices she made is presented through various small symbols, like an improperly worn headscarf that exposes her ears and experimentation with makeup and bold jewellery. Erik Erikson, a development psychologist, explained that people face identity crises late in adulthood because “some people marry to find their identity in somebody else, which you can not do.” Now abandoned with tainted memories of her marriage, Mary is presented as someone going through an existential identity crisis, questioning the validity of her conversion to Pakistani and Muslim culture. An early scene shows Mary surrounded by friends and family, collectively grieving the loss of a loved one in Mary’s living room. All are wearing black hijabs, except for Mary, who is dressed in white: a simple yet effective depiction of her feelings of isolation in a community she entered into on a foundation of lies.
The beauty of Eastern collectivism lies in its warm embrace to anyone who needs support, regardless of the nationality box ticked on a government form. The Pakistani and Muslim culture that director Khan grew up with and portrayed on screen closely aligns with the Ethiopian values rife within my mother’s side of the family. There’s an emphasis on putting others’ needs before your own that I learned through my mother’s reminiscence of childhood stories about her father’s impact on the community. For collectivist cultures, generosity isn’t situational, or a personality trait that some have and others lack; it’s innate. Khan portrays this in a delicately crafted scene where Mary cooks Solomon—the son born from her deceased husband’s secret affair—a traditional Pakistani dish before they converse in Urdu. Solomon, who communicated with a cold shoulder and door slamming prior to this scene, now connecting with Mary over their shared culture, shines a beacon of light onto a hostile atmosphere. For a brief few minutes, the stabs of betrayal and wounds of grief impaled into Mary begin to heal.
Then the hostile tone remerges. Genevieve enters the room and is reminded of the cultural disconnect between her and her son when she cannot engage in Solomon’s conversation with Mary due to not speaking their language. The relatable feeling of alienation to both British and Ethiopian culture formed a lump in my throat and made my eyes brim with tears. In his director’s statement, Khan said, “the feeling that I never fully belonged anywhere operated at quite a cellular level within me,” which is accurately and heartbreakingly conceptualised in this scene.
There’s a subtle crossover between the values held by Mary, Genevieve and Solomon and the international relations between Britain and France that goes deeper than cultural differences between the characters. With intricacy, Khan crafts a narrative that exposes the cracks of Brexit and individualism during the filming of After Love in 2019—a pinnacle moment of post-Brexit tensions. Director of Photography, Alexander Dynan, utilises the symbol of British nationalism, The White Cliffs of Dover, as a representation of both Mary’s and Britain’s identity. Capturing the magnitude of the country’s broken relationship with the EU, a large section of the cliffs collapsing into the sea, this seismic symbol of loss is crystal-clear.
Like Mary, Britain’s identity is a mosaic of traditions and values influenced, or in Britain’s case, colonised from other cultures. While there is nothing inherently wrong with independence, as Erikson stated, “life doesn’t make any sense without interdependence, we need each other, and the sooner we learn that, the better for us all.” Therefore, peddling Brexit as an act of patriotism, implying cultural assimilation as a sign of weakness, is rooted in this self-absorbed nature of Western individualism.
The English channel plays its own role in portraying the importance of collectivism. Despite her understandable growing resentment towards Genevieve, Mary quite literally sees both sides of the problem, crossing the English Channel separating England and France. In the same way, Mary is able to commute daily to Calais. The unavoidable proximity between the two countries has led to pragmatism during international conflicts: take the year 1956, for example, where British Prime Minister Anthony Eden rejected French Prime Minister Guy Mollet’s proposal to merge the countries and allocate the queen as France’s head of state. The dismissal heightened tensions, but the countries placed their quarrels on hold to organise the attack against Egypt during the Suez canal crisis. I should stress that I am not condoning the invasion of Suez, but it’s evident that Britain’s history with France outweighs the petty desire to appear stronger and more united post-Brexit.
Khan applies the tenet of interdependence to Mary, Genevieve, and Solomon, who all have countless reasons to neglect one another out of hurt and anger. Instead, they choose to collectively bond over their shared pain. And so, standing on the White Cliffs of Dover, the three reach a state of catharsis by embracing their disparities and helping each other recover pieces of their shattered mosaics. And to finally, answer Khan—perhaps only a tiny fraction of our identity truly belongs to us. Though that’s not a negative, understanding the impact we have on others is necessary living in an individualist, opportunistic society. “We need each other, and the sooner we learn that the better for us all.”
Words by Alexandria Slater
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