A renaissance for Algerian cinema: Heliopolis commemorates the Sétif and Guelma massacre
The Algerian national anthem urges people: “Be our witness.” It is an open call to all nations and people to bear witness to the Algerian revolution of liberation.
As Algeria celebrates 60 years of independence from French colonisation on July 5, people continue to honour the pledge of bearing witness to the horrors of colonialism and the heroic sacrifices of Algerian militants who fought for the country to gain its independence and dignity.
One of the forms of bearing witness manifests through the seventh art, cinema.
Three years after the revolution of liberation broke out, group Farid, the first cinema unit in Algeria, was founded in Tébessa. With the help of the provisional Algerian government, the group collected a substantial number of images that documented the crimes of French colonialism and the plight of the Algerian people.
"Heliopolis features a decisive chapter in Algeria’s history, a period when the dream of independence was still being shaped"
The role of cinema in documenting and commemorating the Algerian revolution and the horrendous crimes of French colonialism has been vital.
One of the many examples is the saga of the Algerian revolution Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975), which won its director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina the Palme d'Or Award at the Cannes International Film Festival.
Djaffar Gacem continues this legacy through his film Heliopolis (2021), which revisits the massacre of Sétif and Guelma.
In 2021, The Algerian Selection Committee, chaired by Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina, nominated Heliopolis as the film that would have represented Algeria at the 2022 Oscars for the prize of Best International Film.
Set in 1940, in the city of Guelma in Eastern Algeria, Djaffar Gacem’s film Heliopolis features a decisive chapter in Algeria’s history, a period when the dream of independence was still being shaped.
The film’s narrative focuses on the Muslim indigenous Zenati family that runs a successful wheat farming estate. The complex character of Mokdad (Aziz Bekrouni) shows a side that most Algerians dismiss in their cultural productions. A Muslim indigenous character who, despite his care for the indigenous community, is loyal to France.
Mokdad, with all of his paradoxical beliefs, is caught in a trap between his Algerian heritage and the wish to assimilate to the French way of life. He is progressive enough to send his son Mahfoud (Mehdi Ramdani) to study at a prestigious high school in Algiers but conservative enough to refuse to send his daughter Nedjma (Souhila Mallem) away to finish her studies.
The complexity of Mokdad’s character also reflects the state of boiling and uncertainty that demarcates that time. While France and the alleys were fighting Nazi Germany, France was committing colonial crimes in Algeria.
At that time, while the majority of people were dreaming of independence, some Algerians were still seeking assimilation and hoping to get equal rights with the French settlers and the Jewish community. The film covers both sides by showing the conflict between Mokdad and his son who is ashamed of his father’s loyalty to France.
"While the majority of people were dreaming of independence, some Algerians were still seeking assimilation and hoping to get equal rights with the French settlers and the Jewish community"
As the French celebrated the Allied victory over Nazi Germany at the end of the Second World War, tens of thousands of Algerians marched through Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata to demand their own independence, which France had promised in exchange for their help in the war against Nazism.
There was an incredibly brutal response by the French government at the time as 45,000 Algerians were massacred. The tragedy paved the way for the Algerian revolution.
The New Arab met with the director Djaffar Gacem to discuss Heliopolis and Algerian cinema sixty years after independence.
'One of the greatest revolutions of all times'
Djaffar Gacem is one of Algeria's most prominent and most loved directors. He gained national and regional recognition mainly for his comedy television series that subtly satirise socio-political topics pertinent to Algerian society.
Despite the immense success he reached while directing comedy serials, Djaffar decided to venture into a new field, the cinema, with his first feature film Heliopolis.
The director told us about his years of working on comedy TV serials: “I devoted a lot of my work to comedy, because I really believe that Algerians needed to, and deserved to, laugh. Especially after everything we faced during the Black Decade, we needed some humour, we needed to relax and laugh.”
The same dedication to the Algerian people motivates Djaffar's detour into patriotic filmmaking. A sense of honesty and love for the people was evident throughout the interview with the director.
Djaffar, who spoke with poise, humour, and humility, told The New Arab that he felt sorry and embarrassed when he observed that the Algerian audience did not only attend cinemas to watch Heliopolis, but they "embraced it."
Djaffar also spoke to The New Arab about his passion for patriotic films: “I have always dreamt of working on patriotic films and series. This is mainly to document the events of the glorious Algerian revolution of liberation. I believe that the Algerian revolution is one of the greatest revolutions of all times.”
By focusing on a period that is prior to 1954, Djaffar draws attention to the fact that the quest for dignity and for freedom had been pursued by Algerians even before the great revolution of 1954 broke out.
Like many period films around the world, the shooting locations and décor play a paramount role in the success or failure of the film.
"After 60 years of independence, the Algerian cinema needs a renaissance... Cinema in Algeria today is a selfless art. Our films do not earn money, and this can impede filmmaking. We need to liberate cinema"
The director passionately told The New Arab about his enthusiastic hunt for locations that are suitable for a film set in 1940: “To film in real locations, we had to travel through Algeria from East to West to find vestiges of the colonial era that matched our period, the 1940s.
"We decided to shoot in Western Algerian, in Aïn Témouchent. We also worked on the architectural reconstruction and restoration of the buildings to obtain a rendering that is faithful to the reality of the decor during the French era. We also allowed our imagination some freedom. After all, this is what cinema is all about. It is like a dream; it is like magic!”
Heliopolis is still occasionally being screened in cinema theatres across Algeria. The film’s director seems to be even more motivated by its reception both within Algeria and in the diaspora: “In Algeria, we have a magnificent audience of cinephiles, but we are not producing enough films to meet their demands. I was very happy when I saw how the audience filled cinema theatres every time Heliopolis was being screened," he says.
"I was also a bit frustrated though. We need to have a policy of filmmaking in Algeria, we need more cinema theatres, and we need more films to meet the demands of such a great audience. I believe we can expect some change in the future. The new minister of culture in Algeria is involving us in her work with the hope of founding a solid base for cultural production.”
The New Arab asked Djaffar about his hopes for Algerian cinema, 60 years after independence. The director answered with a passionate candour: “My dream is for Algerian cinema and television to have a great future. This is every filmmaker’s dream. After 60 years of independence, the Algerian cinema needs a renaissance.
"Algeria has a lot of talented artists, actors, screenwriters, and filmmakers. Most importantly, there is an outstanding ambition among the new generation of artists. We just need the business of cinema to thrive in Algeria, we need more companies that can fund the making of films and companies that can distribute the films in Algeria. Cinema in Algeria today is a selfless art. Our films do not earn money, and this can impede filmmaking. We need to liberate cinema.”
Heliopolis will be screened as a UK premiere on July 7 in London, and on July 8 in Warwick as part of the SAFAR Film Festival 2022 – the only festival in the UK that is dedicated to Arab cinema. The film festival returns this year with an interesting programme screening between 1-17 July.
A major milestone is being reached for the festival with the 2022 edition. Along with its flagship London festival, Safar is celebrating its 10-year anniversary by becoming an annual event and expanding to seven other UK cities for the first time.
Curated by Rabih El-Khoury, this year’s theme, The Stories We Tell in Arab Cinema, offers screenings in London, Coventry, Cardiff, Glasgow, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester and Plymouth as well as online.
A poetry reading with SAFAR Film Festival and Poetry Translation Centre on July 7 will also feature the poet, sociologist and anthropologist Habib Tengour. Ticket holders of Heliopolis can attend the poetry event for free, but there is a limited number of spaces available.
Ouissal Harize is a UK-based researcher, cultural essayist, and freelance journalist.
Follow her on Twitter: @OuissalHarize