But the road movie with its moving tale of a Moroccan immigrant father who makes his Westernised son drive him from a French suburb to Makka for the hajj pilgrimage has won widespread acclaim.
Earlier this year it won plaudits at the Venice and Toronto film festivals and last week saw its general release in France.
The release comes at a time when relations with the growing Muslim minority in Europe has become a critical issue as the European Union readies itself for the possible entry of Turkey.
France recently banned the veil and other religious emblems in state schools.
“By chance it’s very relevant right now, but I wrote it six years ago before the September 11 attacks or the debate about Turkey in the EU,” Ferroukhi said at the Dubai International Film Festival where it wowed audiences as the opening movie.
Made on a tiny budget of $1.4 million, the Moroccan-born director spent six years planning and shooting the film in France, Bulgaria, Turkey, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
The subject matter made getting funding difficult, he said.
Relations with Europe’s growing
Rather than preach about how Islam in Europe should or should not be, Ferroukhi’s camera offers a warts-and-all view of Muslims, through a devout father who retains his traditional values and his son who wants nothing to do with Islam.
“It’s a very delicate subject and there are many traps – cliche images and rhetoric about Islam as good or bad. I wanted to avoid all that,” he said.
“I wanted only to observe, not to tell people what to think. If I took sides no one would watch it, and it would be a manipulation.”
Both the hot-headed son and the stoic father, solid in his faith, find they have something to learn from each other before arriving in a crowded and chaotic Makka, where non-Muslims are forbidden to go.
“I wanted to show inside, I wanted people to understand and feel what Makka is like. But I had to show it as it is. I didn’t want to lie,” said Ferroukhi, adding he was surprised the Saudi authorities gave him permission to film in Islam’s holiest city.
The ending avoids having the son, actor Nicolas Cazale, accept his father’s vision of Islam, but he still emerges a changed, more moral person.
“It’s not a conversion, I’m not interested in that. I’m more interested in people’s humanity and having hope,” Ferroukhi, 42, said.
“It’s really about spirituality, not religion, and that’s very different. Everybody can find their religion in this story”
“It’s really about spirituality, not religion, and that’s very different. Everybody can find their religion in this story.”
Throughout the film the son speaks French and the father speaks Arabic, with only a few poignant moments where they allow themselves to cross the cultural divide.
Ferroukhi, who moved to France as a child, said he wanted to tell a tale about generational misunderstandings in general, not necessarily directed at Muslims in the West.
“It was not meant to be especially about Muslims, I just took this angle because I know this one,” he said.
But he was apprehensive about the reaction of his own father to seeing the film. “My father saw it three days ago but I haven’t heard what he thought yet. He speaks mainly Arabic, I speak mainly French. It’s like the film.”