Algeria solidarity for Palestine: Two sides of the same struggle?

 Annaba Mediterranean Film Festival in Algeria
8 min read
14 May, 2024

At last month's Annaba Mediterranean Film Festival, when Palestinian-Syrian filmmaker Abdallah Alkhatib won Best Short Film, he took the stage to speak. The crowd in Algeria cheered loudly upon learning he was Palestinian.

Alkhatib told the overjoyed audience: “My mum usually calls me every day when I’m abroad to check on how I’m doing. This whole week she didn’t call me once, so today I asked her why not, and she said: ‘You are a Palestinian in Algeria, so you are in safe hands.’”

Abdallah speech
Palestinian-Syrian filmmaker Abdallah Alkhatib wins Best Short Film at the 
Annaba Mediterranean Film Festival

As the Algerian political analyst Zine Labidine Ghebouli wrote, “Algeria’s relationship with Palestine is both historical and emotional.”

After enduring 132 years of French occupation, it is not surprising that Algerians stand in firm solidarity with Palestinians, especially as Israeli forces expand their brutal attacks on Gaza and their occupation of the West Bank.

"You are a Palestinian in Algeria, so you are in safe hands”

In 1974, former Algerian president Houari Boumediene pronounced a phrase that became iconic in Algeria: “We stand with Palestine, whether wrong or right” (nahnu m‘a falastîn zâlimâ aw mazlûma).

Fourteen years later, on November 14, 1988, it was in Algiers that Yasser Arafat and other leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) announced Palestine’s declaration of independence.

Algeria became the first country in the world to recognise Palestinian statehood, and the two countries have enjoyed close diplomatic ties since. Algeria is, for instance, one of the only countries that refuses to recognise Israel and that does not have an Israeli embassy.

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Many historians have also noted that the PLO was heavily influenced by the FLN (National Liberation Front) in Algeria and its methods of resistance against France’s colonial rule, employing similar urban warfare tactics and political rhetoric.

Among the people, enduring solidarity can be best illustrated through football. It’s a common joke in Algeria that during national team matches, one could easily think Palestine is playing, as there are usually as many – if not more – Palestinian flags on display as Algerian ones.

"From start to finish, the highlight of the Annaba Mediterranean Film Festival was an unfailing commitment to honour Palestine and Palestinian cinema"

Solidarity towards the Palestinian cause is not only seen in football, but also film festivals.

In its fourth edition and its first in the post-pandemic era, the aforementioned Annaba Mediterranean Film Festival welcomed hundreds of guests and screened 70 films from 18 countries across the Mediterranean basin, with renowned Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan as Jury President.

But from start to finish, the highlight of the festival was an unfailing commitment to honour Palestine and Palestinian cinema.

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The festival was initially scheduled for early November 2023 but was delayed to late April 2024 due to Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza.

Nassïm Belkaïd, the Head of Cinema at the festival, said it was “impossible to reschedule the festival without thinking of Palestine.”

“This bond between the two countries is innate. It is not taught... “We [Algerians] always stand in solidarity with oppressed people”

Belkaïd was in charge of Viva Palestina, a festival section dedicated to Palestinian cinema which included seven short films and three feature films, selected in collaboration with the Palestine Film Institute – which received an honorary award at the festival’s closing ceremony.

Belkaïd, who grew up in Algiers and whose grandfather fought with the FLN, recounted seeing Algerian artists leave the cinema in tears – their connection with the Palestinian people deepened – after watching Vibrations from Gaza, a short film by Rehab Nazzal about the lives of deaf children under siege in Gaza.

“This bond between the two countries is innate. It is not taught,” Belkaïd told The New Arab. “We [Algerians] always stand in solidarity with oppressed people.”

And it shows in the streets, where even the sound of a Palestinian dialect uttered by a visitor would excite local Algerians. As Belkaïd said: “The Palestinian is a star here. He is never alone.”

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For the dozen Palestinian artists present in Annaba, this celebrity status – not for being actors or directors, but merely for being Palestinian – was a surreal experience.

“I met a lady in the street here who was in her sixties. When she found out I was Palestinian, she cried and said ‘May God protect you, we are all with you, I hope this massacre will end,’” said Mohammed Almughanni, a filmmaker from Gaza based in Berlin.

Almughanni was in Algeria for the first time, invited to present his short film Son of the Streets, which documents the lives of Palestinian refugees in the Shatila camp of Beirut, Lebanon.

