“I was looking for a musical language”
Two interviews with Assia Djebar
Maryse Léon: Being a novelist, how did you become a filmmaker?
Assia Djebar: Let’s say I moved from written literature to oral literature in order to find a solution for the problem of not writing in the mother tongue of the collectivity. After ten years of purely literary activities, I gradually detected a popular language. At first, I thought it was a national language, but then I realized, instinctively and unconsciously, that it was a women’s language I was interested in. When I tried to transpose popular Arabic, which felt like a very rich language to me, to French, which is very rational and intellectual, there was a loss.
And then there was the timbre of the voices which stuck in my mind and which gets inevitably lost in writing... We live in a culture where expression stifles a lot of things. When you look at the accelerated evolution and industrialization in Algeria, you realise that it speeds up this loss. So, for me, there is this problem of national culture, in a broad sense. But within this listening to the collectivity, I privileged listening to women. Since Les alouettes naïves, I have been looking for this attention to others. The collection of short stories, which will probably be published, might elucidate this trajectory. Working with space and sound in a concrete way brought me back to literature. I situate my writing problems differently now. Actually, I wrote an essay on my work whilst making the film.
How did you proceed to elaborate this in the field?
For three months, I lived with several women, and I made an effort to listen to them. I chose the region I grew up in. The first woman you see is a cousin of my mother. So, there immediately was this atmosphere of everyday relations. We did a whole lot of interviews. It’s the only moment during the working process that the women accepted the presence of a woman assistant, a sound assistant. Starting from this documentary mass of material, I constructed an open script. I elaborated schemes of fiction that started from propositions originating in the documentary material.
What’s the importance of sound for you?
For me, sound definitely does not serve as accompaniment. When it comes down to that, I prefer silent images! Sound is not only explicit speech! The moment you speak about language, you take heart from the important role women play in the sound of daily life. In the beginning, my only goal was to save the natural tone of the women. That’s why, sometimes, a vocal expression or a turn of phrase are put into music, into space, in a person’s absence. I wanted the women from the cave to be present in their real, everyday movements. It’s the start of a trajectory. The intention is to bring the naturalness of the voice and the body together and maybe, in that moment, to succeed in conveying this naturalness.
What were your issues at hand?
First, I was making a product for television. Second, I refused to use the classical interview style.
I chose television as a means of communication because, in Algeria, it is the only screen that women direct their gaze at. But I was very well aware of the fact that television broadcasts a product that is being watched without special attention. On the one hand, there was this medium that could reach a maximum number of women, of different cultural strata. On the other, I had to bear in mind the feeble nature of its auditory and visual reception. So, I wanted to bring women to the screen; but in order for them to really be seen, to really be heard, doing “anti-interviews” was essential. Because, since 1962, there have been interviews with former combatants (of both sexes) every week! To give a microphone to someone who’s talking results in predictable talk and predictable images. It’s a discourse that doesn’t work anymore, not because of its profusion, but because of the very approach that obeys a conformism that tends to remove all liveliness from the past and integrates the latter in a stereotyped scheme.
What’s the meaning of the family situation of your heroine?
It’s no coincidence that I wanted this woman to be in a relationship. The year is 1974, since 1962 time has passed... I can presume that this woman has married and had a child during these years. The only provocative side of the film is the fact that the man is confined to the house while the woman is circulating. I didn’t do this because I wanted to shock. I wanted to make a documentary as seen by a woman: women looked at by a woman, this look being both contemporary and memorized. I needed the man to be inside and the woman to be outside, so I invented an accident and put him in a wheelchair. I didn’t need this man to speak. There was this couple and the husband was mute. Of course, I was reproached for it. In the cinema, with an 80 percent masculine audience, men interpreted this situation as an aggression.
Isn’t it rather the nature of the accident, that is to say, falling from a horse, with all of its symbolism, which stirred the imagination of the audience?
No, for me, the horse represents the ancestors, the fantasias [a traditional exhibition of horsemanship in the Maghreb, translator’s note]. Most Algerians reason like this: “Our ancestors have been so heroic, as they fought for seventeen years.” But... they were defeated! When I started to teach Algerian history at the faculty in 1962, I addressed the resistance of Abdelkader. I wanted to know why we were defeated. Was it a matter of forces, of armament? Instead of glorifying heroism, I prefer to question the defeat.
From Les alouettes naïves, where the couple was central to the novel, to The Nouba, where the couple no longer exists, there’s a radical evolution in the way you envisage the couple relationship.
Yes, today, the notion of the couple is stuck. I told the actors: you have arrived at a stage in your relationship where you’re still together, but you don’t communicate anymore. So, why talk? My film doesn’t address the reasons for this silence, which might be multiple. Presently, many couples live alone in Algeria, without family around them. The couple in the film is coming apart at the seams, like couples elsewhere, or maybe even more so than others elsewhere. But parallel to this situation of the couple that is stuck, the woman continues to toil, to have many children, to gather wood every morning because of an economy that isn’t developed yet. The uniqueness of the situation of women in Algeria is the coexistence of these two aspects. We have to try to think about women’s problems in relation to men; but we shouldn’t forget that living next door, and I don’t mean fifty years ago, another woman lives her life as a spouse enduring economic hardships. For me, the sequences that are most representative are those that reunite fiction and documentary. For example, the sequence of the little girl in the trees and the old women gathering wood.
