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
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
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.