Produced in 2021 but delayed due to Covid, first-time feature director Bassel Ghandour’s The Alleys toured film festivals in 2022 and recently became available on VOD (including Netflix), sparking controversy in the filmmaker’s native Jordan.
“Don’t you realize that in 20 years, you’re still going to be living in the same apartment building? Working in the same place? Cutting the same hair for the same customers? I want more for myself.”
These are the words of Ali, the protagonist of The Alleys, addressing his friend and neighbor, Bahaa. This enthralling thriller tells a story of blackmail, murder, and scandal in the streets of east Amman. It marks Bassel Ghandour’s directorial debut, following the success of the Oscar-nominated Jordanian short film Theeb, which he wrote and produced. And people are talking.
“So far in 2023,” noted the Arab News, “no film has garnered as much interest — or generated as much debate — across the region as Jordanian filmmaker Bassel Ghandour’s directorial debut, The Alleys.”
Ghandour captures Amman’s warm tones, guiding audiences through the eastern district’s old narrow staircases, bustling street shops, and loud neighborhood gatherings — conveying the city’s charm and vibrancy. As the suspense builds, the scenes get murkier and darker, and unprovoked violence strikes the alleys.
Ali is a young Jordanian man born and bred in this small world. The alleys make up the only home he has ever known. The same neighbors. The place where his grandfather started their family business, where his parents raised him, and where he is expected to get married and start a family of his own.
He works with an American company and aspires to live abroad someday. When he falls in love with Lana, the young daughter of a local salon owner, their pre-marital relationship is caught on tape by an anonymous blackmailer, and the specter of shame follows them and their families.
We do not learn much about Lana, played by Baraka Rahmani, to begin with. However, we know that she is the product of a messy divorce between her absent alcoholic father and a strong-willed mother. And she is young and in love.
Actress Nadira Omran brings to life the role of Aseel, mother of Lana, owner of the salon where the latter works, and trusted confidant of the women in the alleys. Lana is the resident makeup artist. Her mother’s salon is a social hub for those who engage in beauty-making, smoking, gossiping, and nosy questions. The close-knit bond between the women at the salon shows us just how connected Aseel is to the border community around her.
Audiences are also introduced to the alleys behind closed doors. In true Hitchcockian fashion, we see a rear-window view of personal relationships, family dynamics, and hidden secrets. At one point, the camera pans to Lana’s bedroom, where we are introduced to her relationship with Ali. The intimate romance between them is palpable. They are affectionate and continuously embrace each other. We find out about their unmarried and hidden relationship status when he climbs out her window after Aseel calls her name.
The depiction of their close physical relationship is considered bold and risqué for Jordanian audiences. An unmarried couple in a woman’s bedroom embracing one another is seldom showcased in Jordanian cinema. Their romantic storyline has been controversial for the film, with social media users often referring to it as a “Western-style romance,” representing a departure from Jordanian norms and values.
When Aseel receives a shocking tape of the couple together in Lana’s bedroom, her heart sinks with the weight of its implications. She knows that she is being blackmailed by an anonymous person, and checks with Lana to make sure that the video is real. It is.
We quickly learn that it is not just her reputation on the line, but her entire livelihood and business. Her options are clear: pay up or become a pariah.
Ghandour uses this topic to convey the insidious currency of familial and social reputation, and the lengths to which people will go to avoid scandal. Aseel has no choice but to ask the alleys’ chief hustler Abbas for help. Actor Mondher Rayahneh stands out in his compelling performance of Abbas. He is irascible and dangerous, keeping audiences on the edge of their seats. His rough exterior and profanity create a menacing atmosphere that leaves those around him running away in fear. Despite his intimidating nature, he also possesses a calculated mind, making him a force to be reckoned with. His home is shrouded in mystery and darkness, and he always has a cigarette in hand and cash within reach.
Abbas agrees to help Aseel, but not without a price. He scares off the blackmailer but orders Ali to end his relationship with Lana. When Ali resists, Abbas viciously attacks him, making it clear that he is the one in control and that Ali and Lana’s safety is not guaranteed. Faced with the threat of danger, Ali contemplates moving away from the alleys to be with Lana.
Thus, a new twist takes shape, one in which Abbas plays a major role. He is challenged by a new foe, family secrets are unveiled, and no one is safe.
Ghandour, the director, craftily builds suspense throughout the remainder of the film as the characters’ lives collide.
Ultimately, The Alleys creates a space where cultural criticism and drama meet, inviting us to think of our relationship with shame, where dark thriller, romantic intimacy, and moments of comic relief coincide. Although its controversy in Jordan has eclipsed valuable cultural commentary, Ghandour’s artistic prowess shines through the film’s complex characters.