The character of your heroine stirred quite some controversy with the Algerian audience...
I have been asked why she is so elegant. They thought she should relinquish her habitual dress and should wear her overalls for a return to the fields, a Mao shirt, and that she should take off her jewellery. They ignored that that would be a travesty. But my critics didn’t take a good look at these women. In our region, women have a very particular and privileged relationship with their jewellery. It represents their memories of the past, their bonds with the old women from their family... Ordinary women might be dressed in rags, but they will always keep their jewellery on, which is their only capital, besides some pieces of gold. In the caves, the rural women wear their own clothes. I didn’t alter their dress in any way.
In your film, you insist on the quest for childhood, for the past, and you stress a desire to reconstruct an inner duration that is materialized through a unique treatment of the film copy during colour grading. What does this shattered chronology correspond to?
In all Third World countries, questions of national culture are constantly being posed based on a look at the immediate past that has always been a past of destruction. In Algeria, this attitude is even more notable due to the destruction of language. But this not only concerns the attitude of the colonized because, since the country became independent, it has been looking for exterior models. The problem, thus, becomes: what is this new national culture, what is the relationship to its own roots and to the world abroad? When you look at African literature, the themes of a return to the roots, the images of ancestors or parents, or of the child recur more frequently than in western literature. Of course, these are emerging literatures, but they emerge in the shadows of a past that’s not being explored in much depth. There is a gap between the glorious past and the present. The nationalist attitude has been to re-establish, in the name of a glorious past, a dignity that functions as a support for revalorization in the present.
As a woman and as an Arab, are you pursuing the same goal?
I don’t think so! For me, the heart of the film is to be found in the relationship with the grandmother, which is autobiographical. It’s the relationship to national history that is handed down by the tribe, by the oldest person, who is also the one who is most despised and often also the least in contact with the offensive from outside. In the case of Algeria, the tales told by the grandmother or grandfather are very important because they provide the cultural resources for the child’s memory. Subsequently, the child receives the scholarly knowledge as coming from outside, as a science. Before 1962, the only cultural product of Algeria’s poor was the voice of women. It’s true that this voice didn’t protest, but it contained a message that was getting lost. It established a relation of legend, of knowledge, of instinct, of sensibility.
A backward-looking relation?
The poem at the end of my film poses this question. Do we ignore the past and face the new problems as if they don’t have a background? The women’s situation induces the same interrogation. Before we should make claims for or against men, shouldn’t we elucidate the disappearing relationship we have (lived) with the community of women? It’s quite revelatory that the most advanced feminisms are trying to reconstruct this community that is still alive in the rural regions of African societies. Every attempt of becoming aware about women’s issues should make this visible and then develop a critical attitude. Is the relationship with the old women entirely positive? Shouldn’t there be an exchange? The real point of departure for a women’s language is there. We have known for a long time that women can be heroines, mayors, delegates, and so on. Now, we have to advance and look deeper for an essence...
What’s the itinerary of the young woman in the film?
In the beginning, she has problems concerning her personal past. The only way to move forward in the present is for her too individual mind to open up progressively towards the minds of other women. My film is constructed in this consciousness that sometimes listens, sometimes sees and, at some point, takes into account what others have lived. It’s only through opening up to the stories of others that she can proceed. In the song at the end, I say that one has to dive into the past to make the present dynamic. Now is the time to look for a feminist language, a women’s language, concerning women. When you are in North Africa or in an Arab country in general, you feel that we need to put an inter-Arab women’s language into action.
Monique Martineau Hennebelle: We could talk about music.
At a very early stage, even before I began filming, I had thought about and had been occupied with the relationship music–image. I asked to rewatch, on television, a certain amount of important films where music isn’t just accompanying the image. Alexander Nevsky (Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1938), L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934), Shakespeare-Wallah (James Ivory, 1965): at certain moments, the music sets memory in motion, plays with the relationship with the past, intervenes in the action, and clarifies the action.
Why did you primarily focus on music?
Because it was clear to me from the start that I didn’t want my first film to be based on fiction or a plot. I think it comes from a sort of... I wouldn’t call it despair... but pessimism about the function of plots of all kinds, as a means of talking in depth about blocked situations. I mean, sentimental or not, it wasn’t my intention to make the audience cry or laugh about the misfortunes of an individual woman, which would’ve made the film very popular. From the moment I refused the support of a plot, I wanted to have an internal logic. I thought about making a film like a piece of music. I remembered the Andalusian nouba that is structured in different movements. This kind of music, which belonged to the family atmosphere of my childhood, very often has various movements; the orchestra can play them all or only some of them. It depends.
Is the nouba a typical Algerian form?
These noubas have been conserved differently in different cities, but you’ll find them everywhere along the Mediterranean shores, also in Syria and Iraq – not only in North Africa.
What’s the advantage of this composition?
