Assia Djebar was the pseudonym of Fatma-Zohra Imalhayène (1936-2015), an Algerian writer and filmmaker and one of the most influential voices in Algerian film and literature. She was the first Algerian woman to attend the École normale supérieure de jeunes filles outside Paris. During the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), she worked with Frantz Fanon for the newspaper El moudjahid, conducting interviews with Algerian refugees in Tunisia and Morocco, before going on to teach history in Rabat and later in Algiers. She wrote four novels at an early age before turning to cinema. Her debut film La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (1977) offered her a way to approach the world of the women in Algeria and their oral history, telling the story of a woman who returns to the town of her childhood fifteen years after the violent War of Independence. In 1980, she resumed her career as a writer with Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, a collection of stories expressing Algeria’s collective memory through polyphonic narratives by female voices. Her final film, La Zerda ou les chants de l’oubli (1982) weaves an alternative vision of the history of the Maghreb from archival footage shot by the colonizer.
Élie Faure tells us that the aging Renoir, when he used to refer to this light in Women of Algiers, could not prevent large tears from streaming down his cheeks. Should we be weeping like the aged Renoir, but then for reasons other than artistic ones? Evoke, one and a half centuries later, these Bayas, Zoras, Mounis, and Khadoudjas. Since then, these women, whom Delacroix – perhaps in spite of himself – knew how to observe as no one had done before him, have not stopped telling us something that is unbearably painful and still very much with us today.
Assia Djebar’s treatment for La Zerda et les chants de l’oubli [The Zerda or the Songs of Oblivion] (1978-1982): “Without any comment, however, shortly before and during the credits, three known paintings by Delacroix unfold in long shots and in slow pan shots that focus on details of characters, horses or costume elements, each of the paintings linked to an atmosphere of music and fantasia from the pre-colonial Maghreb.”
Can it be simply by chance that most films created by women give as much importance to sound, to music, to the timbre of voices recorded or captured unawares, as they do to the image itself? It is as though the screen had to be approached cautiously and be peopled, if need be, with images seen through a look, even a short-sighted, hazy look, but borne on a full, commanding voice, hard as stone but fragile and rich as the human heart.
To give a rhythm to the images of reality for twenty years of everyday life in the Maghreb, where each of the three countries has paid its death toll to obtain its independence. This work, which should be a simple “historical” visualization, I approach as a mined area. I apprehend it as an explosive that awakens from my past, from any past, the engulfed pains we believe to be rotten or defeated, I don’t know. They come alive again, they dress again as faceless ghosts, but veiled, as if they suddenly demanded the unfolding of a purifying liturgy.
For me, cinema is neither a “job” – in the sense of a career – nor a “vocation” – in the sense of a calling. What is it, then, for me, having made my first film shortly after the age of forty, then a second one shortly after the age of forty-five?
Ce soir aurait été la soirée d’ouverture de la 19ème édition du Festival Courtisane à Gand. En raison de la rapide propagation du virus COVID, les organisateurs du festival ont été contraints d’annuler entièrement l’évènement, y compris la première partie du programme Out of the Shadows. À l’occasion de ce programme, Courtisane, Sabzian et le KASK School of Arts ont uni leurs efforts pour rédiger une publication d’accompagnement, axée sur le travail de cinq femmes cinéastes arabes : Atteyat Al-Abnoudy, Selma Baccar, Assia Djebar, Jocelyne Saab et Heiny Srour. La sortie effective de la publication n’étant pas claire pour le moment, Sabzian en publie un premier texte, de la cinéaste et écrivain algérienne Assia Djebar (1936-2015). Assia Djebar : « Le cinéma pour moi n’est ni un « métier » – au sens d’une carrière –, ni une « vocation » – au sens d'un appel. Quoi donc, pour moi qui ai réalisé un premier long-métrage peu après l’âge de quarante ans, puis un second, peu après quarante-cinq ans. »
So your film is more a film about space than about women?
Yes, because saying that my film is a film about women doesn’t mean anything. I’ll always make these films... Female bodies, women are my subject. Like a sculptor somehow, who uses a certain material, while another sculptor will use another material. That should mean something, shouldn’t it? I think that’s what the Cinémathèque audience couldn’t stand; I’ve removed men from my film. But what can I say, except that I’ve just shown what exists in reality. I intentionally separated the sexes in the image, as in reality. The intention is feminist, and why not? I wanted to show the number one problem of Algerian women, which is the right to space. Because I was able to verify that the more space the women had, the firmer they stood.