“Probably the only film that dwarfs the spectacle of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Chronicle also challenges that British hero’s often chilly pathology with its own surge of powerfully accruing life-and-death incidents in the survival struggles of farmer Ahmed.”
This year’s audiences at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival were treated to an extensive sidebar of activities and screenings to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of feature films in Algeria. Since 1962 was the year that the country finally gained independence from colonialist France, it at first seems as if Algeria is counting back only as far as its political success in wresting control of its own resources (rather like the official position in Teheran nowadays, which misleadingly dates the beginning of Iranian cinema with the accession of Ayatollah Khomeini to power).
But Algeria’s history has unique elements that justify the anniversary celebrations, so before reviewing some of the examples of Algerian cinema shown in Abu Dhabi — including the only Arab film ever to win the Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival — let us first take a glance at a few little-known curiosities that mark how cinema developed in Algeria, and how Hollywood and Paris treated the country in their own narratives.
When the founding fathers of cinema, the Lumière brothers, dispatched their cameramen around the globe to record life in far-flung locations, they had their men shooting local Algerian life as early as 1906. Though documentary filmmaking continued for decades in the country, feature films were stymied by French colonialism’s political constraints: as one of France’s départements, Algeria was considered an integral state of the mother country, so why would Paris want to encourage competition from a nascent Algerian film industry? (Identifying Algeria as native French soil also contributed mightily to the bitter struggle to wrest independence from the colonial power.)
Rather amazingly, in its classical period up to 1939, Hollywood cranked out 29 feature films set in Algeria (but scarcely a handful in the ensuing seven decades or so). Not surprisingly, these stories featured Euro-centric adventure-romances, typically using the French Foreign Legion for exotic local color, not least the several widely popular versions of P. C. Wren’s best-selling novel about three brothers who defend the family’s honor by signing up for Saharan duties: in both 1926 silent and 1939 sound versions, Beau Geste — as well as its less notable 1928 sequel, Beau Sabreur (now considered a lost film) and its least notable 1931 offshoot, Beau Ideal — virtually defined the ultra-Orientalist image of Algeria as a place almost devoid of Algerians, except as shadowy threats crouched with rifles behind the next row of dunes.
Hollywood’s other major Algerian setting was lavishly exploited in 1927’s The Garden of Allah, director Rex Ingram’s hit version of the smoldering sex-and-religion drama wrested from another best-seller, this one by Robert Hitchens. More accessible today is David O. Selznick’s 1936 Technicolor remake, remarkable as an unintended high point of kitsch, filled with glamorous torment as renegade monk Charles Boyer absconds from his Algerian monastery with the secret of their famed liqueur, joined in both his spiritual and carnal quests by devout seeker of faith Marlene Dietrich, swathed in translucent silks and diaphanous chiffons. (While it is true that both stars, although in their prime, do not exactly strike sparks on the screen, it’s somehow enough that they so stylishly and decoratively stare together into the Saharan distances of the Arizona locations). As a representation of Algeria, however, the surrounding characterizations are insupportably vulgar, not least the absurdity of Joseph Schildkraut’s “native” guide spouting vaudeville double-talk as if speaking Arabic.
Predictably, colonial France did no better in depicting the gritty Algerian reality, settling for more legionnaire fantasies, such as Julien Duvivier’s 1935 hit La Bandera, wherein star Jean Gabin escapes criminal prosecution in France by signing up for Saharan duty, this time with the Spanish Foreign Legion. The film’s entertainment value, already infected by the era’s downbeat pessimism of poetic realism, gets further marred by a romantic thread involving a native Algerian dancing girl, played by French actress Annabella in elaborate (and embarrassingly off-putting) brownface.
A much bigger hit worldwide for both Duvivier and Gabin came with 1937’s Pépé le Moko, in which the star once again escapes the law by relocating to Algeria, though this time developing into an underworld czar in the capital’s criminal network of the casbah, only to be lured out to his doom by another glamorous European. This was such a potent success that American producer Walter Wanger immediately produced an even more successful American version in 1938, frugally incorporating some of the original’s already second-hand stock shots for background details, while assigning Charles Boyer to his most iconic role as the outlaw who duels with the city’s gendarmerie to evade arrest. At least the police provided some crafty portrayals of Algerians to counter the otherwise sordid milieu of downtrodden prostitutes and ruthless petty enforcers. (Though audiences were hardly clamoring for a musical adaptation, that’s what Hollywood gave them in 1948 with Casbah, recruiting velvety baritone Tony Martin to croon a Harold Arlen score while sidestepping his pursuit by police inspector Peter Lorre. Repurposing the material at the even less authentic level of musical spectacle did nothing, of course, to establish Algerians as realistic presences on international screens, nor was the film notably successful).
