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A First Look

(1) La nouba des femmes du mont Chenoua (Assia Djebar, 1979)

O you spectators of this nouba.
You who have plunged into darkness!
O Queen of the Chenoua, accept my wishes!
Your heart is mourning the misfortunes of the past
Every night, every morning, your eyes are sad!


I speak to you,
you who understands the symbols!
My singing always speaks of freedom.
I intercede for the women martyrs
and for those who live, may God
relieve them of oppression!
The illness will recover from its ills
and say, “Thanks to God, I have been freed!” 


She who returns home thirsty
sees all her friends running there
She has turned on the light of the past
O those who have understood it as I do!
The women will not return to the shadows.
Let us question the present, you and I!
She has turned on the light of the past
O those who have understood it as I do!
She has turned on the light of the past
O those who have understood it as I do!
In the age of servitude
they justified the word
Now begins

the day of freedom. 


You the spectator, you hide
We, we will look at each other in pure light...
That day everything will flower again...

‘Ali’s Song’ – Lyrics by Assia Djebar


I. Notes Taken During the Shoot – Tipiza – March 1977

- The relationship between history and the audiovisual. The news is used as the unreal. The six images of the massacres of Algiers are edited into the first shots of the film, while Leila is sleeping. Is it a dream fuelled by history or a lived moment?

- Fire, water, sheepskin, wool... It’s childhood; it’s memory. Leila is indeed a child. “It is with great pleasure that I rediscovered my childhood bed and the sappa1 of my childhood. It’s my mother’s. It’s thirty years old.” (A.D.)

The search for the brother is, in fact, a search for childhood. It is memory... It’s the regret of childhood.

- The decoration of the room is white on white: sheepskin, woven wool. It’s a female universe with a certain disorder, and the case’s temporariness.

- “When Leila puts on her scarf in front of the mirror, what interests me is the repetition of her daily gestures.” (A.D.)

- Whatever intellectual or other activity is going on, during the film, we’re rotating around an empty bed. Does the film address the problem of male/female sexual relations? Ali’s fall happens after trying to enter the room in vain. This fall corresponds to that of the bodies being shot in Leila’s dream. Question: is there a connection between man’s (im)potence and war?

- Leila puts her daughter to bed. “You have no maternal feelings whatsoever. No kisses. You put her to bed; you get rid of her.” (A.D.’s instructions to the actress). Question: woman/motherhood relationship. Women should be considered outside of the myth of motherhood.

- It’s a film about memory; each shot is a gaze. Leila is constantly followed by the gaze, that of her husband first of all.

- “What’s most important in a shot is to find the detail that is the opposite of the essential. That’s the motor of the sequence.” (A.D.) In the bath scene (water), they’re lighting kanouns (fire).

- The bath scene was chosen as a replacement for the dance scene planned in the script. Between mother and child, transference onto the child of the desire to touch.

- The music introduces both the dream and time passing. The landscape changes at the end when she is going to die. She sinks into stone. Stone replaces wool. Childhood/death. In the film, the heroine doesn’t die, but she joins a world of stones at the end. Alternating montage of stones from the Tombeau de la Chrétienne [“The Tomb of the Christian Woman”, the Royal Mausoleum of Mauritania located on the road between Cherchell and Algiers, ed.] and of stone bleachers, stairs under which Leila was held captive during the war.


II. Scenario Excerpts 

- Sequence I/II: Opening titles: “O you who, in passing, looks or dreams, filters, sorts, gives the illusion that you are real!”

- Sequence II/I: Presentation of the couple: “To finally plunge into the past, into my memory of the past, and then... (with a sob) then to leap... He won’t touch the body’s fever for a long time, I no longer want it... Fever only in the eyes of the child, only in remembrance... O, I’m returning home at last.” (underlined by the author)

- Sequence III/I: Faces, landscapes. Second part of the prelude. “These portraits deliberately represent only old women or little girls. The only women a cursory survey would deal with when doing a quick review of this very rural region: the only ones, indeed, who live outside of confinement.”

Same sequence, voice-over text: “I will look for him (the brother)... I will look for myself... Pride and caverns... He said (a faltering voice... Silence before a woman’s face, a peasant woman, the text resumes with a mountain view). We were going up, my feet were swollen with blood already, and he said, ‘up there’... They were already there, the old women who had finally escaped from the walls and from giving birth, and those who hadn’t been born yet, who were the age of my childhood... The ones I could have given birth to, for as long as I’m trying to remember... I’ll look!”

