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'It’s a cliche of a cliche': Algerians react to French documentary on Hirak movement

The documentary, which aired on French public TV, has been criticised for pandering to perceived cliches of youth
Seventy-five percent of the Algerian population who have made up a large component of the popular movement is under the age of 30 (Ryad Kramdi/AFP)

A French channel has received a torrent of criticism after broadcasting a documentary on the Algerian popular protest movement, known as the Hirak, and has been accused of failing to adequately represent the diverse social nature and ideologies of its members.

Aired yesterday on one of France’s main public channels, France5, and directed by Franco-Algerian journalist Mustapha Kessous, the Algeria, My Love documentary was received poorly by Algerians in Algeria, France, and the wider diaspora. Many took to social media using the hashtag “this is not my Hirak” to express their discontent with the documentary’s portrayal.

“We the Algerian people denounce France [sic] attempt to discredit the Hirak with a reportage that reduces our cause to some silly demands while we fight for justice and freedom and change of the regime,” one user tweeted.

“It’s a cliché of a cliché. It’s like they hung out with a couple of guys in Algiers & called it a day. Algeria is...not just certain neighborhoods in Algiers,” another wrote

The Hirak movement was ignited on 22 February 2019 after nationwide protests erupted against the decision by then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to seek a fifth term in office despite his debilitating state.

Up until the coronavirus pandemic, Algerians were taking to the streets weekly, demanding an end to corruption and the actualisation of major political reforms.

Some have expressed fears that the documentary may work in the state’s favour, which has often accused the movement of being driven by “foreign hands”.

As a result of the backlash to the documentary, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which blasted the documentary as an "attack" on "the Algerian people and its institutions" recalled its ambassador to France today.  

Similarly in March, Algerian authorities summoned the French ambassador to Algeria after a researcher appeared on the France 24 TV channel and accused the military of diverting medical aid, sent from China to help during the coronavirus pandemic, for the use of its own benefit.  

Kessous began making Algeria, My Love after being “dazzled by the beauty of the Hirak” and “its strength, joy, [and] courage”, he has said.

It is one of the first documentaries on the movement to be broadcast on a mainstream French channel. The documentary features five young Algerians under the age of 30 who grew up under the rule of Bouteflika, ousted last year after 20 years in power.

The five Algerians joined the Hirak movement to demand change, including challenging some of the country’s existing socio-cultural taboos involving sex and alcohol. 

One of the students featured, 20-year-old Anis from the capital Algiers, describes his “suffocation” and “unhappiness” living in Algeria after explaining how a couple kissing in the streets is viewed by some as an “offence to decency”.

Whilst viewed as a legitimate concern shared by some Algerian youth in the conservative country, where drinking and clubbing are not unheard of, many pointed out how ill-placed Kessous was to reduce the uprising to its socio-cultural dimension instead of focusing on the underlying motivations of the youth at the heart of the popular revolt.

Translation: Do you see this woman? Her son was kidnapped during the dark decade when he was only 16 years old. She has had no news about him since. I don't think she went out to have more sexual freedom, or to drink beer in public.

“Fifty-four weeks of protest, of sacrifice, of pacifism, solidarity and struggle. None of the basic claims of the Hirak have unfortunately interested the director," journalist Kouceila Rekik commented

“This is a documentary intended for Westerners, especially the French," one Twitter user said.

According to Hamou Boumediene, one of the few activists interviewed in the documentary, the feature serves as a reminder of “our inability to produce our own image”.

“If we are unable to write by ourselves, we remain obliged to undergo what others write about us. So it’s urgent [for us] to engage our filmmakers and producers to make documentary films about us and for us."

Similar sentiments were shared online questioning the lack of funding afforded to Algeria’s creative scene or the repressive climate that has prevented Algerian artists from creating work that would benefit the country. 

Kessous has defended the film from its critics, explaining in an interview with El Watan: “I am an Algerian living in France. I wanted to know what happens in my country without taking sides.

“I have never claimed that the five witnesses represent Algeria as a whole, but part of the Algerian youth. The five witnesses are from the people, that's the point...They do not go against the dream of the people.”

Besides the barrage of criticism the documentary has received, some viewers praised it as an opportunity to highlight the different voices associated with the Hirak. 

Translation: It's a point of view. A contribution to the immediate history. Calm down guys, ask yourselves why what is broadcast in France seems so vital to you. With this doc, we have real voices.

“The France5 report is one point of view among others. It has the merit of exposing real problems by young people who have had the courage [to express] their feelings,” another tweeted

Some also highlighted the potential threats faced by those featured in the documentary from those taking offence to what was expressed and how acceptance of different opinions should go hand in hand with democratic aspirations. 

“You should have hidden the faces of the young people in your documentary,” one Twitter user suggested. “That these young people did not measure the scope of their words is understandable, but you as professionals know it.” 

The documentary was also criticised for failing to include Hirak voices who remain behind bars for their opposition or those who have spent a number of weeks in prison for their activism - including 26-year-old poet Mohamed Tadjadit and 22-year-old law student Nour El Houda Dahmani, activists who have become the faces of youth in the protest movement.

Translation: The class struggle in Algeria, in order to attribute glory to its people, is a story as old as the homeland. Historical details may change, but the main idea remains. Tormented people on the ground will be buried in the shadows without witnesses. As for the circulating texts, they will be inhabited by those who have not written one line in them. For those in the shadows behind bars: happy Eid, you are the revolutionaries.

Authorities have continued their crackdown on dissent, opposition figures, and influential voices within the Hirak movement over the last year. Dozens have been imprisoned over trumped-up charges involving the state and the military. 

According to the National Committee for the Release of Detainees, some 50 people are currently being detained over links to the protest movement. One of the most recent incarcerations was that of 25-year-old Walid Kechida, who was accused of “insulting the president of the republic” for owning a satirical Facebook page called “Hirak Memes”.  

Activists and analysts have accused Algerian authorities of using the current coronavirus pandemic as a pretext for crushing the movement.

Papicha, a film released last year and set during the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, was also the target of similar criticism after its director, Mounia Meddour, was accused of inadequately depicting the lived experiences of those who witnessed the violence of the "Black Decade". 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.