During the wartime North African campaigns, for Hollywood’s coterie of filmgoers, Algeria basically ceased to exist (probably because Algerians were forcibly conscripted into the French army controlled by the pro-Nazi Vichy government). When the independence movement arose in the 1950s, Hollywood was still smarting from the treachery of anti-communist red scares and kept an all-too-cautious distance from any critiques of status quo power.
Immediately following the country’s hard-won independence in 1962, and with surprising far-sightedness, the new Algerian government built 120 cinemas, established a film school, and started an Algerian cinémathèque that is still operating. At the same time, the country’s first feature-length film appeared, Peuple en marche, largely the work of longtime documentarian, vigorous resistance leader, and determined free spirit René Vautier. Though French himself, he at various times prior to independence was imprisoned, conducted hunger strikes (against film censorship), and subsequently escaped to direct more examinations of how capitalism, colonialism, and racism interact to cement the power structure.
By the time The Battle of Algiers erupted onto world screens in 1966, the lengthy and violent struggle against French control had designed an entirely new identity for the country and its population as freedom fighters. Winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, this agit-prop masterwork was often regarded as an Italian production, given the nationality of the director Gillo Pontecorvo, the cinematographer Marcello Gatti, and the composer Ennio Morricone. Notwithstanding the cast of thousands of Algerians reenacting their experiences on the streets of the capitol and the narrative of their tumultuous eight-year insurgency that left a million Arabs dead, the project fundamentally resulted from a direct commission by the Algerian government and was conceived by Saadi Yousef, who enlisted Pontecorvo and himself plays Jafar in several key scenes.
With no stars and no glamour, with a wide-ranging cast of characters involved in unpredictable and pulse-pounding violence, the film placed audiences in completely unfamiliar and gripping positions, trapped alongside the rebels inside secret hiding places. When George Bush and Dick Cheney privately screened the still incendiary narrative in the White House, seeking tips to whip “terrorists,” one can bet they stayed on the outside alongside the French military, their hands poised to plunge the detonator.
Audiences even walked the edge just by attending the film as theatres reported bomb threats from French elements objecting to scenes revealing systematic torture of Algerians, while a Roman cinema saw a fight break out with one participant wounded, and Israel banned showings for 10 years, fearing supplying ideas to the Palestinian resistance.
Also unprecedented was the film’s smudgy visual style that sought authenticity by reproducing the shaky, high-contrast documentary look yet without using a single frame of published footage. Abu Dhabi showed the film on the big screen, as it must be seen for its full impact, notable as the only film where 10 minutes before the end, every one of the characters has been killed or is otherwise absent. And still the film continues with stupendous crowd scenes in which the city’s residents enthusiastically recreate the spectacular public insurrection, providing the film’s most explosive and riveting sequences, demonstrating that its true protagonist all along had been the common people acting with a single will.
Also screened in Abu Dhabi was Oscar winner (for Best Foreign Film and Best Editing) Z, the groundbreaking 1969 political thriller that exposed the reactionary Greek junta then in control. As filming was impossible in Athens, the production used Algiers as a surprisingly persuasive simulacrum of the sunny Greek capital. Not many enthusiasts for the Costa-Gavras production realized Algeria’s crucial contribution to the film’s success, but Algerians still do.
By common consent, the 1970s constituted the golden decade of Algerian cinema, marked above all by Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina’s Chronicle of the Years of Embers, (Chronique des années de braise, 1975) awarded the top Cannes prize in 1975 by a jury headed by Jeanne Moreau, which chose this film over Antonioni’s The Passenger, Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Herzog’s Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Long unavailable on DVD and only rarely locatable on murky VHS tapes, this film demonstrates a breadth of vision and a supremely confident eye that justifies the jury’s decision.
