Cinema of Algeria


[Posters at film screenings at Cinépop in Bab El Oued, Algiers, following Algeria’s independence – from Peuple en Marche (1963) by René Vautier and co. Cinépop was a dance bar converted to a movie theatre, later converted to a mosque.]

 

Bitter Chestnut (Gurvinder Singh)

If cinema could substitute for voyages, it will look something like Gurvinder Singh’s Bitter Chestnut. The film immerses the viewer deep into the sights and sounds of an unnamed village in one of the valleys in Himachal Pradesh, where Gurvinder then lived and worked. The immersion is so total that the film could serve as a comprehensive catalogue of the way of life in the valley. Gurvinder is so fascinated with the textures of the place that the need to impose a fictional narrative on it becomes not just a secondary concern, but a hindrance at several points in the film. Bitter Chestnut is brimming with anthropological facts; the food, architecture, attire, language, occupations and rituals of the community become such important details that the film abandons its putative story half an hour in to become a full-blown documentary, resuming its narrative only much later. We are made privy to a baby’s first shower, the woman-only drunken revelry that follows, an oral history of fire hazard in the village, men and women daubing colour on each other during Holi, a newly-made cupboard moved through a celebrating crowd, not to mention elaborate scenes of the 17-year old protagonist, Kishan (Kishan Katwal), cooking. Even when the film introduces fiction, there’s no drama, Kishan’s low-key anxiety never snowballing into a conflict. Kishan’s family, around which the film revolves, leads a tough life sustained by a variety of occupations—hunting, carpentry, horse rearing, dairy farming, spinning—in addition to Kishan’s father’s and brother’s stints as labourers in the city from time to time. It’s an austere, pragmatic life, only occasionally given to festivals and faith.

Sporting a hoodie and sneakers, Kishan, like the community at large, is facing the slings of modernity. He makes pizzas at a restaurant (Gurvinder’s own, called Cloud Door, in homage to his mentor Mani Kaul) run by an outsider for international tourists. It’s a dead-end job, especially depressing considering that Kishan’s peers are leaving the valley for greener pastures in Delhi. His uncertain desire to move out is counterbalanced by the immediate economic and emotional needs of his family. It’s a modern predicament that goes against the time-worn mores of the valley. It’s also a narrative that hovers untethered over the documentary pleasures of Gurvinder’s film. Bitter Chestnut rests uneasily between two modes: the purity of the world at hand holds Gurvinder back from fictionalizing it too much, while the fiction prevents him from breaking the fourth wall, something which could have made for a richer work. Gurvinder works with simple camera and lighting setups, allowing large chunk of the scenes to unfold in the master shot itself. The participants are all non-actors from the valley playing their real selves. Their reticence before the camera shows when they are made to enact predetermined exchanges, while scenes of them celebrating or performing are more spontaneous. It is, however, the spellbinding (if at times touristy) Kangra district itself, spanning winter and springtime, that is the true protagonist of the film. Along with Amit Dutta’s films, Bitter Chestnut constitutes a distinct cinema of the region. I do nevertheless wonder if this is the kind of film the creator of Alms for a Blind Horse would ideally like to be making.

Status and Terrain (Ute Adamczewski)

Ute Adamczewski’s excellent debut feature Status and Terrain begins with shots of homes, public structures and castles in the Saxony region of Germany. An archival text, spoken on the voiceover, tells us that the region was home to the labour movement of 1933, the backbone of the National Socialists (“Hitler belongs to the Elbe”, states one citation). It was the year that opponents to Nazism, especially Communists, were detained in “protective custody” under the Decree for the Protection of People and State. And it’s these youth clubs and castles that served as preliminary concentration camps for the detainees. And so Status and Terrain establishes its modus operandi early on. All through the film, we will be shown buildings, monuments and public spaces in current-day Saxony, captured in the mournful hues of winter. Read on the soundtrack are documents—official notices from the government, bureaucratic communication between state organs, diary entries and memoirs of the persecuted, prisoner release forms and surveillance reports—related to the structure under consideration: a shut-down notice to a cafeteria that has become a hotbed of subversion, a plea by the wife of a political prisoner assuring her husband’s recantation, an ordinance asking camp detainees to pay two reichsmarks every day for their own detention, a letter from traders around the Sachsenburg camp requesting the state to source supplies from them, a Soviet announcement declaring that Jews shouldn’t be considered the primary Nazi victims, and other such extraordinary communications.

In the film’s dialectical organization, the tumultuous past described on the soundtrack seems to belie the calm image of the present. But, as the description of more recent events are read out, it becomes clear that the present, rather than representing a rupture with the history, bears witness to continuing violence and fascism. This manner of tracing historical trauma in the visible signs of the present isn’t new. In that, Status and Terrain shares DNA with works like James Benning’s Landscape Suicide, John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind and, closer home, Nicolas Rey’s differently, Molussia and Thomas Heise’s Heimat is a Space in Time. But the present in Adamczewski’s film doesn’t just bear the weight of history, it is an active battleground of ideologies. In the eighty years of German history that Status and Terrain shuttles across, we see that different narratives contest for the same geographical space. After the war, an association of the persecuted wrote a letter to Soviet authorities asking them not to execute Nazis in the same space that Jews were. Antifa and pro-DDR graffiti are as visible as ultra-right-wing imperial flags. A WWI memorial was turned into a fascist monument in 1933, an anti-fascist monument in 1963, a symbol of German unity in 1990 and is now being run over by a supermarket. Like in Alex Gerbaulet’s Shift, all sediments of history over a place seem to be active at the same time, vying for dominance. Adamczewski’s gently roving camera picks up an encapsulating detail: celebratory plaques for great German composers embossed on the ceiling of a castle that was converted to a concentration camp.

