بابيشة Papicha (2019)

A fiction feature debut film for its Algerian French director, and a fine one at that, is Papicha, whose title is taken from an Algerian French phrase used about a young woman, and its star Lyna Khoudri is clearly destined for great things (I believe she already has a role in the latest Wes Anderson film The French Dispatch, though who knows when that’s going to get a release). This is a fine film, though it rather takes aim at Islamic fundamentalism in a fairly direct way.


There are a number of recent French co-productions that deal with religious intolerance in traditionally patriarchal societies; I think of the Turkish-French film Mustang as perhaps the most notable example, and perhaps closest to this one. In each case, the filmmaking is strong and the performances the director gets from her (in this case) French-Algerian cast, constantly switching between Arabic and French in their scenes, are really believable. The setting is the Algerian Civil War of the late-1990s, and a creeping Islamic fundamentalism that expresses itself particularly (as these things seem to do) in restricting the liberties afforded to women. And so we have aspiring fashion student Nedjma (the riveting Lyna Khoudri), who really wants to put on a fashion show and really doesn’t want to put on the hijab, negotiating the way these social standards seem to be evolving at a breakneck pace around her and her friends, all of whom are students at the university at a time when learning itself is under threat. I do wonder a little at a French-funded film dealing with hijab as such a central issue, given that country’s own views on the practice, but the drama as presented here is galvanising and, very swiftly, rather traumatic in the way that it unfolds. Nedjma has no desire to leave Algeria, but at the same time the conflicts taking place at this period (which were already apparently winding down by the late-1990s) put her and her friends’ lives in danger just for the freedoms that they take for granted. Like Mustang it harnesses a lot of the same female ensemble energy, though the camera here often stays far closer in to its protagonists, who move about in a blur at times. It’s a fine film, and one that suggests promise for her feature directing career, and especially for its standout star.

Papicha film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Mounia Meddour مونيا مدور; Cinematographer Léo Lefèvre; Starring Lyna Khoudri لينا خودري, Shirine Boutella شرين بوتيلا, Amira Hilda Douaouda, Marwan Zeghbib مروان زغبيب; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 8 August 2020.

Global Cinema 3: Algeria – Inch’Allah dimanche (2001)

Algeria is the largest country in Africa by size (though not by population), and its colonialist history with France still looms large in culture, where a lot of its actors and filmmakers either live in or got their start in France, hence the film today is as much about being an Algerian immigrant to France, as it is about Algeria itself. Of course there are plenty of notable examples of films which deal with the Algerian War of independence from France, whether in the background as in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) or directly as in The Battle of Algiers (1966). Perhaps the best film in that respect, and certainly a key text in African cinema, is the indigenous epic Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975), which I’ve already reviewed otherwise it would be ideal for this feature.


Algerian flagPeople’s Democratic Republic of Algeria الجزایر
population 43 million | capital Algiers (3.9m) (الجزائر) | largest cities Algiers, Oran (803k), Constantine (448k), Annaba (343k), Blida (332k) | area 2,381,741 km2 | religion Islam (99%) | official languages Arabic (اَلْعَرَبِيَّةُ) and Berber (Tamaziɣt) | major ethnicity Arab-Berber (99%) | currency Dinar (دج/DA) [DZD] | internet .dz

Mountainous in the north, where it borders the Mediterranean Sea, and taking in a large part of the Sahara Desert to the south, Algeria is the largest country by size in Africa and the Arab world (since the breakup of Sudan), and 10th largest in the world. Its name comes from the name of its capital, itself derived from a phrase used by Mediaeval geographers meaning “the islands” suggesting its rule by various tribes. It has been populated since deep into prehistoric times, and has been part of various dynasties and empires (include Rome’s), but can date its current existence to the Ottoman province of the 16th century. The French colonised the country starting in 1830, which continued through WW2 but came to a head in 1954; after the Algerian War against France, independence was declared on 3 July 1962. A Civil War took up much of the 1990s, followed by the rule for two decades of President Abdelaziz Boutaflika. Despite presidential elections, military intelligence remains the dominant source of power in the country (which also has a role of Prime Minister, appointed by the President).

Although under French colonisation there was cinema in Algeria, it was only with independence in the 1960s that their own production commenced in earnest. Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina was a key figure (whose major film Chronicle of the Years of Fire has already been mentioned in the intro). There was a slump in production in the 1980s and this has only started to turn around, and Francophone productions remain the most popular, though there are very few cinema screens in the country.


