Thursday, 24 November 2011

Algerian Filmmaker Merzak Allouache Struggles with Censorship After Long Career

By Said Khatibi, Alakhbar

Critically acclaimed Algerian director Merzak Allouache tasted success early in his career, but when he tried confronting controversial subjects in his country he was censored.

Merzak Allouache’s movies are groundbreaking inside and outside of Algeria. He has become known as the voice of the people and a politically engaging film director. He knows how to ride the waves of criticism and win the affection of his audience.
Allouache’s life has been rich with success stories with few stumbles in between.

Throughout a career that has spanned thirty years, Allouache was on the good side of Algerian officialdom. He received governmental support for most of his films ever since the screening of Omar Gatlato in 1976.

But Allouache hit a rocky patch with the government in 2009, when he attempted to break taboos in his film Harragas. He dared to address the limitations of Algerian youth, their dreams and aspirations to escape the country, and the illegal emigration of some to Europe in pursuit of those dreams. The movie was censored by the ministry of culture.

Nevertheless, many Algerians managed to get a hold of a copy, either from the black market or from street vendors in the slums.

In the summer of 2009, Allouache started working on his latest film Normal.

“It started with the idea of shedding light on cultural corruption,” he said.

He tried to document the second Pan-African Cultural Festival in order to expose the corrupt practices of the custodians of the cultural sector. But, due to a tight budget and the ministry of culture’s refusal to fund the project, Allouache had to foot the bill himself.

He soon put that ambitious plan to rest and disbanded the movie’s cast of young actors, just a month and a half after filming began due to a shortage of funds.

Finding himself alone with no support, Allouache packed his bags and returned to France. There he signed a contract with France 2 channel to produce a comedy called Tata Bakhta, about an Algerian immigrant who lives in Marseilles.

The desire to complete his previous film still lingered in his mind though. He got a second chance earlier this year when the Doha Film Institute decided to lend Allouache a helping hand.

He reunited the old cast of his film and reviewed the script with them, inciting them to improvise in some scenes about the political changes that the region is witnessing.

Shooting the scenes took 15 days, and the movie that started with the idea of highlighting cultural corruption transformed into a dressing down of tyranny and censorship. It went on to win the “Best Film” award in the 2011 Doha Tribeca Film Festival.

The film’s premiere was met with widespread criticism in Algeria. The headline of an Algerian daily declared “Merzak Allouache harms Algerians.”

To that, Allouache replied: “I will do my best to make sure the movie is screened in Algeria without censorship. Only then will the audience know who is harming and who is serving Algeria.”

After a long artistic career, Allouache seems to be reflecting on and reassessing all the previous projects he has undertaken.

“I am from a generation that grew up in the years that followed the war of liberation. Like many others, I was patient and idealistic. I attached great hopes to the country’s independence, tomorrow looked promising, the nation was being rebuilt. Today, we need to reconsider everything, tear it all down, and rebuild from scratch,” Allouache said.

He does not hide his regret for producing Nahnu wa al-Thawra al-Ziraiyya (Us and The Agricultural Revolution), a documentary in which he praises former Algerian President Houari Boumediene for his socialist policies.

He also has reservations about the new cinema law in Algeria, which he says deprives directors the right to film any movie that deals with Algeria’s history, without formal approval from the ministry of culture – amounting to “legalized censorship,” according to the director.

Allouache graduated from the National Institute of Cinema in 1964, and was able to distinguish himself by opening up to French cinema. He made a name for himself at a young age when his film Omar Gatlato entered the official competition of the Cannes Film Festival in 1977.

According to critics, it was the first Algerian movie that broke with the cliched and chauvinistic discourse that uncritically praised the revolution and the virtues of independence.

His move to France in the early 1980s was perhaps the most important step in his career. There, he directed The Man Who Looked at Windows in 1986, after years of working on TV documentaries for several French channels.

In 1994, Allouache returned to the cinema with a great hit Hawmat Bab El Oued (Bab El Oued City), a movie which is now considered a classic in Algerian cinema. The work is set in the time of the rise of Islamism and revolves around the character of Hassan, a poor baker who stands up to the Islamists.

In the movie, Allouache introduces his audience to the famous district of Bab El Oued, the largest district in Algeria. He takes them on a bitter journey in which the era of “personal freedoms” draws to an end as the country’s social and political life become increasingly dominated by religious groups.

The 1990s in Algeria represent an open wound for Allouache. The director condemned President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 2001 decision to pardon the Islamists in a film titled The Other World. In it, he denounces extremism and stresses the importance of expanding individual freedoms and treating women with respect.

In 1996, Allouache returned to Cannes with Hello My Cousin, starring Moroccan actor Gad Elmaleh and depicting the lives of Algerian immigrants in France. In 2003, he collaborated with Elmaleh again in the movie Chouchou, the first movie about gay Arabs in Paris.

Bab El Oued is a common theme that runs through Merzak Allouache’s films. The popular district is Allouache’s muse and inspiration for scriptwriting. For him, the neighborhood sums up the entire country of Algeria, for as they say, in Bab El Oued “everything goes.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.