Djam is one of those films whose uplifting soundtrack instantly transports you to a different place and proves how music alone can bring people together, give them energy, joy and hope in difficult situations. At the heart of Djam is rebetiko, a melancholy but lively kind of folk music born in the streets of Athens and other Greek ports in the 1920s following the arrival of poor Greek families deported from Turkey (after the imposed population exchanges with Greece) or escaping poverty from the Aegean islands. Refugees and exiles with their oriental and countryside ways were not always welcomed warmly and rebetiko is their reaction to their social exclusion. Played on a range of chord instruments from guitar to banjo, violin, traditional 3-chord bouzouki and many others, rebetiko is a communal affair, with friends and family joining in around the dinner table, dancing and singing joyfully. It is full of nostalgia for the homeland and celebrates the character of the “mangas”, a good-hearted but a tad arrogant, badly-behaved, rebellious man.
However it’s the journey of a woman that we embark on in Tony Gatlif’s latest film. Djam (powerfully played, sung and danced by Daphne Patakia) is a pretty, bouncy and impertinent twenty-something Greek girl living with her step-father in Lesvos. Both speak a mix of Greek and French, having lived in Paris where the parents had a Greek restaurants famous for its rebetiko “jams”.
One day, Djam is sent by her uncle on a faraway errand to get a bespoke spare part made for his boat. It’s the start of a happy-go-lucky road trip to Istanbul where she meets Avril (Maryne Cayon), a French would-be humanitarian, mugged on her way to a Syrian refugee camp. Both take the slow route back to Mytilene in a country paralysed by transport strikes and visibly hit by the recent financial crash and refugee crisis. Short of cash, the friends finish their journey on foot, taking time to meet people along the way and enjoy their freedom.
Although it is pervaded by energetic music and a strong sense of optimism, the film doesn’t try to escape reality. There are explicit references to home repossessions by ruthless bankers or people reluctantly leaving the country to find a job abroad. In a chilling scene where Avril wanders around the island she discovers a huge heap of life-jackets, a stern reminder of the tragedy of thousands of refugees arriving in Lesvos, many of them not making it alive. For a moment the leap into reality is almost too crude and threatens the girls’ light-hearted perspective on life – but again, thanks to the power music no problem seems unsurmountable, and the family, freshly disposed, sails away, trying not to worry about the future.
The film can be seen as an erratic hodgepodge of music scenes mixed with a loose storyline and some noticeable narrative ellipses, but Gatlif seems mostly interested in communicating the raw joy of freedom and musical expression. Sometimes the camera overindulges in filming young girls in the nude to demonstrate a blooming sexuality and newly-found freedom, but the film never feels voyeuristic or gratuitous. What Gatlif wants it would seem is to capture genuine moments of spontaneity – and more than stylistic excellence or a polished finish, he is looking for authenticity and humanity with all its beauty and imperfections. And in that Djam is a real success, an emotional musical trip between two continents.
Djam was shown at this year’s London’s Raindance Film Festival.