The multiple paradoxes of Algerian cinema

After independence, in 1962, and during the 1970s, Algerian seventh art experienced a prosperous period with a production (under state monopoly) of ten films per year, essentially devoted to the epic of national liberation movement; memorial works situated at the antipodes of colonial cinema where “the“ native ”appeared as a silent being, evolving in“ exotic ”settings and situations” (1). Then the sector fell into disuse, before the revival of the 2000s (2).

The movie theater mujahedin Of the 1960s and 1970s, honoring the memory of those who fought for independence – mujahedin meaning “martyr” in Arabic – was at the origin of a powerful filmography, like The Battle of Algiers, by Gillo Pontecorvo (1966), or The Wind of Aurès (1966), by Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina, illustration of epic tales which culminated with Chronicle of the years of embers (1975), by the same author, who was crowned at the Cannes Film Festival with the Palme d’Or in 1975 (the only distinction so far awarded to a director from the African continent). At that time, several filmmakers also recount the construction of the Algerian state and its ideals or address the status and emancipation of women: Leila and the others (1977), by Sid Ali Mazif; The Nouba of the women of Mount Chenoua (1977), by Assia Djebar; The Charbonnier (1973), by Mohamed Bouamari. Some directors distance themselves from any “ideological glorification” such as Merzak Allouache who, with Omar Gatlato (1976), brings to light with humor the unsaid things in society, which reflect the discomforts of a youth already confronted with unemployment and the separation of the sexes. A freedom of tone is also undeniable in Tahia ya Didou (1971), where Mohamed Zinet manages to divert what was to be a documentary on Algiers into an original, poetic work, where burlesque and tragic reminiscences of the past coexist. In 1979, Nahla, by Farouk Beloufa, is one of the rare feature films to deal with realities foreign to the country and is the most successful film on the Arab left. At the start of the following decade, several directors shot on the theme of uprooting and emigration – including Tea at Archimedes’ harem (1984), by Mehdi Charef – without the vein of war films drying up.

From revolutionary awakening to a bloodless industry

The time is flourishing, the cinemas are full house; not always to discover national productions, American, Egyptian and Indian films being appreciated by the public. There are also independent cine-clubs, while cinebuses crisscross the most remote corners of the country. From 1970, the network of theaters of the Algiers film library spread over the big cities offered films belonging to the world repertoire and escaping censorship. The presence of schools dedicated to film professions contributes to the dynamism of the sector. But the decline began in 1986 with the deterioration of the economy (following the fall in the price of hydrocarbons) and its corollary, the drastic reduction in available credits. The State is withdrawing, a phenomenon which is accelerating with the deterioration of the political and security context.

The theaters gradually fell into disuse in the 1980s. The municipalities which had been managing them since 1967 were authorized to entrust their management to individuals. However, the latter divert them from their original functions and convert them into commercial or festive spaces; others, from pirated video media, only show unimportant, even pornographic films. The number of spectators decreases and, during the dark years (1992-2002), the cinemas suspected of all turpitude are deserted; the Algiers film library nevertheless continues its activity, but with a limited programming. The seventh art is no longer a concern of the public authorities. Many directors flee the country and settle in France; only a few continue to tour in Algeria, including Merzak Allouache, Malek Bensmaïl or Abderrahmane Bouguermouh. In 1998, the State put an end to the activity of public production and distribution companies (ENPA and CAAIC).

A dynamic creative process fraught with pitfalls

Since the end of the Civil War, film production has experienced some improvement. However, with theaters that have become a rare commodity (according to the Ministry of Culture, in 2015, 95% of the 400 theaters were not or no longer in operation), combined with an almost non-existent distribution network, directors are experiencing the worst difficulties. to release their films in Algeria. This frustration is such that it would justify, according to some artists, their works being pirated. This is the hope that Hassen Ferhani, author of In my head a roundabout (2015), when he points out that the informal has helped save cinephilia in a country without cinemas (3). If cinematographic consumption has thus diversified (thanks to satellite dishes, pirated DVDs, downloads, streaming), some argue wisely that nothing can replace the magic of the big screen.

