Bowdoin’s Belkaid Explores Politics of Filmmakers in Contemporary Algeria
After Algeria’s independence in 1962 from its French colonizers, the nation’s filmmakers played a hugely important role in helping to develop a national identity, said Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Meryem Belkaid.
“The history of Algerian cinema is linked to the nation-building of the country,” she said, and that in large part is due to the fact that Algeria is a multilingual nation with relatively low literacy rates after 130 years of colonial rule, increasing the appeal of cinema as an effective medium for reaching the masses.
Belkaid, who will be promoted to associate professor with tenure on July 1, 2023, was talking at a recent event on campus to promote her latest book, From Outlaw to Rebel: Oppositional Documentaries in Contemporary Algeria (2023, Palgrave MacMillan), which analyzes the rise of socially and politically engaged Algerian documentary films since 1999, when the country’s bloody, eight-year civil war came to an end.
Although the book deals mainly with the last two decades (one chapter is dedicated to the history of Algerian documentary) , Belkaid said it is important to understand the broader historical context, exploring how filmmaking essentially morphed from being an activity supported by the state to one viewed with mounting suspicion, as documentaries became critical of the increasingly authoritarian government.
“Algerian cinema was state funded initially, and films were seen as a way of building national pride, glorifying the past struggle for independence against the French, and presenting a very homogenous view of the country,” said Belkaid. As the new state became progressively more authoritarian, she explained, filmmakers sought to tell more nuanced stories about Algeria—the fact that more than one language is spoken there, for example—and became increasingly critical of the regime. The title of the book, From Outlaw to Rebel, she said, refers to the way Algerian filmmakers went from being outlaws, as they embraced the fight against their French colonial rulers, to being rebels, as they ended up challenging the narrative imposed on them by the new Algeria.
Belkaid tells the story by focusing on the works of four Algerian filmmakers— Malek Bensmaïl, Hassen Ferhani, Djamel Kerkar, and Karim Sayad—who, like many, really started to find their voices as the country emerged from the so-called Black Decade of civil war at the end of the 1990s. “After the civil war, documentary films became the favored way to tell these oppositional stories about Algeria,” she said. Kerkar’s film Atlal (2017), for example, is a disturbing depiction of a village destroyed during the civil war, while Sayad’s Babor Casanova (2015) disrupts myths of toxic masculinity as it follows two soccer fans around their haunts in Algiers.
Why have documentaries thrived over the last two decades, rather than narrative films? Importantly, said Belkaid, they’re cheaper to make. “All you need is a microphone, a good camera, and an interesting topic.” Being able to operate on a tight budget is a key factor nowadays, when state-funding for films has all but dried up, she added.
While Algerian filmmakers do not face the same kind of repression encountered by many journalists and activists who have ended up behind bars—the authorities are probably wary of the bad international publicity they would get if they started imprisoning filmmakers, said Belkaid—they are coming up against government obstruction. As well as the lack of funding today, it’s also harder than ever for a film director get permission to shoot in public, said Belkaid. Films are such an effective way of mobilizing public opinion, she explained, that the Algerian authorities have figured out that the best way to handle “troublesome” filmmakers is to make it harder for them to do their job, as well as making it harder to have their films shown in public.
Belkaid recalled a conversation with movie director Malek Bensmaïl—one of those profiled in her book—who told her that documentary-making is a good barometer for democracy. “’The easier it is to make a film, the closer we are to democracy,’ he told me. ‘In Algeria at the moment,’ he said, ‘we’re about four out of ten.’”