May 2018, arsenal cinema

The Past in the Present – New Films from Algeria

LOUBIA HAMRA, 2013

Over the last few years, a young generation of filmmakers has formed in Algeria whose works deal with the current state of their country while equally referencing its past. Numerous social taboos have meant that artistic engagement with Algeria’s history – such as the historical and cultural legacy of the colonial era, the Algerian War (1954-62), and the “Dark Decade” (1991-2001) – is hardly a matter of course. Perhaps the most deafening silence in Algeria is reserved for the bloody period of terror in the 90s, when the war between Islamist groups and the military led to 200,000 deaths. With this in mind, Arsenal is presenting seven films from 2013-2017 which sound out the reverberations of the past in the present. They offer insights into a society traumatized across different generations and social strata and show a country in stasis. The burden of the unspoken, the scars of history, and the extent of the hardship faced by the younger generation become clear in all the titles in the program, whether fiction, documentary or essay film. The contours of today’s Algeria come into sharpest relief when past and present become superimposed. This new Algerian cinema has also set things in motion, whether in relation to its films, which have received considerable international attention as well as numerous prizes, or with respect to the filmmakers themselves, who have brought about a revitalization in cinema culture in Algiers by setting up ciné-clubs and screening films there; the city is otherwise largely devoid of cinema auditoria nowadays. We are very happy that three filmmakers from Algeria will be our guests at Arsenal thanks to the support of the Goethe-Institut Algiers and the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient: Narimane Mari, Djamel Kerkar, and Karim Moussaoui will all be in Berlin to discuss their films with our audiences. A panel discussion in English will also be taking place on May 6th to explore filmmaking conditions and the state of independent cinema culture in Algeria.

EN ATTENDANT LES HIRONDELLES (Until the Birds Return, Karim Moussaoui, France/Algeria/Germany/Qatar 2017, 3.5., screening attended by Karim Moussaoui) An affluent building contractor with a middle-class intellectual family seems unaffected by private problems and is equally passive after becoming the witness of a brutal attack in an Algiers suburb. A young woman has decided to marry an older man, but is thrown off course when repressed feelings and a past love pop up during a journey to the other side of the country. On the eve of his marriage to his cousin, an up-and-coming neurologist is revisited by an incident from the civil war of the 90s. All of them are faced with dilemmas and question what the right decision might be – torn between pragmatism or desire, tradition or change, suppression or responsibility. The past weighs heavily on all three, while the stagnation of the present is just as inhibiting. Loosely linked together by a recurring Bach cantata, these episodes describe different facets of everyday life in Algeria in piercing fashion while always allowing room for small, beautifully judged digressions. It’s only in the dance scenes that individual freedom is expressed.

EL OUED, EL OUED (The River, Abdenour Zahzah, Algeria/UAE 2013, 4.5., with an introduction by Judith Scheele, ZMO) The Oued El Kebir river rises in the Atlas Mountains at an altitude of 1525 meters and flows into the Mediterranean 40 kilometers away west of Algiers. The numerous different impressions collected along its course produce a polyphonic portrait of Algeria: one man is angry at the company Nestlé Waters, who charge the village inhabitants through the nose for their water, while another man explains that the first great massacre of the 90s took place in this area. A mill had to be shut down because of the “Dark Decade”. Young men live among rats and rubbish, homeless people shacked up under the pier of a bridge drink aftershave, a beekeeper makes honey, and a magnificent villa is in construction. At school, the focus is on nutrition, while a political event is about Algerian unity. There’s equally talk of environmental contamination, flooding, and that those responsible do nothing. “Don’t show that” shouts someone at the filmmaker, “The French will say, ‘Look what’s become of Algeria!’”.

