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“Barbie” ban and the issue of representation in cinema in Algeria

Film professionals think that the best way to solve this issue would be to allow the emergence of Algerian movies in significant numbers, in order to enable all Algerians to recognize themselves on the screen.

"Barbie" by Greta Gerwig was banned from theaters in Algeria.

The recent ban of the “Barbie” movie questions our relationship with image. The fact is that the movie, which was scheduled in many theaters in large Algerian cities during the three weeks since it came out, did not start a particularly heated controversy on social media, as opposed to the outcry caused by some TV series which were shown during last Ramadan. 

There was no official statement, but “authorized voices” mentioned in their ban notice that the movie might be opposed to our “values”. 

In fact, the movie does not include any scenes that can be censored. Nevertheless, “Barbie” champions a narrative that wants to be “feminist”, it goes through the motions of criticizing patriarchy and lets the viewer see a sex struggle. The blockbuster, already beyond the one billion dollars mark at the global box office, can be blamed for serving its narrative without any nuance or complexity, and even offering a circumstantial feminist discourse to improve the reputation of the famous doll. 

Some film professionals have quickly denounced a decision that “infantilizes” society. Sofia Djama, a movie director and member of the reading and aid committee at the ministry of Culture, thinks that society should be allowed to debate about the film, and that the ministry should not be censoring it. 

“The ministry of Culture is supposed to welcome diversity, peculiarity and freedom”, she said in a video denouncing the ban. “When we say that a movie does not represent Algerian values, we give the impression that society is a monolithic bloc that thinks the same and where nobody has a right to be different. The only thing that can be imposed is a movie rating system (Restrictions for under 12, 16 or 18 years old)”. 

If this decision appears to be emulating other Arab countries that chose to ban “Barbie”, it also gives us an idea on cinema reception in Algeria. 

During recent years, debates around Algerian audiovisual content revolve around the representation issue. Movies are criticized, not according to themes they explore, but according to the question of adhering to our values and the image we want to reflect about ourselves. 

Film professionals believe that the best way to solve this matter is to allow the emergence of Algerian movies in great numbers, so that every Algerian can recognize himself on the screen. 

“Family cinema”

The subject was discussed during a recent panel on cinema, hosted by the Artissimo school in Algiers. Actor Idir Benaïbouche said, on this matter, that he is often asked if the movies he plays in can be watched “with family”. “Does this mean that people feel obligated to see the movie with a father or a mother?”, he asked playfully. 

“In a strange way, this mainly concerns Algerian movies. When the movie is foreign, nobody feels the need to associate their family with it. But when it comes to an Algerian film, people ask if they can watch it with family”, he wondered. 

The actor believes that this is linked to the invention of the “Algerian family” concept by marketing professionals, especially during Ramadan. 

Producer Amina Haddad adds that “Since the notion “reserved for families” appeared on the signs of public spaces (Family space, family restaurant…), things were split even in the sociological composition of our reality. We want to “please everyone”, to suppress all aspects that can emanate from an audacious televisual proposition. What is creation without freedom?”. 

Also, the censorship question is related to this representation issue. 

“Censorship is also a sanitization of discourse”, says Amina Haddad. “During that solitary moment of writing a script, or when we formulate an artistic folder, or when we gather arguments to rally partners, we formulate our project in an ideal way, and we transcribe it into arguments that are supposed to convince committees. And in order for the film to be made, we find ourselves self-censoring. This is done in the unique hope that the film ends up existing. This is extortion in advance”, she added. 

International coproductions or productions that want to claim foreign financing are also the subject, not of censorship but of a sort of referral that may push them to choose certain themes. Directors and producers thus find themselves between the censorship rock and the hard place of the diktat and themes that are popular abroad. 

“The cinema aid fund in Algeria has its codes. It is more or less permissive depending on the nature and composition of the committee”, believes Amina Haddad. “When we ask for foreign funds that are meant for the region we live in, we submit to some form of passivity when it comes to certain subjects that are expected”. 

“We are expected to remain in a certain register and no other. Subjects that free themselves from some stereotypical themes have little chance to get the funding in question. It is a form of censorship, because it puts creators in a restricted territory”, she explained. 

She tells a related anecdote she lived while producing the Algerian-Portuguese movie “Zeus”. The latter tells the story of Manuel Texeira Gomès, the Portuguese president-writer who gave up power in the 1930s as well as his passage in the city of Béjaïa. 

The fact is that in parallel to his political life, the movie’s main character is an author of erotic novels. 

“The director wanted to film in Algeria in natural landscapes. And I, as an Algerian corproducer, I became responsible for the content of the film, insofar as the movie had obtained Algerian funds. Since the character was the author of erotic novels, the director had the freedom and legitimacy to include that part – as surreal as it may sound – in the film. For me, it was unthinkable to sacrifice the erotic scene in the name of the “family space”: especially since at the time, the discourse was in favor of international coproductions and, in my opinion, this scene was not to serve as an extortion currency for anybody. I couldn’t accept the existence of two versions of the film (…). During the movie’s premiere, the scene offended the officials who attended the screening. And the exploitation visa was never renewed”. 

Manel Zeggar, a sociologist that specializes in cinema, thinks that since movie funding comes from taxpayers – and thus from the public -, it should allow a diversity in points of view. “We have a plural society. We are more than 40 million people and we do not have the same views. It belongs to us today to accept a variety of narratives”. 

It is worth noting that, thanks to the dynamism of Algerian distribution company MD Ciné, many Algerians reconciled themselves with movie theaters, whether to see “La dernière reine” – another movie that was said to have been censored – or to watch the summer phenomena “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer”. Let’s hope that this projection ban will not result in a new theater desertion.