RADICAL APPROACHES to the COMPLEXITIES of Today's Film and Media, with Special Interest in POLITICS, PREJUDICE and FEMINISM.
October in Paris
A Review Of The 2011 "Maghreb Des Films, Rencontres Cinématographiques"
Dreams are incredibly important in life. I really like the Surrealists because they recognized the importance of dreams for creativity. We need to dream our own lives. We need to dream of what we will be. […] Someone who doesn't dream is terrifying."
The actor and filmmaker Khaled Benaïssa
- quoted in Mounia Meddour's documentary -
Le Cinéma algérien: un nouveau soufflé
The 4th edition of the "Maghreb des Films," recently finished this past October. It was by all accounts a great success, featuring over one hundred films, many of which had never been screened before. Kudos to its organizers Bernard Gentil, Mouloud Mimoun, and Gérard Vaugeois! The Maghreb des Films is not a traditional film festival with awards, but a distinguished film programme that its organizers carefully plan over the course of the preceding year. Screenings in Paris were held at the cinema Trois Luxembourg in the Latin Quarter, the Forum des Images, and the Institut du Monde Arabe (but the series extended into numerous suburbs as well as other cities in France). What follows here in no way can do justice to the rich diversity of this edition that included numerous retrospectives and tributes.
Any contemporary film series from the Maghreb must take into account the Jasmine Revolution that began, unexpectedly, last December in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. The premiere of this year's Maghreb des Films, held at the Institut du Monde Arabe, thus rightly gave pride of place to several Tunisian films. The opening night focused on two films by Tunisian filmmaker Mohamed Zran. First, we saw excerpts from his forthcomingDigage! Digage! (2012) that was shot throughout Tunisia during the recent events—from the southern city of Sidi Bouzid, to the north in Tunis.Digage! Digage! is of great interest because it gives voice to everyday Tunisians not usually heard from. In Sidi Bouzid, the filmmaker interviews four aunts of Mohamed Bouazizi whose tragic self-immolation sparked the revolution and who is here called a student of Socrates. In Vivre ici(2009), Zran returns to his hometown of Zarzis, in southeastern Tunisia where he films a variety of persons, starting with Simon, a Jewish shopkeeper, the progressive teacher Tahar, Hadi the painter, Bechir, the taxi driver, and a young gigolo seeking to wed a wealthy foreigner.Vivre ici offers an interesting tranche de vie of contemporary Tunisia. My one critique would be that the Hollywood-like score, which returns repeatedly, doesn't seem like the best choice to accompany these images.
This year's Maghreb des Films also acknowledges several Maghrebin directors, including the Tunisian master Nacer Khemir (b. 1948). In addition to being a filmmaker and storyteller, Khemir is an accomplished writer, painter, sculptor, and draughtsman whose artworks have been exhibited at the Centre Pompidou and the Musée d'Art moderne de Paris. Surprisingly, two of his films screened this year have never been shown in the Arab world: Wanderers of the Desert (1984) and The Dove's Lost Necklace (1991). Deeply imbued with Arab classical culture and storytelling, Khemir sets the latter film in medieval Andalusia, a high point in Arab civilization. Viola Shafik notes that the film pays tribute "to a glorious Islamic past"3 and the film carries an initial title card by Jacques Berque as dedication: "For the Andalusians whose heaps of rubble and inexhaustible hopes we carry within us."
In The Dove's Lost Necklace, a young student of calligraphy, Hassan, is told by his teacher that calligraphy is the link between the visible and the invisible: "letters are our prayers." Hassan sets out to investigate the sixty different words in Arabic for expressing love. During the q & a after the screening, Khemir observed that in the 9th century the word love was accepted and the fact that it is largely taboo in today's Arab world signifies an unfortunate and distinct regression. He filmed The Dove's Lost Necklace in Cordoba, Spain and in Tunisia, and one of the difficulties he faced in making the film was how to construct a medieval, Arab city. For Khemir, a film is not reality, and every shot of The Dove's Lost Necklace intimates his painstaking research on the setting.
The decors by the Italian Enrico Florentini are quite simply stunning. In addition, the film offers, for arabophones, a veritable meta-text on classical Arabic, since each actor speaks with a different accent! Khemir observed that in each of his films the feminine remains inaccessible. It occurred to me that this Arabic concept of love might very well have influenced the Western, medieval concept of courtly love, similarly founded on the unattainability of the woman.
The English Wikipedia entry on courtly love corroborates this hunch.4 (But I note, in passing, that in my undergraduate classes on Medieval history and culture, there was no mention of this cross-fertilization, suggesting a systematic expunging of Arabic influences in the codification of Western, Christian culture).