ATLAL (Djamel Kerkar, Algeria/France 2016, 4.5., screening attended by Djamel Kerkar) Fuzzy VHS footage of a landscape of ruins from 1998 as a prologue, showing an expanse of rubble where grass has long since overtaken the scrap metal and concrete – the remains of Ouled Allal, a small town south of Algiers completely destroyed in 1997 during the war between Islamist groups and the military. Despite some attempts at reconstruction, the traces of the terror of the 90s and the scars of war are still very much present today. The silent contemplation of ruins and nature gradually gives way to conversations with three men and their recollections of the catastrophe. Although they come from different generations, they all experienced war, poverty, and suffering during their twenties. The oldest reaffirms his love for the fatherland, the youngest sees no future in this place and wants to leave at all costs. Time passes. By the fire at night, it’s only the rai music by Cheb Hasni that offers any solace. A wonderfully shot, sad and beautiful film in which little separates poetry and pain.

FI RASSI ROND-POINT (A Roundabout in My Head, Hassen Ferhani, Algeria/France/Qatar/Lebanon/The Netherlands 2015, 5.5., with an introduction by Nora Lafi, ZMO) The slaughterhouse in Algiers. Men both young and old have set up home in its halls and are shown both carrying out their work as well as doing many other things: watching television, playing dominos, reading newspapers, exercising, listening to music, discussing football and politics. The killing of the animals occurs off-screen, the focus is on the people. Youssef and his Berber friend load cattle hides onto carts and talk rapturously of love. The worries, fears, and hardships of the workers are also expressed. The younger members of the workforce feel caught in a dead end due to the situation in the country. Suicide or flight? “In my head, there is a roundabout with thousands of exits, but I haven’t found mine yet”, says Youssef. In precisely framed shots full of unlikely lyricism, the microcosm of the slaughterhouse becomes an allegory for Algerian society.

LOUBIA HAMRA (Bloody Beans, Narimane Mari, Algeria/France 2013, 5.5., screening attended by Narimane Mari) A group of children romp around on the beach in Algiers in carefree fashion, going in the water, laughing, singing, arguing. But they also act out war: tired of the monotonous beans that form their diet, they steal food from the French military and take a young soldier captive in the process. Colorful balloons also form part of their fighting equipment. In a fantastic nighttime scene set to the music of electronic duo Zombie Zombie, they dance with their own shadows, moving like young cats. The demons of the past brush up against the vitality and freedom of children, who appropriate history and redefine it. The children are as boisterous as the film itself, which stages the colonial era, the Algerian War, and the battle against the French occupation as a game. Energy is thus released which shatters the cage holding the tragic past: “What is worth more, to be or to obey?” (Artaud)

LE JARDIN D’ESSAI (The Trial Garden, Dania Reymond, France/Algeria 2016, 6.5.) The casting and rehearsals for a film are taking place in an Algiers park teeming with tropical plants that was laid out during the colonial era. The director (Samir El Hakim) is working on a fairy tale about the siege of a city. The feelings of the inhabitants of that green oasis move between anger, resignation, and thoughts of escape. To stay or to go? The young actors are soon confronted with the same questions as the characters they are playing. The exotic atmosphere, slow camera pans, and film music evoke the world of classical Hollywood cinema, while the interweaving of the material with current realities and the concrete social context is equally discernible. The interactions between staged and documentary elements and the layering of cinema and history remain latent. Despite all the difficulties they face, the film team is determined not to give up.

BLA CINIMA (Straight from the Street, Lamine Ammar-Khodja, France/Algeria 2014, 6.5.) The newly renovated “Sierra Maestra” in the center of Algiers stems from another era, back when there were hundreds of movie theaters across the country and cinema played a major role. The filmmaker takes up position on the lively square before the theater with his microphone and speaks with passersby about how they see film and cinema. Yet the resultant conversations aren’t just a swansong to the seventh art, they also show what moves these people. The older generations talk politics, while the younger ones are under no illusions about their prospects for the future. Poverty, unemployment, corruption, and the lack of social housing are bemoaned and the role of religion is discussed. Taking cinema as its starting point and drawing on numerous quotes from Algerian film history, a sketch of an entire society comes into focus almost in passing – as well as a reflection on the tasks and value of cinemas in today’s Algeria. (bik)

An event in collaboration with the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (Berlin) and the Goethe-Institut Algeria.