Algerian cinema's complicated history with colonialism, creativity and the Western gaze
On the surface, cinematography is the art of storytelling through camera lenses and angles, through dialogue, decor and music, but in its depth, cinema can be seen as the mirror of a society’s perceptions of itself and its aspirations.
Cinema also reflects the political and social situation in which the nation is living. The first appearance of cinema in Algeria was during the era of French colonialism (1830-1962).
The Lumiere brothers commissioned their photographers to shoot documentaries of Algerian cities, nature, and the people there. The colonial French government also used cinema and film as propaganda to whitewash the reputation of its colonialism and to reinforce stereotypes about Algerians.
"In Algeria, the suspension between the official nationalist-socialist paradigm and the personal interests of the elite creates a vacuum that inhibits creative production, especially that of cinema"
The films of that period had titles such as The Funny Muslim (1897), Ali Drinks Oil (1907) and other titles depicting the Algerian people in a caricatural way.
Like many things related to Algerian identity, Algerian cinema was born out of the War of Independence.
In the fifties, a French anti-colonialist René Vautier suggested to the Leaders of the National Liberation Front to produce a film that depicts the horrors inflicted by the French forces during the war of liberation and to introduce the world to the Algerian cause.
The leadership of the FLN liked the idea, and in 1957, Jamal Chanderli, Mohamed Lakhdar Hamina, and Ahmed Rachdi established a film production cell; to document the Algerian experience in the war of liberation.
Algeria in Flames, produced by René Vautier in 1958, was the first film produced in that period, after which films such as The Rifles of Freedom (1961), Voice of the People (1961) and Our Algeria (1961) were produced.
During the years after independence, the liberation revolution was still the main theme of most of the few Algerian films that were released, some of which won international awards.
The Battle of Algiers (1966) by Italian director Gilo Pontecorvo won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975) by Mohamed Lakhdar Hamina won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Festival and the Moscow Film Festival Award. Hamina was the first African to ever receive the Palme d'Or.
After independence, due to many political and social factors, the newly independent Algerian state adopted socialist policies to manage the affairs of the country.
The government has been the main funder of most local cinema productions since independence. In the first decades after independence, especially during the presidency of Houari Boumediene, there was a general impetus in film production and popular interest in cinema.
President Boumediene was known for his interest in cultural visuals in general, and cinema in particular. The presidency of Boumediene partnered with the recency of independence, and created a general atmosphere in all fields full of patriotic feeling, what was called at the time "the continuation of the revolutionary path". This general atmosphere formed the identity of Algerian cinema at the time.
Any creative production, including that of film, needs some kind of stimulus which may be ideological, aesthetic or nationalistic as was the case in Algeria in the latter half of the 20th century.
However, it also has a financial incentive, since these creative productions exist within a capitalist system. Understanding the economic system of a country allows us to understand the problems that all fields face, including cinema.
In Algeria, the suspension between the official nationalist-socialist paradigm and the personal interests of the elite creates a vacuum that inhibits creative production, especially that of cinema.
Algeria’s socialist base, where the state subsidises health, education, housing, and even film production, is superseded by layers of bureaucracy, nepotism, and financial corruption.
In 2018, the movie Ahmed Bey was marketed as the largest Algerian film to be released in the last decade. The final version of the film was presented to the Algerian Center of Cinema Development in January 2020 for its release.
About four months after that, the film's producer, a former cadre in the Ministry of Culture, Samira Haj Jilani, was imprisoned on charges of money laundering and squandering public money through the film Ahmed Bey. This example summarizes the state of Algerian cinema today.
Other films were released in the past years, such as Lotfi, sponsored by the Ministry of Mujahideen, and Ben Badis, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture. This government funding sponsorship can be seen as part of the problem, as it forces films that are made in Algeria to have a single path of funding; the government.
Private funding is almost non-existent in Algerian cinema, due to the lack of return of investment in this field. When a movie is released in Algeria, it is screened in the few cinemas situated in major cities such as Algiers, Oran, Annaba, or Constantine, then the film is returned to the archival shelves.
The well-known physics law states “nature abhors a vacuum”. The vacuum that has formed in the Algerian local film scene has been filled in recent decades by films that adopt Algerian stories and themes and are produced in Europe. Films that attempt to ‘address’ the issues of Algerian society with a Western perspective, films whose audience is the Western viewer in general, and European film festivals in particular.
One of the most prominent films of this kind in recent years is the movie Papicha (2019) directed by Mounia Meddour, a French director of Algerian origin. The film simulates the story of a fashion designer during the 1990s in Algeria. The movie has an exaggerated simplification of the details of the civil war, as the film shows that only the victims of terrorism are those who did not follow religious rites, such as prayer or the hijab for example.
This Western lens creates a chasm not only between itself and Algerian society through its distant adaptations and representations, but also with the Algerian authorities.
In 2015, when Lyes Salem, a French director of Algerian origin participated in the Israeli Ashdod festival with his film, The Man from Oran, he was forced to announce his withdrawal after the rejection of the Algerian Ministry of Culture which funded parts of the film. Algeria, having a substantial historical relationship with the Palestinian cause, does not have any diplomatic ties with Israel.
Between the hammer and the anvil; there are lives; there are stories. The hammer of films that adopt a Western perspective on everything that is Algerian, and the anvil of corruption that penetrates all parts of Algerian society, has affected creativity and culture and eroded the infrastructure of film production in Algeria.
Films are not merely entertainment, like any art, they shed light on the experiences of a society and its aspirations. Cinema creates stories and heroes that relate to the viewers and shape their awareness. Thus, it is necessary to make films that truly represent society, bearing its values and aspirations.
Youcef Khallil is an Algerian-Canadian freelance journalist. His work has appeared in Al Jazeera and other major outlets