I was also completely taken with the film on the Gnaoua rites, La Nuit de la possession: la lila de derdeba (2011), a documentary financed by the Franco-German television network, Arte. For the first time ever, a director has filmed, in its integrality, a night of trance, from its pagan rituals to its sacred rites in the Gnaoua family of Malika and her musician-husband Mahmoud Guinéa in Essaouira, Morocco.
(Cinephiles will remember Essaouria—located on Morocco's Atlantic coast—as one of the locales for Orson Welles' 1952 version of Othello).
Gnaoua—whose origins can be traced to the sub-Saharan slaves who arrived in Morocco in the 15th century— represents the encounter between African animism and Arab culture. The Gnaoua dance is an involved ritual taking place over many hours and whose purpose is to relieve the suffering of its participants:
For the Gnaouas of Morocco, the rite of possession is an initiatory path that leads you to explore the most intimate part of your being in order to relieve suffering. (Title card from the film).
The filmmaker, Frank Cassenti, who grew up in Casablanca, is a jazz aficionado (he's also the organizer of the Jazz Festival in Porquerolles, France), and in the q & a with him after the screening, he described the osmosis between jazz and Gnaoua music.
In real life, Mahmoud, a maâlem or master gnaoui and who has performed with Carlos Santana among other international musicians, is the star, but in the film he takes a backseat to the charismatic Malika,
a moqadma or therapeutic clairvoyant. (It's worth adding that Moroccan filmmaker Daoud Aoulad-Syad, whose most 2010 film La Mosquée was featured in last year's Maghreb des Films, is currently preparing to shoot a fiction film on the Gnaoua.)
The excellent documentary, Le Cinéma algérien: un nouveau souffle (2011), by the young filmmaker Mounia Meddour, emphasizes a rebirth in contemporary Algerian cinema since 2000, thanks to a current florescence of short films. Meddour anchors her study by mentioning the film by her father, Azzedine Meddour, La Montagne de Baya (1997).
The first film in the Kabyle language, it was shot under difficult circumstances during a civil war in Algeria. For Mounia, even though the political situation in her country is now better, "making movies in Algeria remains an act of Resistance, just as it was during my father's time."
Despite the near total absence of an institutional infra-structure (no film schools, no producers, no film festivals, and only a handful of theaters in a country of 36 million inhabitants), a number of young Algerians, many of them women—all autodidacts—spontaneously started expressing themselves in film in the new millennium. And the results are impressive. Meddour weaves into her film a dozen interviews, including one with
Malek Bensmaïl, a major (and at 45, a slightly older) figure in contemporary Algerian cinema whose work was featured in the 2010 edition of the Maghreb des Films. Another one of her interviewees, Lyes Salem, describes Algeria as "a country that absolutely lends itself to filmmaking, much more than France. [. . . ]There is an exuberance in Algeria that is interesting for creating narratives."
Meddour's documentary, featuring numerous excerpts, whets our appetite to see more of these shorts by her compatriots. One of the films she highlights is Yanis Koussim's "Mon frère" (2010, 15 min.) included in the same programme in this year's Maghreb des Films.
It's an explosive drama about three sisters who are regularly brutalized by their brother Tarek. Since their father's death, Tarek has assumed the paternal role in the family and he wants to marry his twentysomething sisters off, starting with Yamina. But she wants nothing more than to remain at home and when her prescribed mother- and sister-in-law stop by for tea, she barricades herself in her room. Playing for time her mother nervously explains that Yamina's making herself pretty; to which the sister-in-law-to-be curtly responds: "We want a wife for my brother, not a Barbie doll!" There's hell to pay, of course, when the brother returns home. . .
Another short featured in Meddour's documentary is Abdenour Zahzah's Garagouz (Marionnettistes, 2010), also in this year Maghreb des Film programme. A father and son travel throughout the Algerian countryside presenting puppet shows for children. Along the way, they pick up a villager who chides them for not accompanying him to the mosque to pray. Marionettes, he says, are chiffons (rags) that are "taboo in our religion." The father responds, unequivocally, by asking the man to leave his vehicle. All in all, the excerpts that we see in Meddour's film, plus the two shorts by Yanis Koussim, suggest a brave honesty as well as a clash of opposing cultures.
One of the major highlights of this year's Maghreb des Films was Leïla Kilani's remarkable Sur la planche (France-Germany-Morocco, 2011, 106 min.) that offers further proof of the current vitality of Moroccan cinema. Kilani, who was born in Casablanca in 1970, but grew up in Tangier, studied history in France. She never studied film formally, but she tellingly describes herself as a "cinephage" (rather than a cinephile).
