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The many lives of Algerian cinema

After a period of drought, caused by the drying up of its only source of financing, Algerian cinema was reanimated recently thanks to the new (short lived?) commission to help cinema projects, under the authority of the ministry of Culture. Here is the tormented history of what we call “Algerian cinema”.

Révolution Zendj de Tarek Teguia. Photo DR.

The image offered by “Algerian cinema” today is a contrasted one. On one hand, there was this quiver born thanks to the ambitions of a new generation of directors promising to give it a new breath – as shown by the success in theaters of El Akhira, “The Last Queen”-, on the other hand, there is the lack of visibility on financing mechanisms and the future we wish to give to this field. 

After suspending all cinema productions “made in Algeria” for nearly three years, due to the deletion of the only public fund of aid to cinema, the “Fdatic”, a new reading commission, under the authority of the ministry of Culture, published its verdict in August. All in all, the members of the commission chose to support 12 full feature fiction projects, 6 short film projects, 9 documentary projects, 4 projects that are currently in post-production and 6 projects at the writing stage. 

It’s important to first mention that the amount of allocated aids has been sensibly lowered. The 12 fiction projects will have to share 470 million dinars, which is the equivalent of the budget of an average movie produced in the West (around 4 million euros). 

To understand the state of affairs of this cinema, it is important to review its history, its evolution and its mutations. During a roundtable organized a few weeks ago at the Artissimo school in Algiers, producer Amina Haddad, researcher Manel Zeggar and actor Idir Benaïbouche tried to tell the story of Algerian cinema and its many lives. Because cinema has been pronounced dead a thousand times but it was born again as many times. 

Amina Haddad thus explained that Algerian cinema has been, since its creation, the result of a political will, having been led and financed by administrators. “The Fdatic, created in 1967, regained financial vigor in the early 2000s. The terrorism trauma was still present, and the national narrative tended to suggest turning the page and leaving behind the slump of the past years. A generation said to be avant-garde was born with a more uninhibited vision, having less patriotic references but just as much love for the country. It told stories that bear more the traces of their lived experiences and their feelings”, she explained. 

The revolution on screen

Manel Zeggar, a specialist of cinema sociology, believes that all these films, produced during sixty years, tell the story of the social and artistic evolution of the country. “There are Algerian cinemas, not just one. There are many ways to make cinema, and Algerians are plural, having diverse cultural and social references”, she said. 

The fact is that cinema in Algeria was born during the independence process, when the FLN leaders understood that the camera could be a political weapon. 

This continued during the early years of independence with the creation of institutions to finance and distribute films. “Algerians went to cinemas at the time because they wanted to see the revolution on screen. It was a moment of collective sharing. And at the same time, the Algerian authorities knew that cinema was a way to tell a national narrative. This is why so much importance was given to cinema during that period”, explained the researcher. 

It was already possible to distinguish many cinematographic references that came either from Eastern European countries or from Italian cinema. Two main narratives were put forward, of nationalistic or third-world obediences. 

The arrival of a new generation of directors shook things up in the middle of the 1970s. They were interested in the social evolution of the country and put the stories of ordinary heroes at the heart of their narratives. Specialists called this wave “Le cinéma El Djedid” and its figureheads were no other than Merzak Allouache with “Omar Gatlato”, Farouk Belloufa with “Nahla”, Mohamed Bouamari with “Le Charbonnier”, Sid Ali Mazif with “Leila et les autres” and Assia Djebar with “Les femmes du mont Chenoua”. 

The 80s saw a continuation of exploring Algerian society, but the first signs of desillusions began to be felt. The crisis of the 90s saw the disappearance of structures that support cinema, which greatly weakened the field. 

“People don’t go to the cinema anymore. After a while, the practice of going to theaters was lost. But this does not mean that there were no films. When we start exploring the drawers of the 90s, we find in them films that were made, with some surprises”, Manel Zeggar noted. 

The 90s, a prevented memory 

Filmmakers quickly got hold of the violence that the country was experiencing. This is the case of “Bab El Oued City”, directed by Merzak Allouache during the civil war. 

“This is even more important as it concerns a prevented memory, there is no collective political work, cinema took it upon itself to build something, with different points of view on that period”, explains the sociologist. She mentioned the film “L’arche du désert” by Mohamed Chouikh which establishes a parabola around the social tearing sparked by the conflict in those years. 

Paradoxically, it was during the terrorism crisis that the first Berber-speaking films were made: “La colline oubliée” by Abderrahmane Bouguermouh, “La montagne de Baya” by Azzedine Meddour and “Machahou” by Belkacem Hadjadj. 

“We must understand that it happened despite all the filming difficulties faced during that period. This was a cinema that was very important for North Africa as a whole”, Manel Zeggar underlined. 