Paradoxically, for the past ten years, various cinematographic events have taken place in the country (Oran International Festival of Arab Film, International Festival of Engaged Film of Algiers, Annual National Cultural Festival of Amazigh Film, Annaba Film Festival Mediterranean). Among these, the Béjaïa Cinematographic Meetings occupy a special place. In addition to the fact that this event is not organized by the Ministry of Culture, but owes its existence to a team of volunteers gathered within the Project’heurts association, its uniqueness is also due to the fact that it does not award any reward. ; each projected work (selected without intervention from the State) is represented by a member of the technical team and gives rise to debate with the spectators. It is a rare and essential broadcasting space for young directors which arouses the enthusiasm of an audience of enthusiasts.

Upstream, the creative process is arduous, filmmakers and producers can only count on the Fund for the development of art, technology and the film industry, which depends on the Ministry of Culture and finances both production, postproduction, distribution, exhibition, cinema equipment and preservation of film heritage. Originally, this fund was fueled by ticket office revenues, but with closed, non-functional or empty venues, revenues collapsed; this deficiency was then compensated by the payment of public subsidies. The projects of cinematographic works submitted by the producers are submitted to a reading committee (whose members are appointed by the minister of this department) which decides (in the event of a favorable opinion) on the granting of direct aid or which is conditioned on the rewriting of the script. But opacity prevails concerning the precise criteria on which the films declared eligible are based. The credits allocated by the State cover only 10 to 15% of the total amount of a feature film. Unlike France, public television contributes only slightly to the production of films and does not broadcast the works it has supported.

As for the new private television channels (which appeared in 2012), they are inclined to broadcast American or French films, rather than participating in the production of Algerian works. While it is indisputable that the resources provided are insufficient to cover the production of a film, several producers have benefited from more or less significant state support within the framework of various cultural events (the Year of Algeria in France , in 2003; Algiers, capital of Arab culture 2007; the Pan-African Festival of Algiers in 2009; Tlemcen, capital of Islamic culture 2011; the fiftieth anniversary of independence; Constantine, capital of Arab culture 2015, etc. ). Ahead of these one-off celebrations, some production companies emerge, motivated by the absence of risk-taking with feature films entirely supported by public funds, but neglecting the post-production phase (editing, calibration) which conditions the full success of a film. Many projects thus funded have never been made visible.

Deprived of a comprehensive and coherent policy intended to encourage and promote cinema, the state seems rather to act piecemeal.
Screenwriting and rewriting are not the subject of any public aid. The only system accessible in Algeria is that of the Béjaïa film laboratory (set up by Project’heurts), which consists of offering two scholarships to young professionals from the Maghreb (including, in addition to funding, a residency in the writing of the screenplay or finalization of assembly for several weeks). The cinematographic industry, which does not have film studios, suffers from a drastic lack of sound and light engineers, cameramen … Editing, mixing and calibration rooms are also lacking, so that It is essential to contact external service providers, most often French.

Recognized filmmakers, active censorship

Since 2000, creation has appeared diversified and daring. At the end of the 1990s, the Chrysalide cine-club was founded in Algiers on a fallow seventh art; it becomes a real laboratory of reflection for aspiring directors who acquire a broad cinematographic culture there. According to its president, Djalila Kadi-Hanifi, the passage to the film club of talented filmmakers like Karim Moussaoui, Hassen Ferhani or Sofia Djama was decisive for their professional choice. Karim Moussaoui specifies in this regard that he thus “learned how a film is made and how a story is told” (4). The filmmakers from the new generation (under the age of 45) are mostly self-taught. Hassen Ferhani, for example, made his debut on the set of the first short film by Lyes Salem, Cousins (2003), where he was a trainee scriptwriter, then he was assistant to Malek Bensmaïl; Karim Moussaoui was Tariq Teguia’s collaborator on Inland (2008).

We would like to give thanks to the author of this short article for this outstanding content

The multiple paradoxes of Algerian cinema

Hank Gilbert