Film Review: My name is not Ali – Ali im Paradies – Jannat Ali

Posted in conjunction with the course Multicultural Germany in fall semester 2015.
Author: Tina Schlagenhaufer

Film Review: Viola Shafik’s My name is not Ali – Ali im Paradies – Jannat Ali

My Name Is Not Ali is a documentary by Viola Shafik[1]  from the year 2011 about the actor El Hedi Ben Salem M’barek Mohammed Mustafa, who was born in 1936 in Tunisia and died in 1976 in France. He played one of the lead roles in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film Angst essen Seele auf (Eng. Fear Eats Soul) and was Fassbinder’s partner over the span of a few years.[2] In reaction to Fassbinder’s film, Shahbaz Noshir directed a short film in 2002 entitled Angst isst die Seele auf (Eng. Fear Eats The Soul).

The title of Shafik’s documentary in English, German, and Arabic draws attention to the contradictory nature of Salem’s life in Germany. First of all, the English title does not correspond to the German one, as the direct English translation would be “Ali in paradise.” The English title “My name is not Ali,” however, suggests that Salem is trying to convince others of the fact that his name is not Ali. Ali is a given name often associated with orientalized (Said) stereotypes: Arab men with long black beards and uncivilized behavior, living in slums – put into orientalized vocabulary these would be ‘wild’ and ‘exotic’ attributes. On the other hand, the title suggests that this Ali, who is struggling to be acknowledged as an individual and not a ‘quota-Ali’[3], is in paradise. Does the title invite us to speculate that Salem, who died in the 1970s, is now actually in heaven because people are not able to treat him like a ‘quota-Ali’ anymore? Or does this statement (also) refer to the people in this documentary – close friends and co-workers of Fassbinder’s who are interviewed and invited to recount their stories of Salem – who think that Salem was born in the “wild,” in the “desert” and then made it to paradise (which, from their perspective, would be Europe) in the 1960s?

The film also entertains topics for discussion on many other levels: It sheds light on different facets of integration, linguistic barriers, prejudices and stereotypes, as well as xenophobia in the Germany of the 70s and in the Germany of today. Those prejudices the interviewees have against Salem are probably the reason why the documentary can not provide a lot of information about Salem as a person – because the interviewees can’t, as they are and probably always have been disinterested in him. They can not give information for example about what kind of a person he was and the relationships he had with (the) people in Germany. They seem to be non-existent. The interviewees seldom talk about him, mainly stressing their own experiences with Fassbinder. When they start talking about Salem, they do not actually know or recall where he was born and say that he is from the “desert.” One can only wonder what kind of life this ‘quota-Ali’ that Fassbinder’s colleagues envision for El Hedi Ben Salem must have been like – a generic having replaced their memories with and project onto him. It does not seem like Salem was integrated or considered a part of the Fassbinder group. Nobody seemed to be interested in him, as the interviewees do not remember Salem’s personal characteristics but rather talk about superficial impressions and gossip, for example about as his strange gait, whether or not he had had sex with Fassbinder, and, that despite him being a foreigner, he was able to learn a little bit of German so that he could understand the director’s instructions for filming. The documentary tries to let the interviewees speak for themselves as there is no interruption in the form of asking questions from the interviewer during the takes. Furthermore, the camera focuses on the interviewees with close ups, giving the audience the impression that they are not acting but giving authentic statements of their memories of Salem, statements that underline their disinterest in him as a person, which makes the documentary feel even more like punch in the face. There is only one exception to this attitude of disinterest in Fassbinder’s former crew: the film editor, who remembers spending quality time with him and speaks about trying to support Salem during his stay in Germany. Although the documentary’s title suggests that Salem was fighting the image of the ‘quota-Ali’ that was projected onto him, one does not get the impression that he was successful in doing so. The interviewees talk about working with him in a couple of movies but cannot even recall which ones (see especially the first minutes of the interview with Irm Hermann) and recall that they spent time with him but still cannot characterize him as a person. Instead they draw a picture of a bearded foreigner with whom they were merely acquainted. This stereotyped image of Salem and everybody else from the “desert” (as his hometown is described) is also projected onto his family in Tunisia. The Fassbinder crew talks about his children, who knew “zero European culture” (null europäische Kultur) and had to be cleaned with a disinfectant when they came to Germany. Additionally they describe an incident with his wife who mourned, wailed, and even bleated like a sheep, when her children were taken away to Germany. The orientalized picture of Salem’s family the Fassbinder crew talks about is ironically underscored by the documentary’s soundtrack, which features oriental music while showing Salem’s hometown.

In the end, one does not have the impression that one has actually gotten to know anything about Salem except that he was a person torn between two cultural poles and that he somehow ended up in the memories of the interviewees, symbolically speaking, in a place without identity, a “non-place” (Augé).[4] Marc Augé refers in his theory about non-places to actual places, transit areas like refugee camps, transit camps and slums. In this case, the symbolic meaning Augé ascribes to these places, themselves faceless, neither relational nor historical, plays an important role. The prejudices the interviewees hold against Salem and his family echo in Augé’s words as faceless exotics, stripped of any relational and historical importance. As people who come from and still live in a non-place, or, in the minds of the Fassbinder crew, a slum.


The movie was screened on the occasion of the exhibition ”Homestory Deutschland – Black Biographies in Historical and Present Times“ at the Goethe Institut in San Francisco. For further information please see < (Links to an external site.)> for the exhibit and < (Links to an external site.)> for the screening.



[1]    “Viola Shafik grew up in Germany and Egypt. She studied Fine Art, Middle East Studies and Film Studies in Stuttgart and Hamburg and taught at the American University in Cairo. She has been a selection panel member for the “alRawi Screenwriters Lab”, the World Cinema Fund (Berlin International Film Festival) and the Dubai Film Connection since 2007.“ Citated from the event homepage of the Goethe-Institut in San Francisco on the occasion of the exhibition “Homestory Deutschland – Black Biographies in Historical and Present Times”, cited from: <> [last access: 11/18/2015].

[2]    See El Hedi ben Salem on, link: <> [last access: 11/18/2015].

[3]    Frauke Lüpke-Narberhaus discusses in her article “Vornamen-Diskriminierung: “Keiner will einen Ali im Team haben”“ discriminating measures against people applying for a job in Germany who have foreign first names, in: DER SPIEGEL online, 26th March 2014, link: <> [last access: 11/18/2015].

[4]    Augé, Marc: Orte und Nicht-Orte. Vorüberlegungen zu einer Ethnologie der Einsamkeit. Frankfurt/M. 1994.

– Tina Schlagenhaufer

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