After working as an independent journalist, Kilani began making documentaries, two of which are highly regarded: Tanger, le rêve des brûleurs(2002) on illegal immigrants trying to leave Tangier, and Nos lieux interdits (2008) on Morocco's années du plomb (leaden years) under Hassan II. Sur la planche, which was screened at Cannes' Quinzaine des réalisateurs last May, is her first feature film.
Inspired by a news story describing the current feminization of criminality in Morocco, Sur la planche focuses on Badia and her sidekick Imane who work in a Tangier shrimp factory where their monotonous work consists of cleaning 2,000 pieces a day.
Both dream of a better life, but Badia who is a natural leader is the ambitious one (she's a real hustler, like Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan), and she sets her sights on employment in the more upscale textile factory in the free zone, where Nawal and Asma work. The girls, who work during the day, take on a variety of other jobs at night. Recognizing Badia's fearlessness, Nawal and Asma try to involve her in a scam that ultimately runs amok.
The meaning of the film's title, Sur la planche, is multiple, referring to the expression "avoir du pain sur la planche," which means to have a lot of work to do or to have one's work cut out for one and "savonner la planche à quelqu'un" to make life difficult for someone. Salvatore Leocanta, the director of the Festival international du film indépendant de Bruxelles, where the film was shown in early November, aptly describes the film as a "moving, breathless and an explosive mixture of documentary and a crime story."5 But if the film owes something to Kilani's training in documentary filmmaking, it is also much more. Carefully choreographed, the film remains centered primarily on the audacious Badia (whose name in Arabic means "unprecedented, admirable, unique"), and occasionally, the film's voiceover makes us privy to her stream of consciousness. The young women, all non-professionals, are outstanding, in particular Badia and Imane. Singlehandedly, Sur la planche ushers a freshness and an originality into contemporary Moroccan cinema, and merits, absolutely, distribution in North America.
The other major high point in this year's series was its special focus commemorating the 50th anniversary of one of the most tragic days in recent French history when on October 17, 1961, several hundred Algerians were killed and then tossed into the Seine
by the French police, for ignoring a curfew. It was the biggest massacre of people in Paris since the Commune in 1871. To mark this event, the Maghreb des Films featured a retrospective of films, including Jacques Panijel's long suppressed Octobre à Paris (1962) that was shot almost simultaneously with those events and that will be the subject of the rest of this article.
The film premiered in July 1962 but was immediately confiscated by the police. In 1973, thanks to a hunger strike by the former Resistance fighter and anti-colonialist filmmaker René Vautier:
From A propos d'Octobre by Mehdi Lallaoui (2011)
(and director of the 1972 film, Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurés, that treated the Algerian war with a rare candor for the time), the film was finally granted an export Visa, but for years no distributor would pick it up.
Panijel—himself a former Resistance fighter in the Vercors and a professional biologist at the Institut Pasteur—co-founded in 1959, along with the historian Pierre Vidal—Naquet and the mathematician Laurent Schwartz, the Audin Committee, in honor of the mathematician Maurice Audin, assassinated in 1957 in Algers by French paratroopers. Immediately following October 17th, the Audin committee invited several established filmmakers to film its aftermath. Several directors of the French New Wave (Godard?) turned down him down. Jean Rouch, on the other hand, agreed, but wanted to shoot in 16mm. Panijel refused because "it was a major event that had to be shot at all costs in 35mm."6 (Notwithstanding his credentials as a serious scientist, Jacques Panijel was not a complete novice in filmmaking: the year before La Peau et les os, which he co-directed, won the Jean Vigo Prize.) Octobre à Paris was financed by the Audin committee and the FLN.
The film is framed by blank title cards accompanied by a voice-over. In the prologue, a young Algerian named Kader announces that what we are about to see is all true. Notwithstanding the film's veracity, he adds, it was also made by Frenchmen and he doesn't know of another country that would have had the courage to make such a film. The film ends with an exchange between Kader and the filmmaker, with Panijel closing on a humanist note: "We are all youpins (racial slur for Jews), we are all bicots (racial slur for North Africans)."
In between this narrative frame, the film consists predominantly of a series of interviews with Algerians,
living in the shanty towns of Nanterre and Gennevilliers, who recall their pacific participation in the demonstration of October 17, 1961. The FLN leaders, who required their countrymen to participate in that demonstration, in which 20,000–30,000 Algerian men, women, and children took part, were partially to blame for the ensuing massacre. But if it's true that the FLN bears its responsibility in la nuit des disparus (a reality still denied in Algeria), it is no less true that the curfew between 8:30 p.m. and 5:30 a.m., established by the Parisian Chief of Police Maurice Papon on October 5th, was racist and discriminatory. The French government wanted to keep Algeria French, but was unwilling to grant Algerians the basic rights of a French citizen. Thus, Algerians were not regarded as citizens à part entière, but as "Français musulmans d'Algérie."