The six movements of the nouba all have their own unity. Likewise, you could watch the film in slices of ten to twelve minutes. So this enables the distribution of the film as a documentary. That’s an experience! There is only one movement where fiction is important. It’s the scene in the shed. Everything depends on the relations between the couple. There is the passage on Cherchell, with the biography of the heroine, then a visit to the monument called “Tomb of the Christian Woman”, and finally a tête-à-tête when the husband is working: all that can be a film in its own right, where fiction is more important than documentary. The four minutes on the town of Cherchell are a kind of parenthesis. Since I work in television, and prefer documentary, it’s a way to respect the rules of the game. You can watch my film in fragments, like a documentary, a view that is offered. But of course, it is the totality that shows the trajectory of the young woman, her quest.
Could you be more specific about the structure of a nouba?
The nouba is a symphony that has no rigid form. The rhythm of some movements is slow, and the rhythm of other movements is quick. Very often, there’s a kind of dreamlike movement as intermezzo. The construction of noubas varies according to region. Be it in Constantine or Tlemcen, it’s very much about the movements that serve as a transition between two very different rhythms.
Why did you choose this musical construction?
It stems from my relationship with popular culture. The latter offered me models, in this case a construction model. These noubas have been around as collective culture for four centuries. I also played with the word nouba, which means: a story told by everyone, in rotation. (I was unaware of the fact that having a nouba meant having a party in the language of the pieds-noirs!)
What kind of musical genres are used within this nouba?
It’s a film about the countryside, while the nouba is a form from the city. It is ancient court music! In this film, I have used very different styles of music. In terms of the image, it’s a regionalist film. In terms of sound, there are pieces from all over rural Algeria. I had this desire to alternate between them, and to bring them together. There is this flute from the region of Sétif, Tuareg music that has been used for the ancient stuff. I tried to compose a soundtrack that illustrates the reality of sound in Algeria, both in time (the past) and in space.
What’s the direct or indirect contribution of the oeuvre of Béla Bartók?
I have used a whole series of pieces composed by Bartók that were inspired by his stay in Algeria. Bartók was the first great musician of the 20th century that had a feeling for folkloristic music. He didn’t use it for decoration, but looked at its structures. That’s one difference between Brahms and Bartók. The former transfers folklore to a classical structure, the latter succeeds in integrating it. His “Suites” are an example.
How did you use these pieces of music?
I started from the idea that the more a woman is traditional, the less she needs an association with folklore in terms of sound. When you come across the image of a person whose clothes and attitude are very “conservative”, there’s no need to associate this person with flutes or tambours. At the end, during the party in the caves, the women dance while singing the most ordinary songs, popular street songs really, and I linked this to the fourth dance of Bartók’s “Dance Suite”. I thought it emphasized the inherent nobility of these women. I got the impression that it was original music, written especially for this moment!
The folkloristic music is associated rather with the emancipated woman.
I think that’s normal, to the extent that she wears a Parisian dress, and you might think she’s interchangeable with another woman – except, maybe, for her physique – while her mind continues to be deeply rooted in a configuration of ancient sounds. For example, the flute theme associated with the young woman in the car comes from the Sétif region; it’s called “rhythm 36”.
You seem to have reworked all this musical material. Whether it’s folkloristic or from Béla Bartók, you gave it an original twist.
What you hear on sax for example, that’s the same “rhythm 36”, which is traditionally played on the flute! There, I thought I could modernize that folkloristic theme because of the presence of water. I tried. It gives a free jazz rhythm that comes, in fact, from folkloristic music. Following the same procedure, I took three minutes from a piece Bartók composed for piano, called “A l’Orientale”, and used it in the scene where the girl is in the tree. When I studied it, hummed it, I realized that it could be a popular tune from our country. I think he discovered the structure of a song and reworked it into a composition for piano. It’s this slightly obsessional theme that pops up several times in my film... I thought I could do what Bartók did and treat it as folkloristic music.
Do people still perform all of the pieces of music you use?
These pieces of music surfaced from research on popular music in the twenties, which corresponds to the time Bartók was here. Since the independence, people have been researching music, poems, and recordings are being made. The poets of the people are old now and they don’t have any students anymore, nevertheless these poems stay alive. They refer to events from the beginning of the century; some refer to the resistance of Abdelkader. In Tlemcen, there’s a song about the 1911 exodus that’s still being sung. This oral transmission is more important in the south and in rural areas. In the cities, it’s chiefly the Andalusian nouba with its highbrow amorous language that has been conserved. For me, the research for the film paralleled this research on music.
What does it mean for you to use music in such a profound way?
For me, the entire emotional side of the film is communicated through its music. It’s no coincidence that such or such an instrument produces heartbreaking melodies. At a time when Algeria was totally closed off, the isolated people in remote corners expressed their desperation through the sound of the flute... The connection to music, to folklore is a serious one; it needs to be studied. It shouldn’t be considered a decoration. That would show disrespect towards an entire past.
This text combines two interviews by Maryse Léon and Monique Martineau Hennebelle, originally published as ‘Le cœur du film est le rapport à la grande-mère’ and ‘J’ai recherché un langage musical’ in CinémAction (autumn 1979 and spring 1981).