Starting in 1938 and running to the early 1950s, this sweeping, almost three-hour epic functions as both a prequel to Battle of Algiers (shot by the same cinematographer but in color) as well as a record of the seeds of revolt sown not in the city but throughout the parched and increasingly barren countryside.
Probably the only film that dwarfs the spectacle of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Chronicle also challenges that British hero’s often chilly pathology with its own surge of powerfully accruing life-and-death incidents in the survival struggles of farmer Ahmed (played convincingly by strapping Greek actor Yorgo Voyagis). These include desperate struggles for precious water during years of drought, a lethal outbreak of typhus in the quarantined “native” quarter, forced conscription into the Nazi-sympathizing Vichy French army, and murderous cruelties perpetrated by Algerian cadis as colonialism’s collaborators, the French remaining a distant presence, quite different from Pontecorvo’s film. With more huge landscapes and god’s-eye crane shots than even David Lean conceived, the widescreen teems with activity strikingly staged by Lakhdar-Hamina and dynamically shot by Gatti, who boldly tracks his camera through massive surging crowds and across sulphurous deserts.
The director, not content with functioning as his own camera operator, also steps in front of the camera, enacting the scrawny village madman who outlines for Ahmed the dominant centers of oppressive power (“where everything’s for sale”), when not out preaching to his captive audience of tombstones (“Where you’re safe from danger is the cemetery”).
Wartime privations spur the Algerians to ask, “France, Hitler, America. What’s it all to us?,” leading to a political organizer’s inescapable conclusion that “there’s only one way left: violence. They came by force, the only way they’ll leave is by force.” But their revolt is met by an overwhelming attack by mounted horsemen, not by the French but their Algerian enforcers slaying Algerian protestors the way the Egyptian camel-mounted cavalry charged into Tahrir Square in 2011. The always believable action results in Ahmed finally taking charge since all other leaders have been killed.
Exhilaratingly ambitious and radiating cinematic confidence, this is a film of matchless visual energy and formidable talent that demands to be seen once more in the world’s cinemas, as intended.
In 1980s Algeria, restrictions from the burgeoning religious fundamentalist movement forced young filmmakers to study abroad in Belgium, France, Italy, and Russia, while these internal social pressures squeezed out cinema, resulting in barely a single feature film produced between 1988 and 1999. One that did succeed in 1994 (and shown at Abu Dhabi) was Bab el Oued City from Merzak Allouache, representing this new generation of foreign-trained directors. By 1999, when private production companies had taken hold, suddenly 13 feature films sprang from the hitherto nearly silenced Algerian film industry, jump-starting the current revival of cinematic social inquiry, as well as a revival of government support for filmmaking.
Two popular Algerian films that won international release came from Parisian native Rachid Bouchareb: Days of Glory (Indigènes, 2006) followed the fortunes of four Arab conscripts in the French army during WWII, while Outside the Law (Hors la loi, 2010) concerned a similar trio in the immediate postwar years. Surprisingly, they also demonstrate that tensions from the French right-wing are equally celebrating their fiftieth anniversary, judging from the protests that erupted against both films’ depiction of Algerians mistreated as an underclass during and after military service.
Receiving its world premiere at Abu Dhabi, Perfumes of Algiers (Parfums d’Alger) allows Italian resident Rachid Benhadj to address another facet of contemporary society, the situation of women, through the eyes of a prodigal daughter, a prize-winning Parisian photographer who reluctantly returns to Algeria 20 years after having deserted the country in frustration. She finds her brother a religious fundamentalist awaiting execution; a childhood friend who had been raped and impregnated by her father; a niece splashed with acid by rabid anti-feminists; not to mention the proliferation of women donning headscarves; plus still more disturbing street bombings, all while her continental career slowly slips from her grasp.
The solidly committed performances from the lead actresses and the muscular buildup of social tensions more than compensate for some tele-novela tendencies at the beginning, as does the increasingly complex camerawork of Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), who makes particularly striking use of the formidable Saharan fortress prison set in a mountain of red sand. Clearly this film does not hesitate to dig into Algerian society and fearlessly reveal the brutality of Islamist zealots (an uncle tells her, “You cannot imagine how many terrorists there are”). Co-produced by an arm of the Algerian Ministry of Culture, the shocks and social honesty of this film justify their support and serve to demonstrate the robust return of Algeria to prominence on world cinema screens.