Mohammed
Mohammed Almughanni was invited to Algeria present his short film Son of the Streets

The Gaza-raised filmmaker cherished the warm hospitality in Algeria he had heard so much about. His father had studied in Oran in the 1970s, the second biggest city in Algeria, in a period when it was easier for Palestinians to travel and study abroad.

Almughanni said that his father’s time in Algeria “built his future,” as he got a scholarship to study Law there and would later become a judge in Ramallah.

"In Europe they are scared to take a public stance, and that's because of the funders, which are usually governments or city halls and might have ties with Israel, so they could threaten to cut funds”

Despite the common understanding Almughanni felt from Algerians, the filmmaker said that the way he was welcomed like a hero brought “a sense of responsibility”.

“I have to represent Palestine in the perfect way,” he said, feeling anxious at what that involves. “They think that the Palestinian is a strong, confident, resilient man, not fearing anything. Of course, there are Palestinians like this, but we also fear, we cry, we laugh.”

But what really mattered to the Gazan filmmaker was to attend a film festival which was so outspokenly pro-Palestine, from the attendees to the organisers.

Supported by the Algerian Ministry of Culture, the Annaba Mediterranean Film Festival had no issue in being both state-funded and pro-Palestine, as Algeria has essentially no ties with Israel – a different reality for many film festivals in Western countries.

“Even in Europe, at IDFA [International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam] or Berlinale, I felt that the majority of people know the truth, they support or sympathise with what’s going on [in Gaza], but here the festival is very clear – they take a public stance,” Almughanni said.

“[In Europe] they are scared to take a public stance, and that's because of the funders, which are usually governments or city halls and might have ties with Israel, so they could threaten to cut funds.”

Another prominent guest invited to present a Palestinian film was Lina Soualem, a Paris-raised writer-director of Algerian and Palestinian descent.

Her mother is the celebrated Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, of Succession and Ramy, who was the subject of Soualem’s award-winning film Bye Bye Tiberias, a family-focused documentary that explores the intergenerational strength of Palestinian women.

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Soualem won the Jury Prize for Best Documentary at Annaba, after receiving a flurry of international awards at prestigious film festivals from London to Marrakech – recognitions that feel particularly significant in a time when Palestinians voices are often ignored or distorted.

“It's important to be present [in film festivals] as a Palestinian voice to restore complexity to our Palestinian stories, to allow them to exist outside the stigmatisation and dehumanisation that exist in the media, and our films are a way of fighting against being forgotten,” Soualem told The New Arab.

Interested in issues involving colonial trauma, exile, and family history, Soualem saw thematic parallels in the Algerian and Palestinian sides of her family, but completely different ways of dealing with them, hence why her two documentary films explored her father’s side (Their Algeria) and mother’s (Bye Bye Tiberias) separately.

Bye Bye Tiberias
Bye Bye Tiberias is a family-focused documentary that explores the intergenerational strength of Palestinian women

“On the Palestinian side of my family, the transmission of our history has always been a central focus. It’s through speaking that we survive, it’s by telling [stories] that we break free. Forgetfulness is fought with words. In my Algerian family, silence is preferred. We hide our own truths deep within us.”

As for the Algerian films screened at the festival, they did not need to reference Palestine to allude to themes connected with the Palestinian cause, like freedom and self-determination. 

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A particular highlight was the fact that one of the festival’s opening films was about Frantz Fanon, a major French-Caribbean psychiatrist and post-colonial thinker who spent several years working in Algeria and who supported the FLN. 

Fanon’s work on the psychological effects of colonialism and racism was revolutionary in his field, and he continues to be an inspiration for global liberation movements from Palestine to Sri Lanka.

Abdenour Zahzah’s film, called Fanon, premiered at the Berlinale earlier this year and received a rapturous welcome in Annaba. 

Fanon has been often cited by pro-Palestine supporters since the October 7 attacks, and director Zahzah said that people keep returning to Fanon to understand the present and the scientific theories around colonial subjugation. For Fanon, Zahzah said, “the cure is independence.”

On why Algeria’s strong bond with Palestine endures, the filmmaker said, “Algerians, as former colonised people, like South Africans or Vietnamese, feel the same things. It is the same struggle, but one day people will return to their lands.”

As Fanon himself wrote in The Wretched of the Earth (1961): “For a colonised people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.”

Alexander Durie is a journalist working across video, photography, and feature writing. He has freelanced for The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, The Economist, The Financial Times, Reuters, The Independent, and more, contributing dispatches from Paris, Berlin, Beirut, and Warsaw

Follow him on Instagram: @alexander.durie