- Sequence VI: Leila’s voice-over: “I’ll look... But for what? Not as before, the death of my dead brother... Not as before.”

- Sequence VII/I: Leila and the husband... Alone, then together with him. After drying the man’s back while he’s lying on the floor, Leila slowly massages his back. Her face moves closer to his shoulder. A sudden and deliberate image of Leila’s face (in close-up). Leila (her face close to the nape of Ali’s neck, who’s lying on his stomach) says: “Tomorrow I am going to the mountains.” The next day Leila leaves. A shot of Ali lying on his back, and the beginning of a song whose lyrics say: “O my brother, o my love.” (unfilmed sequence)

- Sequence XI: As Leila has decided to go and live “in the mountains for a few days”, time is stretched. The rhythm of the montage becomes slower as well as more liquid... A feeling of melancholy (as suggested by the “mesrah” [“performance”] of a nouba), but also of a certain liberation from everyday life... In fact, Leila turns her back on her current family, on the sea, in order to sink into the mountains of her childhood. Hence, a climb back in time, into the collective past...

End of the sequence. Leila’s voice-over: “Oh yes... I’ve found it... I think I’ve found it. To turn, oh my God, to turn every defeat into a song of victory... An ululation of pride!”


III. Director’s Statement (Synopsis Excerpt)

- Indeed, one of the ambitions of the film is that the structure be based on the Andalusian nouba... Thus, the montage of the thematic parts of the film can be classified as follows: Leila, the second return. Present II: Leila, the return and the search for the missing brother. History I: remembering the peasant women of 1945-62. History II: remembering the grandmothers of 1871-1842. These elements will be edited in three or four movements at the most, with each movement having its own rhythm. So there will be an istikhbar or prelude in which all motifs are announced as instrumental or vocal solos, and there will be a khlass at the end in which we will attempt a fast-paced fusion of individual memories of the calm Leila and collective memories–all of this will be supported by a musical composition based on traditional instruments. Between the two, the body of the film will comprise either a slow mécceder or a livelier btaihi part... Then a melancholic and dreamy nesraf.

- Second, this film responds to: how to bring back memories of our history in images and sounds?

The answer is put forward in two forms: a) As for 1954 to 1962, to just show authentic witnesses (at the heart of these interviews, an evocation through geographical places and voices of witnesses). Thus, the more documentary aspect of the film... b) When the historical facts are distant, to rely on an illustration of images with a precise goal: to evoke subjective history, to awaken, to reanimate images of a collective past without any pretensions of historical reconstruction... To produce a succession of general scenes, like those dreamt by every Algerian child that hears the evocations of the elderly of their tribe or family.


IV. Approaches to the Film 

You’ll wonder what all the preambles are for. They’re meant to express how far removed I was from innocently receiving this film. And at the same time, by getting rid of it all, it’s in order to rediscover a certain simplicity when facing the film.

Let me first say that The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua is a film of very high quality. For the first time in Algerian cinema, it introduces a study that truly provokes the intelligence of both spectators and critics in terms of cinematographic language. As Assia Djebar’s film doesn’t provide easy pleasure, it’s a long and difficult search. The comprehension of which requires a certain tension or, more exactly, leads to a certain tension. And we’re hardly ready to acknowledge this message (in the sense of a means of communication) about women, accustomed as we have been to a certain laziness. But who would complain about it? The spectators of Leïla et les autres (Sid Ali Mazif, 1977) or Vent du sud (Mohamed Slim Riad, 1975)?

In her initial project, which was supposed to last 90 minutes, Assia Djebar attempted a documentary approach to a region she knew well, Chenoua. At that point, she was already introducing elements of fiction, in an attempt to respond to the reproaches that have been addressed to the documentary mode these last few years, namely the always superficial approach allowed by the exclusive use of “true documents”. Already in her screenplay, we penetrate the history of the women of Chenoua, and thus a part of our own history by following a young woman in search of her past. Leila is an architect. She’s married to a veterinarian who is stuck in a wheelchair because of a work accident. The time of this convalescence in her native region will become a return to the past for the heroine. A painful past. Because, here, in these mountains during the war, her brother disappeared. And as time has passed (13, 12 or 15 years), she finds the strength to resume an investigation she started ten years ago among the women of the region, in order to find out how her brother died. Then, in a second phase, through the oldest women, she goes back even further than recent history–the one told in lived memories–to a history known through legends passed down from the forefathers.

“And history is told around embers
With broken words
A grandmother’s voice rising from oblivion Dewdrops in attentive childhood eyes...”