The Cordillera of Dreams (Patricio Guzmán)

A return to the permanence of nature might be symptomatic of the desire of old age to distance itself from worldly affairs. But when Patricio Guzmán returned to the Atacama Desert in Nostalgia for the Light, it was to get back to the political past, both personal and national. The approach was reinforced in The Pearl Button, the vast Chilean coast being the subject of Guzmán’s dive into history. The Cordillera of Dreams completes the trilogy, the filmmaker now turning to the Cordillera, the stretch of the Andes mountain range that isolates Santiago from the rest of the world, as the object of his interrogation. “I was busy trying to change society”, says the filmmaker in his characteristically meditative voiceover, “that I was never interested in the Andes; I now see it as a gateway to understanding Chile”. The film is punctuated by awe-inducing helicopter shots of the snow-covered Cordillera, its rocky surfaces and barren, infinite valleys. Woven around these heart-stopping images are interviews with Santiago’s culturati—two sculptors, a singer, a writer and a volcanologist—who discuss the significance of the Andes: the mountains as a watchful mother, a carrier of scents, a muse for artists, a veritable coast that turns the country into an island. For Guzmán, however, the Cordillera stands as a silent witness to the nation’s hidden past. It’s as though the mountains are keeping a secret from me, he says in all sincerity, a secret that might be the coup d’état of 1973.

While a personal work like its predecessors, The Cordillera of Dreams however ventures deep into sentimental territory. The sight of the mountains, admits Guzmán, makes him want to go back to his childhood in this city that nevertheless “greets him with indifference”.  He films the houses and streets he lived in, talks about the making of The Battle of Chile, his detention by the military and his subsequent flight to Europe. He confesses his desire to begin anew and rediscover the life he had left behind. Even in Europe, he says, he’s always been making films about Chile. He seeks to understand this gravitational pull that the country exerts on him through the figure of another filmmaker who did stay back. Pablo Salas is a documentarian who has been recording political happenings around him for 37 years. His personal archive of video tapes and hard drives fills his entire office, and they serve as the suppressed record of Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship. Guzmán and Salas discuss their work and politics at length: the challenges of filming protests, the tyranny of the dictatorship, the ruthless neoliberalist revision of Chilean economy, the inequality and rampant privatization of resources, and so on. Guzmán is wholly admirative of Salas, the man he wasn’t, and speaks of the filmmaker’s large archive as the memory of what was hidden. His own film, though, feels like an obligatory extension of Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button. Part of the reason for the slide is that the Andes remains only a picturesque background to the investigation. Now and then, Guzmán does relate the mountains to history, as with the idea that the rocks from them were used for paving the streets of Santiago, which saw the boots of the military and blood of the protestors. These connections, though, remain far and few, unlike the tightly knit associations of the previous two remarkable works.

143 Sahara Street (Hassen Ferhani)

In a bright, panoramic shot of a desert, a microscopic figure on the left side moves slowly towards a rudimentary structure on the right. The figure is that of Malika, a rotund, elderly woman who lives and runs a shop on a highway just outside the town of El Menia, Algeria, in the Sahara. Malika lives with her cat Mimi and her joint, possessing the absurd address of the title, serves as a refreshment point for bikers and motorists passing by. Malika is an unusual woman, not just in that she’s an old woman running the shop independently, but also in that she’s unmarried, doesn’t have kids and prefers to stay away from her extended family. Her independence needs no extenuating context: when a client talks about newly legislated women’s rights, she lashes out, “I don’t need any rights”. Malika likes music and dance, hates religious hypocrisy and claims she can’t stand other women. The building she inhabits is spare and contains two rooms: a kitchen and a dining area for clients. There’s a fridge but no electricity. Living far from civilization, Malika, whom one visitor aptly christens “the gatekeeper of the void”, listens to whatever the radio can pick up. A petrol station-cum-restaurant is cropping up next door, potentially eating into her revenue. Malika, though, is unfazed, convinced that the new venture will shut shop in two weeks.

Outside of the occasional accident in the vicinity, Malika’s only entertainment and source of interaction is with the people who stop by at her place for tea, bread, cigarettes or soda. The characters are colourful enough: a Polish woman biking across two continents, a group of young men who mount a musical performance for Malika, a couple of imams from Algiers, immigrant workers who have come to Algeria for better prospects, a man looking for his lost brother whom Malika suspects of being a charlatan. Director Ferhani captures all this interaction in simple, front-on shots from a tripod. Inspired by the Sahara, his compositions are strongly horizontal, the desert constantly framed by the edges of doors and windows like a landscape painting. Over the course of the film, we are made intimately familiar as much with the building as with Malika. The various walls of the house against or through which we see Malika are later stitched together with a circular tracking shot around the house. Ferhani does not dissimulate his presence and regularly interacts with both Malika and her clients from behind the camera. Less than a hundred in number, the long shots of the film encapsulate the rhythm of the place, recording action in real time without ellipses. Despite its apparent modesty, there’s a philosophical undercurrent to Ferhani’s film. When Malika is by herself, the passing of time is all the more palpable, her mortality looming large. The infinite space of the desert, devoid of other human presence, invites an interrogation of the meaning of freedom, and whether or not one would trade it for the security of a community.