Amina Haddad added that “it is during moments of crisis that we see brilliance in cinema. This special context where everything became rare stimulated creativity at the end of the day. During those days, attention was diverted due to the security situation, which allowed films making a berberist claim to exist. The absence of public subsidies allowed civil society to carry films and financing became the affair of collectivities around a project, as is the case of the Bouguermouh film. The 90s allowed the morphology of cinema financing to be modified”. 

It is during the 2000s, however, that cinema, which some declared agonizing, if not dead, regained some life signs. Financing structures were reactivated, and a new generation of filmmakers emerged, among which some -like Nadir Mokneche, Tarek Teguia or Lyes Salem- came from the diaspora or were trained in France or in Europe. New cinema codes were explored by young directors, and they showed different ways to approach the seventh art with different genres and currents. 

From 2010 onwards, says Amina Haddad, the financial 

Since 2010, said Amina Haddad, a better financial situation in the country made it possible, in addition to ordinary circuits of financing, to organize many events, such as “Algeria’s year in France”, “Constantine, capital of Arab culture”, “Tlemcen, capital of Islamic culture”, “The fiftieth anniversary of Independence”, with exceptional commissions and calls for creation. 

“There was also the introduction of short films and the first contenders saw their short film projects being accepted more easily. This effervescence continued with the creation of festivals and regional cinema days”, she added. 

It is however necessary to recognize that the practice of showing films in theaters was not reinstated. And film distribution often stops at a “premiere” which takes place with great fanfare before definitely putting those films back in closets. To explain this, cinema professionals often accuse the communes, which in their eyes are guilty of the calamitous management of film theaters, some of which are said to have been transformed into “party halls”.

Renovating film theaters which the Culture department was able to recover has nonetheless lacked vision and anticipation. 

“Global cinema witnessed a technical shift, it went from film to digital formats”, explained Amina Haddad. 

“There should have been an adaptation to the digital era, whether in the production stage or in the distribution stage, as in theaters’ equipment. During the good financial situation, when there were exceptional possibilities to watch films, ordinary activity was not enabled. Renovated theaters were equipped with 35 millimeter projection stations while this format was no longer used. Even for international productions which were brought to the country, thanks to some Algerian distributors, it was out of the question to show copies in 35 mm. When we were under contract obligation to provide a 35 mm copy, we could hardly produce more than two of them. This kind of not very relevant decision caused a delay. But we were not noticed because it was a period with a high cadence of exceptional events”, detailed Amina Haddad. 

And it was when this culture policy, initiated at the beginning of the 2000s, started to bear its fruits, with a growing success of Algerian films in international festivals, that the blade fell. Deleting the cinema aid fund, after the Hirak ended, was a shock to film professionals. 

2019, the tipping point

“On the academic level, I can say that I feel the 2019 tipping point and the shock of suspending financing for film professionals. However, we have to notice that people are trying to make films. There are professionals who are fighting”, underlined Manel Zeggar. 

Amina Haddad added: “In 2019, we were facing a national episode with a revolutionary scope. There was a government change with, at first, the will to give a cinema a new breath – a will that proved to be false. This translated into creating a State secretariat for cinema. And it must be said that as a change in decisional configuration, we didn’t expect as much. Reality was very dark as they made the only state financing mechanism dry up, the one that everyone could claim, the Fdatic. The latter was simply closed down without any necessity or economic obligation”. 

She explained that the Fdatic was financed through the collection of a number of taxes, independently from the culture department budget, and that the non-spent surplus was returned to the ministry of Commerce. 

The producer considers that the brutal closing of this fund is coherent with a political calculation that wants to avoid the apparition of films around that episode in the history of the country. 

“All directors and producers had cameras in their hands during demonstrations. they just needed to go out on the street on a Friday to get stories or extraordinary film ideas and to capture that energy and that resource. There was no way around the fact that there will be, in complete legitimacy and naturally, dozens of films around the HIrak, with -as was the case in 1962- this urgency to tell our story”, speculates Amina Haddad. 

She adds that “during the Hirak, Algerians were on the street facing themselves, and facing the most beautiful image of themselves that they had never dreamed of seeing. This is an alive substance for a film. It’s a key moment for the apparition, two or three years later, hundreds of film projects clashing at the available funds. A film is an alive element of what constitutes a collective memory. The political will was to let the Hirak episode pass – the pandemic took care of ending it – and to take time to apprehend what this impacting element in the life of a population could produce creatively. No permissiveness was tolerated: no film should come out, even if it meant killing all other urgencies to discuss another topic. In order not to have a film about the Hirak, we drain and dry up everything!”. 

She imagines this cinema aid fund as the lungs in an alive body that we decide to snatch brutally. And only after a moment of panic and inhibition do we offer an artificial respirator to keep it alive. For how long?