Inch’Allah dimanche (2001, aka إن شاء الله الأحد)

There’s something beguilingly restful to this film about Zouina, a woman who has emigrated with her kids from Algeria to France to be with her husband in the mid-1970s, following a change in the law (and based somewhat on the director’s own experiences, it seems). The film is filled with bright, saturated colours, it has a laidback soundtrack which both suggests a France stuck in the past as well as hinting towards the future (something about the instrumental pieces suggest 80s TV to me), and it has an excellent lead actor in Fejria Deliba, who does plenty without very much in the way of words. This gentle restfulness is why the occasional eruptions of violence are so surprising and affecting — whether her fights with the older woman next door (who shares more in common with Zouina than either admits), the verbal aggression of Zouina’s mother-in-law (Rabia Mokeddem) who harbours little love for the old country, or the beatings her husband metes out from time to time, treating his wife not unlike a wayward child. The divided title of the film, which is in both French and Arabic, itself hints at how torn she is between these two cultures, and if there’s aggression from both French and Algerian characters, there’s also warmth and generosity on show too — the title refers to the day of the week on which she gets a little respite from her husband and his mother — though her search for a fellow Algerian to whom she can open up doesn’t end quite as she (and we) expect. The film gently moves through these challenges to its lead character, hinting in the end that there might be some positive resolution to the difficulty inherent in her life.

Inch'Allah dimanche film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Yamina Benguigui يمينة بن قيقي; Cinematographer Antoine Roch; Starring Fejria Deliba, Rabia Mokeddem رابيع موكديم; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 5 September 2016.

وقائع سنين الجمر Waqai Sinin al-Jamri (aka Chronique des années de braise, Chronicle of the Years of Fire, 1975)

Algeria, even more than many of its North African neighbours, has been a subject of a lot of filmmaking, thanks to the Wars of Independence from France that tore the country apart in the 1950s and 1960s, a cause that galvanised a generation of French politically-engaged filmmakers who came of age in the New Wave and were receptive to the radical student politics of May 1968. The struggle is most famously covered in The Battle of Algiers (1966), but there are relatively few films told from the Algerian side. One such film, a work garlanded with plenty of awards and which is often found on lists of the greatest Arab cinema, is the one I cover below.


A grand, sweeping, widescreen epic of Algerian liberation from colonialist oppression which covers several decades up to the wars of independence in the 1950s. The film primarily follows a village farmer called Ahmed (Yorgo Voyagis, a Greek actor), who leaves his village for the larger local city with a family, and suffers various privations, especially during World War II. Their lives are almost entirely cut off from Europe, so the wars of France against Germany seem like nothing more than an opportunity to replace their despised colonial masters. Still, they are sucked in, and return to famine and typhoid, at which point a man arrives, banished to this remote outpost, and quickly starts to foment further revolutionary consciousness amongst the people. This is a new restoration commissioned by the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival and which hopefully will bring this Palme d’Or-winning Algerian film back to wider prominence. The director’s preferred cut is 157 minutes, and has some of that sweeping, epic, desert quality of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), as well as a potent message of fighting against brutal oppression, but it remains always grounded in the small-scale story of Ahmed and his family.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina محمد الأخضر حمينة; Writers Rachid Boudjedra رشيد بوجدرة Tewfik Fares توفيق فارس and Lakhdar-Hamina; Cinematographer Marcello Gatti; Starring Yorgo Voyagis Γιώργος Βογιατζής, Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina; Length 157 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Friday 29 June 2018.

Criterion Sunday 249: La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1966)

Over 50 years on and there’s still an enormous amount of clarity and power in this film set against the backdrop of the last few years of the French occupation of Algeria, during the Algerian War, effectively a battle for independence. Pontecorvo’s style emphasises its indebtedness to documentary, by using handheld cameras and a grainy high-contrast black-and-white image that suggests newsreel footage at times. But its thematic achievement is in treating both sides with some semblance of equality, even if it’s clear that the moral force is on the side of the Algerians. While the FLN agitators are not dismissed as mere terrorists, there’s also clearly conflict about their methods and targets, and they are hardly romanticised as freedom fighters. Meanwhile, the film does not in any way exonerate the French in this conflict either, who are ultimately the aggressors, as the colonialist power. The French commander, a tall man in shades, strikes a heroic figure, but despite his successes against the Nazis, his tactics are questioned here, and he remains morally compromised as a player in the drama. The central character arc is for Brahim Haggiag’s Ali, who ascends from petty thief to a figure of central importance within the FLN resistance as a result of prison radicalisation. The film’s narrative takes his story, starting with the end and looping back in time to bring the story full circle, all the while moving the action forward propulsively. As such, the film never slows down for much of its two hours, a very watchable film about a complex struggle that never feels like it’s taking an easy way out.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The first disc includes a documentary called Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth (1992), a fairly brief TV piece which has Edward Said reflecting on the relatively few films of Pontecorvo, and why he should have largely disappeared from the cinephile conversation by the 1990s. There’s an interview with Pontecorvo himself, who suggests some reasons (a fear of failure seems to be chief among them), and there’s some good context on the making of all three of the features mentioned, particularly The Battle of Algiers.
  • There are interviews with five directors who speak about the film’s importance to their own craft, picking out elements of the style and its production, not that you’d necessarily expect it from people like Steven Soderbergh or Mira Nair.
  • There are also loads of other films and contextualising documents, which I’ll add here as I watch them.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gillo Pontecorvo; Writers Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas; Cinematographer Marcello Gatti; Starring Brahim Haggiag براهيم حجاج, Jean Martin; Length 120 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Thursday 20 May 1999 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 19 May 2019).