Assia Djebar – ‘Poems for a Happy Algeria’

For the filmmaker, on the one hand, it was a matter of transmitting the historical details of 1954-1962 “exactly as a documentary would do”, by involving direct witnesses; and, on the other, of reaching the source of the region’s tribal history through “subjective and concrete” views (the stories of ancestors, legends). Out of this 90-minute project arose a two-hour film in which purely historical concerns gave way to more personal concerns. To feminist concerns, one could say. Because, rather than a reflection on history, Assia Djebar’s film leads us to a reflection on women–rather than on Algerian women only. But can we separate these two reflections? It’s an interesting question, and far from haphazard. In Children of the New World [one of the first novels of Djebar, published in 1962, ed.], we already found a Leila and, twenty years apart, an anxious quest for happiness. For the heroine of the novel, Ali’s love (the same first name as the husband’s) had woven a “cocoon”, and his departure to the maquis was considered abandonment, personal “betrayal”. Indeed, the happiness was born from her submission to Ali’s exclusive love. “This peace and quiet, this quagmire” into which she had “tumbled”.

Twenty years later, in The Nouba, Leila will refuse this happiness and try to escape, an escape that is facilitated by her husband’s temporary physical impotence. First, an escape into the search for her brother–a search for a ghost, as it is now certain that he is dead–a vain pursuit of childhood. It is this search that will determine the room’s décor with elements of childhood and adolescence: the bed, the sappa, etc. A return to a feminine universe created by the materials decorating the room: wool, sheepskin, white on white–a feminine universe closed in on itself. It’s this universe that Ali will be unable to cross into, despite the absence of a door, despite his constant looking at the bed, his wife... And since he refuses to speak, the distance between the bodies multiplies the silence.

Outside, through the window, on a sunny morning, it’s the present that passes when the troupe of musicians passes by. It is the music, the dancing bodies against a Mediterranean background, the playing. But it’s also the evocation of consummate joy. “We were so young.”

Outside, there are flocks of bare-bottomed kids with dirty, straightened hair, who are growing up among brambles and stones and occupying the space opened wide onto the horizon and the sky, where the camera keeps on recording the uneven rhythm of life, and where the frame never limits the gaze. And this passage is quite vertiginous, as it moves from the interior (the room, the window, the door), fixed and frozen in the imageframe, to the outdoors. It might be one of the richest rotations of the film. This effect of the film is undoubtedly due to the effect of the filmmaker’s manner, of her approach. Because by choosing a rather anonymous house, she has completely transformed its interior but always used the exterior of the house with great restraint, great respect, without changing anything about the gestures, the behaviour or clothes of those who live around the house and served as extras.

Her investigation into her brother’s death also runs into social reality, objective history. Is it an alibi investigation? An act of defiance towards her husband’s silence? A childhood refuge in a masculine world! Which way leads Leila to the reality of the women of Chenoua? In every hypothesis, she joins the history of the women. That’s where the artist is far superior to the sociologist, or the ethnologist. Through a poetic approach, starting from a subjective need, an artist always joins others in her lone singing. And Assia Djebar, starting from herself, from this room, from this man’s silence, hands us the most beautiful document on women in all of Algerian cinema, as she has managed to give them a voice. She has managed to capture their gazes, their voices, their memories. She has managed to make them great and important. She makes them speak with History. How beautiful the dance scene in the cave is!

From this confusion, which could have seemed or be taken for marginal, from this slightly narcissistic song (the impossibility of breaking the distance with things and beings), the filmmaker draws the strength to go towards others. There are so many shots of faces that, when the accelerated mode of the nouba culminates, we almost feel vertiginous.

And happiness? The Leila of The Nouba does not respond to the Leila of Children of the New World. Khaled, another character in the book, said to the anxious young girl: “I don’t know if we have a gift for happiness in this country... it requires... how should I put it, a vocation.” It’s more or less what Camus, that other Mediterranean, said (but why not?): “If there were no sun in this country, there would be more suicides.” It’s the violent relationship with the sky and the sea that marks the men of these shores. And in The Nouba, we really feel this sea, this sun, this land, these bushes, these roofs falling into the water. The musicians passing by and playing, and the youth... Because Assia Djebar’s film is also a film about the geographical link in which a certain need becomes part of so much material beauty... But what should we call it?

Happiness? Leila doesn’t even find it when she attempts to disappear in the memory of her ancestors. She’s a willing and happy victim of the cave. Because dressed in a white burnous, lying in the fishing boat, that’s how she looks. Peaceful, no doubt washed by the salt sea spray, she returns to the world of stones and shadows, leaving behind both the room, the closed universe of the feminine world, and Ali, the silent man.

(2) La nouba des femmes du mont Chenoua (Assia Djebar, 1979)

Interview with Assia Djebar

Wassyla Tamzali: The public knows you mainly as a novelist, but this film is not your first contact with the world of entertainment, if you allow me to use this slightly hackneyed word. When we first met, one year before the shoot of The Nouba, you were teaching a course on cinema at the Faculty of Arts, so you already had a theoretical approach to your filmmaking...

Assia Djebar: I was teaching a course on cinema and theatre at the university of Algiers. But before that, I even had a more concrete contact with entertainment, as I had been... how shall I put it... I had been a theatre operator for three years in Paris. I auditioned the actors, did the sound, the décor, etc., in a café-theatre, and I adapted the texts of course, and received the journalists... Even before that, I had written a play myself, Rouge l’aube, which was directed by Mustapha Kateb. The play had been written to be performed at the border, during the war, and in Arabic dialect. It was never translated. Kateb staged it as a heroic piece. Which was the opposite of what I’d imagined. I felt betrayed, but not in terms of the quality: it was a different conception of theatre, of scenic space. I became aware of the importance of the mise-en-scène. So, when I was later asked to write scenarios for others, I refused.

Is that what drove you to filmmaking?

No, for a long time already, cinema seemed to be a disadvantaged art form to me because it didn’t convey the feeling of duration... Like certain kinds of books or music do... which introduce you into a thick sense of duration, where you feel that something is maturing in front of you. You’re in it; you’re no longer a spectator. Even with the great films, I couldn’t get into it. My problem, as a novelist, was always a problem of time... Maybe because I’m obsessed with it? That’s what I’m trying to express now in my films.

Could you tell me if you were aware of the mise-en-scène from the outset – that is to say, at the scenario stage – or if you wrote your film using words, as a novelist?

I know that I wrote The Nouba as a filmmaker. The flesh of the film, perhaps not the structure, was discovered in the field. Starting from the sounds of the peasant women’s voices that I recorded. And then the eye and the space were very important. I’m in the process of writing an essay on this awareness, on space.

Why make a film in the first place? Do you think a film goes beyond a book? Maybe in terms of the public... You can’t say your film is an easy read.

You mean the general public? Do you mean that, from a book to a film, one goes from 10,000 to 100,000 spectators? I don’t believe in the general public. I’m not interested in the message multiplied by 1,000 or more. People even tell you, “yes, if you switch to cinema, it’s to convey a more immediate message”. I’ve realized that it isn’t more immediate and that, when you approach cinema, you’re ultimately dealing with issues that are just as complex as you would in writing. Cinema really is a major art. There’s no quality loss. My film isn’t difficult. I’m just asking for an effort from the public. Plus, the difficulty is not a starting point. What was complex and fairly new were the issues I had to face... My means weren’t adapted to what I was looking for... I wasn’t looking for difficulty. I could make films that are easy, but those films wouldn’t allow me to make progress. At what point does the need to make a film or write a book arise in you? It’s when you sense the shadows surrounding a subject. An obscure edge... As you make progress, maybe you come across new difficulties... So, to have true respect for others and for yourself is not to try and find the easiest way, the one that should lead you to be more immediately understood. The real level of honesty is to try and solve your problem, your questions. And you can’t do that for others...

Does the film push some of the limits of literature?

It’s a very different thing. Let’s first say what cinema shouldn’t be when compared to literature... Cinema should not be a simple mise en chair [a flesh-and-blood version], a concretization of characters or a plot. I’d say that literature allows you more freedom in that respect; you’re both more personal and more collective... though obviously using the French language... but we could still say that the novel, that literature, allows you to go deeper. Cinema should allow you to tackle other domains...

Why this transition to cinema? Why did you leave literature?

(no response)

How did you construct your film?

I told you that my scenario is essentially based on material from the field. First of all, quite simply, let’s say that the film was constructed from documentary sounds, that is to say, from conversations of peasant women recorded on tape. That’s the primary core of the film. Then I tried to visualize what they were telling me. I tried to understand the relationship of these women with their memory. Incidentally, unlike city people, the men and women in the countryside are capable of giving you oceans of pain in very sober and dry words... Perhaps because it was a repeated, a daily kind of pain? Then it’s up to you to feel, in some detail of the transmission – because in the field of cinema I consider myself a simple transmitter – the gap that opens onto other things. The little things are the true elements of the transmission. Through tiny bits – the inflection of a voice, unexpected tears, hesitation – that introduce you to the true, secret history of people. Words too... You asked me why I quit literature, why I left my written literature. I did it in order to search for other people’s words. Maybe that search was provoked by the fact that I write in French... Is it the concern for detail? Perfectly understanding the Arabic dialect, I tried to find the right word, not the grammatically most correct one, but the one that expresses more emotion, more affectivity.

You wrote somewhere that French only allowed you to take your characters to the threshold of themselves...

Yes, I would say that if I wrote in Arabic, an Arabic that would have fixed its problems with its various dialects – it would be interesting to reread what Pasolini wrote about dialects – I wouldn’t have felt the need to leave written literature... or not for that reason.

It seems to me that you discovered other reasons in the field, didn’t you? Already when reading your scenario, one comes across voice register indications that seem to be addressed to cinema specifically.

Or theatre. If I had written down the words of others, I could have staged them in theatre by choosing tones of voice, accents... But no, I moved to cinema through oral literature. What I discovered – or the issue I was faced with, if you like – when I was collecting documentary sounds, was space, and this space became an important component of the film’s subject. As long as I stayed in literature, I could escape the women’s confinement through my imagination. But having to film women talking (and only that at the beginning), I soon became aware of their space in a concrete way. I felt a solidarity I’d never felt in literature. This confinement was even more palpable because I was in a region where the landscapes are as beautiful as they can be around the Mediterranean. I’m not even talking about colour; I’m talking about the widening of space... I came across houses that were completely closed in on themselves, even if there were no privacy problems! In a certain way, cinema put me in front of space in a physical way. Literature wouldn’t have done that, obviously...

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. It’s not a coincidence that the first woman that speaks in the film, the 88-year-old, is shown in her vegetable garden: she seemed happy, or at least sure of herself.

Starting from the sounds and the space, how did you structure your film?

There are two ways to proceed when you make a film, or a book for that matter. Either you take a factual situation and you face it by criticizing it – for example, you take a heroine suffocated by society and you show the extent to which she can be suffocated; or you show what should be. Me, instead of showing a dozen women chatting in their kitchen, I took a young woman that I liberated in space. Because that’s the real change. She is liberated by my imagination and by my hope, because I would like the majority of Algerian women to move around freely and to feel good when moving around. That’s the second problem: to move around, to see and hear, and not always be forced to escape another’s spying gaze. And as I go along, my camera moving around in space with my heroine, the documentary is there to show that which exists, that is to say, women...

Did the public reproach you precisely for showing only old women or little girls?

Which is precisely not a coincidence or a filmmaker’s bias. If I only showed older women and little girls, it’s because it was impossible for me to film women of other ages. Often, it was a twelve-year-old boy who came between me and his mother. So, who did I see that was slightly more liberated in space? You have older women who have the right to a vegetable garden, and you have little girls running around with a schoolbag on their way to school – we fought for their right to go to school until they’re twelve, and in the Tipaza region they go to school until they’re fourteen. It would be interesting to see until what age we see girls moving around in the street. That would be a way of watching the film... At one point, we see two girls in trousers, 20 and 22 years old... and then we see a girl from the back, with a schoolbag. We see her from the back because she doesn’t want to be seen. This leads us to the second problem, the problem of girls in Algiers: how to move around freely without the gaze of men – here, the gaze of my camera. And then you have the women in the fields, who are objectively freer than the local potentate’s or policeman’s wife (who doesn’t go out at all). Let’s end on this point: if I had made a film about Saudi women, there would be 100 to 200 shots of women behind fences among the 700 or so shots of the film, whereas now I have one or two. That’s the real relationship between locked-up women and others, and cinema doesn’t allow you to dodge the problem. We could say that in a comparative history of women in the Arab countries, the situation of Algerian women is more favourable. But it’s not satisfactory.

Now that you’ve taken the plunge, so to speak, and moved to cinema, wouldn’t you be tempted to make fiction films and leave aside documentaries?

No, not really, and more for technical reasons than by preference, I would say. Whatever the result, The Nouba, a film you like or don’t like, allowed me to think about what kind of cinema to make in Algeria or in a developing country. Everywhere else, cinema benefits from an accumulation of techniques, talents or artistic disciplines, so the filmmaker arrives in a non-virgin territory. We arrive in virgin territory, or at least a territory where certain disciplines are 50 years behind. How, under these conditions, do you want to make entirely fictional films on a real level, not on the level of Rome or Warsaw, not on the level of your own thoughts. Because if a film is just about giving substance to characters, to a plot, then I am better off alone with my words. What’s interesting and exciting is that which is added to you, which is capable of energizing your own work. Let’s take actors, for example. They should be on a journey, so you could share some reference points with them. They should be able to bring their own elements to a character, instinctive elements that a professional practice would have liberated. A great actor always goes beyond what the director says. In a long shot, there is a point at which he innovates. He flees from his director, secretly joining his character, your character... So, we arrive in virgin territory. Let’s try to turn the disadvantages into advantages... In order to do this, we need to make films that aren’t closed.

You mean we have to introduce the documentary?

No, it’s more complicated than that... We, or rather I, can’t make completely fictional films. I have to introduce the documentary as I understand it and...

What do you mean by “the documentary as I understand it”?

I mean, first of all, that it’s a way of proceeding. For me, it’s not necessarily about adding to the social documents of an Algerian film library. Which is a perfectly justified and very interesting goal, but let’s say it doesn’t interest me a priori...

I’d like to rephrase my question. In your film, there is a fictional part and an “observed” part. Did you manipulate reality when you brought the real women of Chenoua to the screen?

Do you want to know if it’s direct cinema? No, it’s not. There’s only one direct-cinema shot in the film, during the (fictional) sequence of the little girl in the tree. A woman walked by, without noticing the camera. We filmed her without her knowing it. For everything else, I proceeded in a very different way. I was in a place I knew perfectly well, because I had travelled around there a lot. Path after path, I had observed a lot – I probably had the desire to observe like a sociologist, or like an ethnologist would do, to re-observe the same kinds of movement, the same activities... Once I had observed and memorized this reality (because my method when I travel, when I go to people’s homes, is to not take a camera, but to observe and take everything in), once this reality was inside of me, I started thinking about the frame. When shooting, I would give the cameraman this frame and ask him to wait until the reality I had observed, once or ten times, would return. I would ask him to film something that was going to happen. It’s like hunting; you know the game will turn up. It wasn’t a matter of killing, but of capturing reality. Of course, in relation to this space, maybe I had the eye of a painter. I thought about a frame for a long time, wondered why I chose this or that frame, why I wanted a lot of sky when the girl was running down the road... I didn’t know. I followed my intuition... It was a bit disorienting for the people I was working with, who were used to doing news reports. We worked more slowly. Twice as slow. I waited for the things I knew to return.

So you were passive in the face of reality?

Not quite. Because once I’d memorized the reality, I thought of a mise en image, like in fiction in a way. Above all, if you say that something that exists outside of you is going to happen, you need to think about your relationship to this thing. About your distance. In fact, this relationship of proximity or non-proximity with beings, the place of the camera basically, that’s what mise-en-scène is. I experienced it in a physical way. Now, my way of watching a film is to see where the camera is. I recently saw Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963) again, and the film could well be summarized by the place of the camera. Bergman always films actresses at armpit level, so this type of gaze that plays on women’s bodies obviously requires supernatural, or hardly natural actresses. The relation of distance is more than just aesthetic; it’s a moral relation. And here I return to the fact that it’s not a closed kind of cinema. In documentaries, despite your expectations, your perfect knowledge of the territory, sometimes something doesn’t go exactly as expected. That’s the imponderable, and that’s what’s exciting about this field. If you have established the true relation of distance with the subject, you’re able to understand when a person in front of you, or a gesture you want to capture, continues to exist by and for themselves, or itself, as with great artists who at some point go beyond the script and enrich it. So at that moment, if you have established the true distance, which is both a relation of promiscuity and a relation of knowledge, both not being a stranger and not disturbing – in short, the opposite of a tourist – at that moment, you’re ready to capture what’s happening in front of you. Something is really happening in front of you. Then, you can film.

  • 1. A sappa is a woven bathing basket or case, mostly used by women in the city. Its interior is often lined with satin and multiple embroidered pockets, and is encrusted with two or three mirrors.

Originally published as ‘La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua’ in Les 2 écrans (July 1978). Republished, in an extended version, as ‘Un premier regard’, in Wassyla Tamzali, En attendant Omar Gatlato: Regards sur le cinéma algérien ; suivi de Introduction fragmentaire au cinéma tunisien (Algiers: éditions E.N.A.P., 1979).