In the weeks and days prior to October 17, 1961, the French police ruthlessly murdered many Algerian men. According to Marcel and Paulette Péju, it was:
Systematic work: during the months of July, August, and September 1961, there was an average of one hundred and fifty cases of drowning recorded throughout France, most of them in the Seine, in the Parisian region, the Rhône, around Lyons, and the canals in the North.
Thus, the FLN called for a pacific demonstration in an attempt to voice the resistance of the Algerian people against such atrocities and a racist curfew.
In addition to these interviews, the film also consists of reconstructed footage, where we see Algerians, dressed up in their Sunday best, heading out to take part in the demonstration. Thirdly, there are still images of the demonstration taken by the photographer Elie Kagan.
Fifty years after those events, the release of this film by Gérard Vaugeois and l'Atalante Films is a definite landmark in the historiography of the Algerian War. On a smaller level, I would argue that Octobre à Paris is also an invaluable inter-text for both the omnibus film, Far from Vietnam(1967) (whose makers, in particular Chris Marker, would surely have seen it in one of the clandestine screenings that were held in the 1960s) and for the uprisings of May 68. (In May '68, Octobre à Paris was screened at the Trois Luxembourg cinema, alternating with Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers). The blood-covered faces of Algerians in Panijel's film
bring to mind the ensanglantés and the student uprisings whose foment began at the University of Nanterre, with the notable difference that six years later the French police, now under the command of Maurice Grimaud, were instructed to act "moderately" towards the demonstrators. Even the famous May '68 slogan declaring solidarity with Daniel Cohn-Bendit ("We are all German Jews") was anticipated by Panijel's "We are all youpins, we are all bicots."
Panijel's film is preceded by a short documentary by Mehdi Lallaoui, A propos d'Octobre (2011): its interviews with two noted historians of the period, Jean-Luc Einaudi and Gilles Manceron, help to orient us, by giving us the necessary historical context.
The Maghreb des Films also showed Laurent Heynemann's Meurtre pour mémoire (1985). Although dated, the film nevertheless has the considerable merit of being an adaptation of Didier Daeninckx's groundbreaking, eponymous novel (Gallimard, 1984). Daeninckx was the first to make a direct link between the October massacre and the roundup of Jews in the Second World War: it was the same Maurice Papon who was an important part of the chain of command responsible for that October who, sixteen years earlier had overseen the bloody repression in Sétif, Algeria on May 8, 1945 that led to the Algerian War and who, several years before that, had overseen, as Secretary General of the Police of the Prefecture of Bordeaux, the deportation of 1,600 Jews…
For more on this year's Maghreb des Films, please consult ITS WEBSITE.
1. The author would like to warmly thank Laurance de Ganay and Anne Matteï of the Service de Coopération et d'Action Culturelle de l'Ambassade de France à Rabat for making her attendance at this Maghreb des Films possible.
2. Translations into English are by the author.
3. Viola Shafik, Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity, new revised ed. (Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo, 2007), p. 97.
4. See, in particular, the section entitled, "Andalusian and Islamic Influence" in the general article on "COURTLY LOVE," Wikipedia. Accessed on 10 November 2011.
5. "LE FILM SUR LA PLANCHE DE LEÏLA KILANI EN COMPÉTITION AU FESTIVAL INTERNATIONAL DU FILM INDEPENDENT DE BRUXELLES," Le Journal de Tadla-Azilal, 2 November 2011. Accessed on 26 November 2011.
6. This quote and the majority of information on Octobre à Paris is taken from the interview between Jacques Panijel and Jean-Philippe Renouard and Isabelle Saint-Saëns, first published in the review VACARME, no. 13 (Summer 2000). This interview has been reprinted in a booklet by Gérard Vaugeois for its current distribution, p. 6.
7. Like Jacques Panijel's film, the publication of the Péjus' memoir—originally scheduled to be published in the summer of 1962 by the French publisher François Maspero—was for years suppressed. Marcel Péju was the general secretary of Sartre's Les Temps modernes between 1953–1962 and his wife a journalist at the newspaper Libération. See Marcel and Paulette Péju, Le 17 octobre des Algériens, with a preface and postface ("La Triple Occulation d'un massacre" by Gilles Manceron (Paris: La Découverte, 2011), p. 32.
Sally Shafto teaches at the Polydisciplinary Faculty of Ouarzazate (University of Ibn Zohr) in Morooco. A specialist of French as well as European art cinema, she is developing an expertise in Maghrebin film. In 2007, she published The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 68(Paris Expérimental). She is currently working on the Moroccan filmmaker Ahmed Bouanani (1938-2011).