The Summer Cinematheque series kicked off tonight with the annual African film series; this year, theme is La Ville Africaine: Urban Life in Africa
. The first film was the 1994 Algerian film Bab el-Oued City
(d. Merzak Allouache), an episodic, realist (the film has all the hallmarks of a realist film: non-professional actors, location shooting, available lighting, etc., etc., though there is not a lot of hand-held camera work) film set in the quartier Bab el-Oued in Algiers, the home quartier of the director. The film takes the form of a letter written to an exiled lover, (the main character of the film, Boualem) a rememberance of a young woman named Yamina. The contemporary scenes (which are relatively brief, and involve close-up shots of the actress playing Yamina writing her letters, which will never be sent, while she narrates their contents in voice-over) are set in 1993, a year after the FLN ruling government suspended the democratic elections and banned the leading Islamic party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), plunging the country into a bloody civil war, which continues to this day. The main events of the film take place in the months after the 1988 anti-government October riots, which were also lead by Islamic fundamentalists. Young radical extremists are slowly surplanting the government in Algiers, and they find a lot of sympathy among the poor and middle-class residents of the Bab el-Oued quartier. One day, a baker named Boualem, fed up with the self-righteous preaching of the extremists leader Said (who, btw, is the brother of the narrator, Yamina) over the Mosque loudspeakers, which are arrayed on rooftops across the neighborhoods, or more correctly, their hubris and the noise (he works nights at the bakery, and the spends much of his day hustling across the streets in the black market), steals the speaker from atop his roof and throws it into the ocean, an act which enrages the local Islamic extremists.
The Islamic extremists are depicted almost like a gang of local toughs, wearing leather jackets and sporting sunglasses along with their prayer shawls; economic depression caused by the failure of the FLN planned economy has left a lot of people idle (only Boualem seems to really have a job, along with his fellow co-workers and hustlers). Said is an impassioned, ambitious man (he wants to be imam, and clearly enjoys being in charge of not only his group of fundamentalists, but also his family) who gained his prominence in the quartier by being thrown in jail during the anti-government riots (the only time the government is really shown in the film, is when some police officers and EMTs show up when a minor character breaks into a drugstore and ODs offscreen), even Boualem admired Said. However, Said is secretly working at the behest of some shadowy, threateningly looking men who wear sharp suits and drive a BMW; it's actually ambiguous whether these men, who are only shown obliquely, from a distance, or in silhouette, from the back seat of their car, are government agents manipulating the extremists for their own gains; FIS operatives; or criminal elements. In any case, the film makes it explicit that the local extremists are acting only at the behest of larger forces. The other two extremists who are fleshed-out characters is the former mujahedin Rachid (who tells clearly exaggerated stories to the local teenagers) and a French man they call "the Immigrant," who is trapped in Algeria without papers, and who desperately wants to go back to France, but who has joined the extremists because they offered him a place to go. Interestingly, Said commiserates with the Frenchman; he too wishes he could leave Algeria. The film actually has a quite balanced take on Islam; the film features a compassionate and kindly Imam who preaches tolerance and non-violence (the mainstream of Islam in North Africa before the rise of fundamentalism), and even forgives Boualem for stealing the speaker, and tries to dissuade Said from taking vengeance. Eventually, the Imam, tired of the rising violence, declares he too is leaving, he can no longer take it. Exile, immigration, and the Algerian diaspora are consistent themes of the film. The Imam and the Frenchman are not the only people willing, or wanting to leave Algeria, Boualem is also thinking about leaving, taking the fabled boat to Marseilles.
Other characters in the film weave in and out of the film: Yamina, Said's sister and Boualem's lover, resents her brother and chafes under the strain of the increasing Islamic fundamentalism (she has recently been forced to wear a head scarf, and her brother, who is the head of the household, refuses to let her work; her mother only wants her to marry a good, rich man), and hangs out with a bunch of neighborhood woman on the rooftops where they dry laundry and gossip (at one point, a woman brings up a stack of French paperback romance novels, and the women ooh and aah over them, trading them like baseball cards); Yamina also hangs out with her little brother and mother watching French movies and soap operas on the satellite TV, much to the consternation of Said. Other characters include Mabrouk, a fat, cynical hustler, and co-worker of Boualem, who is a much more sucessful trapatiste; the bakery owner who employs Boualem and then later fires him under pressure from the fundamentalists, who blackmail him with the revalation that they know about his collaboration with the French during the colonial regime (how they got this file is a mystery, but probably from the same men who assist and direct Said, they even give him a gun at the end); a middle-aged woman, an alcoholic, Westernized, French-speaking ex-Marxist revolutionary, now shunned by the people of Bab el-Oued; her only contact with the outside world is Boualem, who procures her wine, and who she desires as her lover. She desperately wants to leave France, and is eventually threatened by the gun-toting Said. The other characters in the film are a semi-comical pair of pied noirs (former French residents of Algeria, who had to be resettled in France after Algerian independence in 1962), a middle-aged man and his blind, elderly aunt. While the aunt is blind, though she can smell the decay, her nephew blithely lies to her, telling her how great everything is and how nothing has changed (in the post film discussion, the moderator told us that Algiers was once a beautiful city under French rule, but has been left to decay since independence).
The film ends with increasing pressure on Boualem. He decides to leave for France to make some money, leaving Yamina behind. He boards the ferry with the Frenchman, who finally got his passport to leave, while a song lamenting people leaving Algeria plays on the soundtrack. Yamina watches with Boualem's younger brother, Kaled, from atop a hill, with other people watching their relatives leave forever. We then return to a scene of a despairing Yamina wondering where Boualem is, why he hasn't written, and if he will ever return (Said is now dead, his final scene is of him shooting his newly found gun while the menacing men look on). She is writing these letter which will never be delivered.