Algerian new wave: 'When words are lacking - that’s where cinema comes in'
“Every Algerian movie that gets made is a victory for us all,” said Damien Ounouri, a 35-year-old Franco-Algerian director, in an interview with Middle East Eye.
Ounouri is one of a new generation of Algerian filmmakers who are achieving recognition for their work and bringing Algerian cinema to wider international audiences.
“I’m happy when I see Sofia Djama’s The Blessed at the Venice Film Festival or Karim Moussaoui’s Until the Birds Return at Cannes. There’s room for everyone,” he says.
There is a whole new crop of Algerian feature films, documentaries and shorts - dozens of 16mm and 35mm films which are receiving wide distribution abroad.
Jacques Choukroun, of Films des Deux Rives, distributes movies and international indies from more than two dozen countries. He told MEE that he has witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of Algerian films on the international scene.
“I always dreamt that Algerians, Algeria, our way of seeing the world - laughing, everything - would be recognised in the world,” actor-director Lyes Salem told MEE.
I always dreamt that Algerians, Algeria, our way of seeing the world - laughing, everything - would be recognised in the world
- Lyes Salem, actor-director
Young Algerian filmmakers like Sofia Djama and Karim Moussaoui are being touted in Venice, Cannes, and many other film festivals worldwide.
Born in Oran, a port city in western Algeria, Djama is a 38-year-old director that grew up in Bejaia before moving to Algiers, where she began writing short stories. She launched her film career in 2012, writing and directing two shorts before writing the screenplay for The Blessed (2017). Due for release in France in December, it is her first feature film.
"[I live] with one foot in Paris and the other in Algiers, and I am very happy between the two countries, two cities I love," she said.
The film is a drama whose main characters struggle to free themselves from the shadow of what is known as "the Black Decade," when the military-backed government cancelled legislative elections in 1992 as the Islamic Salvation Front party was poised to win. This triggered a civil war that left around 200,000 people dead. The deteriorating economy and shrinking funds caused a steep decline in Algeria's film industry even before the civil war, as the country's leading film school was closed in the 1970s.
“Algeria made me a filmmaker, and yet there are no film schools," said Moussaoui. Many Algerian filmmakers like Moussaoui and Salem founded and attended film clubs as an alternative to learn about movies and meet other filmmakers.Both The Blessed and Until the Birds Return will be fêted at the forthcoming Dubai International Film Festival, from 6-13 December, as well as first-time Algerian writer-director Yasmine Chouikh with her film Until the End of Time. The film is about a 60-year-old widow named Johar who decides to organise her own funeral. Yet when she goes to the cemetery to make preparations for her final journey, she begins to experience feelings for Ali, a 70-year-old gravedigger.
I’m the son of a mixed couple so I’ve got this Algeria-France, Islam-Christianity, Occidental-North African reality that I’ve always lived with
- Lyes Salem, actor-director
Ounouri co-wrote the 40-minute short Kindil El Bahr (2016) which dramatises the death of a mother, Nfissa, who goes swimming in the sea on her own, where she is lynched and drowned by a group of men. The film becomes a fantastic tale as Nfissa resurfaces as a kind of ghoulish mermaid, terrorising the town where she died.
He and his co-screenwriter, Adila Bendimerad, who also stars as Nfissa, based their story on Metamorphoses by celebrated Roman poet Ovid, as well as a vicious crime that took place in Afghanistan a few years ago.“For us the origin of the story was a combination of Ovid's Metamorphoses and the lynching of Farkhunda in Afghanistan. She was a pious woman who was falsely accused of burning a Quran and was killed by an angry mob of men in 2015.
"We haven’t had this kind of violence take place in Algeria,” Ounouri admits, “but it could happen.” Ounouri and Bendimerad received the funding to make Kindil in Algeria from both the Ministry of Culture and corporate sponsors.
Kindil and Until The End of Time were exhibited last month during the 39th edition of the Cinemed film festival in the south of France. Nearly a third of the films featured this year were Algerian, in addition to movies from Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Lebanon, Italy, France and Spain.
When words are lacking - when it’s hard to talk about what you’ve just lived through in Algeria - that’s where cinema comes in
– Amel Blidi, director
Cinemed was launched in 1979 by movie lovers from a film club in Montpellier. The festival has showcased films from around the Mediterranean for four decades.
The international community has been taking notice of Algeria’s film production since the Black Decade officially ended with the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation Referendum in 2005, a government offer of partial amnesty for fighters who took part in the civil war.
Several directors have claimed that they became filmmakers out of an almost dire need to share Algerian stories with the world. Director Amel Blidi had been a journalist at Algier’s El Watan for more than a decade when she discovered the film association Cinéma et Mémoire - Cinema and Memory - in Algiers.
Blidi spent 14 months studying documentary filmmaking with the association’s help before shooting her first documentary short Tomorrow’s Another Day (2013). Her second film, In the Shadow of Words (2016), is about Algier’s deaf-mute community.
“I don’t think there’s anything haphazard about this new wave that emerged out of the 1990s. We survived a long and difficult time. Now we need to speak to each other, to come out of our silence and that ambience of suppression. When words are lacking - when it’s hard to talk about what you’ve just lived through in Algeria - that’s where cinema comes in,” Blidi said.
Born in 1973 in Algiers, Franco-Algerian actor-director Lyes Salem grew up there until he entered high school, when his parents took him to France for family reasons. He got into the prestigious Conservatoire acting academy in Paris, studying classical theatre including Molière and Shakespeare.
The curiosity and interest I experienced from others toward Algerian culture in the past is no longer the same
- Lyes Salem, actor-director
"I’m the son of a mixed couple so I’ve got this Algeria-France, Islam-Christianity, Occidental-North African reality that I’ve always lived with. And my families have always valued this dual culture. So even when people try to label me as one thing or another, I tend to escape being pigeon-holed," he said.
Salem began writing when he and his family returned to Algiers in the mid-1990s, at the onset of the Black Decade. “I said to myself: 'I can’t sit around doing nothing.' And so I started writing.”
Salem has written and directed three shorts and two feature films, most recently Mascarades and The Man From Oran. He has also acted in films such as Steven Spielberg's Munich and Moroccan filmmaker Laila Marrakchi's Rock the Casbah with Egyptian star Omar Sharif. In March 2018, he will appear in Paris in the play Mille Francs de recompense (A Reward of 1,000 Francs) by 19th-century writer Victor Hugo.
"Until recently I thought I could sort of help others benefit from my dual sense of belonging to one side of the Mediterranean or another. Artistically, through my films mainly, I’ve included emotional and character elements that encourage people to appreciate if not understand and respect each other. I’ve always thought and still think that people like me can help to build understanding and break down prejudice," he added.
When people try to label me as one thing or another, I tend to escape being pigeon-holed
- Lyes Salem, actor-director
Salem says that recent attacks and bombings in France, in addition to a difficult economy, have had a negative impact on Algerian filmmakers.
"The curiosity and interest I experienced from others toward Algerian culture in the past is no longer the same. This is the trap that terrorists have put us in. But it’s also a result of an economic reality that’s becoming tougher all the time and it creates a lot of mediocrity in the political class that makes decisions.
"I’m talking about those who finance cinema. But I’m not losing hope, I’m hanging in there," he said.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.