By the time of my third film of the day, I was very tired and this was a demanding film in the circumstances. This interesting review from Cine-Vue suggests that the film was well-chosen as part of the ‘Debate’ strand of the festival (a slide on-screen announces this after you’ve sat through the rather tedious festival filmed introduction sequence of a young woman watching films and stuffing herself with popcorn). I’m not sure that simply giving us ‘Debate’ – almost as a command – works for me, but having an Algerian filmmaker or critic present to introduce the film would have been good. LFF is actually quite good at this kind of thing.
Merzak Allouache is a veteran Algerian director (born in 1944) and I remember with pleasure his 1996 film Salut Cousin! about a North African visitor’s sometimes comic adventures in Paris while staying with his cousin. This new film is very different. A statement during the credits tells us that a ‘Repentant’ is the official term used by the Algerian authorities for ex-soldiers from the Islamist guerrilla groups who fought in the Algerian Civil War and who were prepared to come down from the mountains and forests, hand in their weapons and report to the police before resuming ‘normal’ life. One such is Rachid, whose appearance at the beginning of the film in his parent’s village creates a local stir with some villagers attacking him as the only available possible murderer of their family members. I didn’t pick up the precise time period for the action in the film but historically the story would fit in the period around 1999-2000 following the passing of legislation about ‘civil concord’.
Rachid reports to the police in the neighbouring town. He is offered a job in a café-bar arranged via the police and expected to start naming names. But when he discovers the identity of the local pharmacist, he feels compelled to act without telling the police. I won’t spoil the narrative. Suffice to say, we don’t know at first why the pharmacist is so important or where the story is going to go. Narrative information is given to us sparingly and there is a palpable sense of unease. The film is quite short (87 mins) and it ends rather abruptly. I think I agree with the Cine-Vue reviewer that some of the characters such as the (very reluctant) café owner and the local police chief who set up Rachid in his new identity need more time on screen.
The Algerian Civil War was brutal in many ways and it clearly isn’t ‘over’ yet. I think it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t succumb to over-optimistic outcomes. When I reflected on the narrative afterwards I thought this was a restrained and powerful little story. Having said that, I’m not sure what there is to debate. It’s a neglected war in terms of histories and contemporary media coverage, especially in the UK and it shouldn’t be – especially given recent events in the rest of the Maghreb and elsewhere in the Arab world. The film doesn’t take sides or explain why the characters behave as they do, it just shows us some of the terrible consequences of civil war. Allouache himself says that he wanted to “question the amnesia” about the war in Algeria itself. He lives in France and made the film on location in just 20 days with little co-operation (but no banning restriction) from the Algerian cultural authorities. (See his statements in this Euromed Audio-Visual report – including some interesting comments about film culture in Algeria.)
The film was another to be screened in Cannes in Directors Fortnight and it was given a prize by Europa Cinema distributors. I hope it does get a wide release but I think, unfortunately, that it will be a hard sell in the international market. All the more reason then to be grateful to the LFF for bringing it over.