Ibo (Cem Alkan) is a second-generation Turkish immigrant living in Berlin. He’s just got his university degree, but is facing the fact that his name and face make it more difficult to get a job than those from White-German families. As he needs some cash, he’s working in a gay sex shop/cinema, despite the fact his family thinks he’s straight. Then he meets street-wise criminal Ali (Martin Walde) after the man knocks on his door looking to graft, and Ibo hides him when some cops come sniffing around.
Ibo has an immediate fascination with the man, and after discovering Ali is a show wrestler, decides to sign up to the same gym he trains at. When Ali is beaten up and has both his arms broken, he discovers that Ibo is one of the few friends he has who seems to care – indeed Ibo’s a bit besotted. It’s the beginning of a bromance, which is both ‘no homo’ and ‘a bit homo’ at the same time, with Ali insisting he’s a macho straight guy, but deciding perhaps there are a few things Ibo can do.
However, with Ali still thinking like a criminal and Ibo’s life getting more complicated when his sister threatens to out him, they may have to re-evaluate their relationship and figure out whether they can find something a bit more equal.
Director Tor Iben has previously brought us the gay-themed The Visitor (Cibrâil), The Passenger and the acclaimed short film, The Phallometer, and now returns with Where Are You Going, Habibi? (in case you were wondering, Habibi is an Arabic term of endearment). With each of his films there’s been a progression in terms of both the storytelling and the quality of the film itself, and that certainly continues with his new movie, which is his best film yet.
As a coming out drama it doesn’t do a huge amount we haven’t seen before, despite the cross-cultural angle of the film, although it is nice that it doesn’t suggest there’s no way towards acceptance for the son of a Turkish Muslim. What is far more interesting is the relationship between Ali and Ibo, which neither of them can deny has a homoerotic angle, despite the fact Ali is insistent he’s straight. He knows Ibo is attracted to him, and a sexual dimension emerges, but at first Ali thinks it’s just something he can use – which is how he tends to think about everyone he comes across – but they both come to realise it’s something different to that. It also helps that the actors playing the roles have chemistry on-screen.
Where it takes their relationship is quite interesting, eschewing either typical angsty friendship breakup or Ali realising he was gay all along, instead working things through to a different kind of synthesis. It does all this while looking at issues of race, social position, power and culture, initially presenting Ali and Ibo as complete opposites – one the child of an immigrant and university educated, the other White-German and a criminal – before exploring the fact they are both outsiders and may share more than it first appears.
It doesn’t hurt that Martin Walde as Ali isn’t bad to look at, and there’s something immensely endearing about Cem Alkan’s Ibo, who manages to be handsome and look a little dopey/abashed at the same time.
I was slightly surprised though that it didn’t manage to mine a bit more comedy from its situations, as while it has comic elements, there are numerous moments where it could have found a bit more humour, something that would have helped the film rather than hindered it. That’s not to say it’s a slog, as it has a light heart so that despite its sometimes serious subjects there are some very amusing moments. Indeed, Ibo’s sweetness and optimism help ensure it never gets too bogged down and you’ll always stay with the film as you want the best for him.
Where Are You Going, Habibi? does occasionally have a couple of pacing issues, and there are moments that may work for the story but somewhat defy logic, but largely it’s a bit of a charmer.
Overall Verdict: Sweet and entertaining, Where Are You Going, Habibi?, takes some serious subjects are wraps them in an enjoyable tale, with interesting characters and a very intriguing central relationship.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac