Film Review: The Opium and the Stick

While Winds of the Aures (Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina, 1966) focuses on Wilaya I (Province I, the Aures region of Algeria), The Opium and The Stick (Ahmed Rachedi, 1971) takes place in Wilaya III (Province 3, the Kabylia region of Algeria). Rachedi’s film also attends to the independence war much more directly, showcasing guerrilla war techniques. What they both have in common, however, is that neither of them are ‘cinematic masterpieces’, at least not on par with the Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966). They remain, however, incredibly important for historical context. They lag behind the Battle of Algiers mainly because of budget differences and production quality. The Opium and The Stick has a much more dynamic plot compared to the Winds of the Aures, the latter moving slowly and in somber steps. Another overlapping feature, on the other hand, is their attention to motherhood. In The Opium and The Stick, this aspect is subtly weaved into the storyline, as opposed to in Winds of the Aures where it is the main theme. 

These two movies are not in competition with one another (as far as I know), however it may be compelling to talk about two Algerian war narratives that wrestle each other to the top. The Wilaya III narrative has been the ‘default understanding’ of the independence movement, casting a shadow on the contributions made by Wilaya I (despite the fact that the uprising essentially began there, being the center of the ALN). The latter narrative is otherwise known as Badissiyya Novembriyya. Champions for the Wilaya I narrative perhaps find it frustrating that their Shawi counterparts have not answered their call for Berber unity against the gharbi narrative (Ben Bella post-62 vision, Boumediene, etc). Shawis generally remaining deaf to the “cultural movement” of the 80s (Matoub Lounes dedicated a song to Shawis and got aired) make them traitors from a Wilaya III perspective. On the flip side, from the Novembri Badissi narrative, Kabyles are toxic neighbors and Wilaya III is a gate for dangerous ideologies. That being said, this tug of war isn’t necessarily present in the presentation of these two films. If anything, they can complement each other and challenge the idea that the colonial struggle played out one way. They don’t, obviously, solve for opposing perspectives post-independence.

In The Opium and The Stick, Farroudja (Marie-Jose Nat) is captured by French soldiers who took away her son. They torture her, demanding where “Abbas” is and other mujahideen (freedom fighters). She never gives in, but continues to demand for her son. When they finally release her, she rushes to speak with an Algerian who works for the French. Like in Winds of the Aures where we see a translator playing into the hands of his own colonizers, there is a character in The Opium and The Stick who plays this exact role. It speaks to a well-known theory among sociologists that colonization is only possible when the intruders can recruit help from the group they aim on ruling over. Farroudja begs him to reunite her with her son. The translator says it will come at a price, and she confesses she has no money to give him or the captain, but promises to repay the debt soon. He looks at her necklace and says, “And this, this isn’t money?” Without hesitation, she takes it off to give to him. He tells her she’ll still need to pay the captain and she follows him to where he hid her son. We find out there’s a catch. Before he gives her access to her toddler, he demands her to give answers about Algerian rebels. To get her to cough up some leads, he threatens to take her son to the S.A.S office. She gives in.

Forced to choose between her son and her brother, who was among the men she was protecting, the pain of this ultimatum bites her later on. Either way, she was doomed. Kabyles were rounded up by the French to watch the assassination of captives. This was common practice — the French wanted to instill fear, thinking it would prevent men from organizing and picking up arms against them. Before they shoot Farroudja’s brother, their mother repeats “My son, my son” in total despair. This is the second element of motherhood baked into the movie. It would have been more accurate if the actors spoke in Kabyle, as opposed to in Darja. It makes sense why Rachedi chose to do this, however. For one, it serves a more inclusive audience, important for the timing of its release. A dubbed version is said to be coming out in December this year.

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