The ‘Black March’ in 1975
I could feel rich, having been born from two opposing sides. But the East and West are often star-crossed lovers, especially in these troubled times. I think about the world around me with France’s more relevant idea, freedom, in its broadest sense.
Yet I feel poor when my eyes cross the Mediterranean and see those lands where freedom is defeated. My film is about these contradictory impulses, these frontiers.
I make movies because it is not acceptable that a man or woman can be a disjointed puppet in the hands of a few who will decide their fate. That is why my film could be summed up by this quote by Jorge Amado: ‘The world is a nation where the best interests of the state stop at the borders of the baser interests of people.’
APATRIDE features characters that truly have no free will. The premise is the following one – but it could be this event, it could be another or it could be even elsewhere: in 1975, Algeria took the arbitrary decision to expel tens of thousands of Moroccans that had resided on its soil, sometimes for several generations, without any human or legal consideration. Most were stripped of their property; entire families were separated. This ‘Black March’ was an affront to human dignity, a dignity that some would lose because their identity would become cloudy.
My bias is in no way towards a documentary. I just want to highlight the background of a personal story in the midst of the Great History. I seek neither to justify nor to explain a blatant political act, but to invite reflection on our society, cowardly and timid when witnessing the unspeakable. Because there are no such borders as those that barricade our humanity. (Narjiss Nejjar)
Conversation with Narjiss Nejjar: “I wanted to redefine human dignity”
Gabriela Seidel-Hollaender: APATRIDE is based on an historical event in 1975, when the Algerian government of the time arbitrarily decided to expel several thousand Moroccans whose families had lived in Algeria for several generations. What was the background of this conflict?
Narjiss Nejjar: The background of this film is not my own political manifesto, but a reflection, to bring to light a human drama. This drama is connected with many kilometres of barbed wire fences that restrict certain people – the poorest – in their freedom and prepare the ground for the powerful to have even greater influence. How is a peaceful future possible when part of the world’s population remains excluded?
What is the political and social situation between Morocco and Algeria today?
I’m a filmmaker, and when I’m sad, I cry by making a film. I set the stance of ‘engaged poetry’ against political analysis, because this border conflict has an overarching dimension and its significance reaches far beyond the specific situation between Morocco and Algeria.
Is the life of your protagonist Hénia a true story? Where did you encounter her?
Yes, I met men and women who had to suffer these humiliations: families were torn apart, children separated from their mothers, property was confiscated. And what was even worse: some of them became stateless.
Your film contains images that allow the viewer to feel the protagonist’s entrapment and yearning. What was your visual concept for this film?
I wanted the viewer to breathe with Hénia and come as close as possible to her emotional upheavals. I wanted to confront the audience with the asphyxiating, frightening situation in which Hénia finds herself, with the contrasts in her inner and exterior existence and the feeling of being imprisoned under the open sky.
The story of APATRIDE is told with minimal dialogue, which makes the situation and its inherent conflicts even more intense. How did you develop the script?
I like the sound of stillness. It tolerates no deviation from what is crucial and it forces viewers to observe themselves. Sometimes dialogue waters down the power that arises when one pauses to collect oneself. That’s why I point my camera at the tiny movements of my characters to capture especially intense moments. You don’t need words to depict desperation.
The film shows patriarchal structures in a powerful manner. At the same time, we see a strong female protagonist – even though she is almost speechless. Where does Hénia find her strength and courage?
Hénia turns to the past. Her story has the dynamic of a plot that moves backwards. If you want to move forward, first you have to be anchored, connected with your original family and with your own identity. Hénia is like a phantom; she is obsessed with the loss of her ‘home country’. Her motion is hardly perceptible; she exists only as an object of desire for the men around her. Her existence as a woman is a twofold punishment, because she is more ‘body’ than ‘mind’. Only when she has nothing more to lose can she win. Hénia is a warrior who doesn’t give up. At the beginning of the film, she says, ‘My mother always said only the sun crosses borders without the soldiers shooting.’ Hénia tries to disprove this sentence at the risk of her life. With each step she takes to overcome the borders, she gains a bit of dignity and defies those who try to enslave her. Hénia is like a reed that bends but never breaks.
The Frenchwoman Lise feels sympathy for Hénia. She embodies a more open world and wants to share it with the young woman. But at the same time, Lise makes it clear how great the difference is between her life and Hénia’s and how narrow the prison is in which Hénia must live. This constellation speaks volumes about the differences between living conditions in these countries. But Lise, too, suffers humiliations. Why did you decide to have her give up in the end?
The confrontation between these two women shows the abyss in which the world lies today. Whether they come from Patagonia or from closer to our home, women ceaselessly demand their right to be respected. It’s a difficult path. With APATRIDE, I tried to redefine human dignity.
The theme of the film seems timelier than ever. Do you think the problem of statelessness can be solved some day?
I’m an optimist. Without a humanistic consciousness, there is no future!
(Interview by Gabriela Seidel-Hollaender, January 2018)