From revolutionary heroes to a hirak void of leaders: The transition captured in film

In Bab El Oued City (Merzak Allouache, 1994), Ouardya (Nadia Samir) takes sips of her drink as she romanticizes the Algeria of 1962, a country that had just ripened, whose people were finally tasting its forbidden fruits. Tears fall down on her face as she laments about the civil war that has taken over thirty years later. Her reality takes out the cigarette of bitter nostalgia. 

Allouache aimed to clog his films with anti-hero images as a protest to the themes woven into war films when the country was still at its infancy – his Omar Gatlato (1976) and Rooftops (2013) pictures make that painfully obvious. Allouache strives to undress ills in Algerian society, sometimes in intentionally provocative ways, but the personalities offered on the menu are often incredibly flat and flavorless. It may have been an accident that Allouache was at least successful in capturing the emptiness that washed over the city like a stubborn fog. While these two films were characterized by rather poor character development, Bab El Oued City does a relatively better job of allowing us to absorb who each person is and what their frustrations and motivations are. It was Allouache’s mission to depict anti-heros, but perhaps it was his environment, void of any wise collective, that guided his paintbrush to a canvas.

Allouache is judgemental of a masculinity defined by the Algerian revolution, but his work made to defy those ideals feeds into a canon of Algerian cinema charged with but a new habitual offense, and one that may be counterproductive today, especially considering the influence film has in Algeria. The public undergoes a repetitive process of perceiving their surroundings and understanding their past based on transmissions of script. Their convictions about politics, religion, and social reform are thus crystallized by generated storytelling, rather than unfiltered personal examination. 

In other words, film criticism is simply not a robust practice in Algeria, leading people to take what they see on their screens not as worthy of scrutiny but as a more objective account than their own nuanced experiences. This is likely why a film like Papicha (Mounia Meddour, 2019) gets a round of applause with no after-thought, despite its glaring faults. Not only do Algerians need to think more critically, but Algerian filmmakers need also to revisit the importance of leadership in times of crisis. The evolution of war films in Algeria show not only how heroes have disappeared into the background, but how they eventually cease to exist. 

In his diary, Ben Bella, the first President of Algeria, wrote that the independence movement was a revolution without an ideology. A nationalist sentiment molded by the phrase “One hero: the people” would conquer the hearts of thousands, unified for the simple pursuit of freedom. Decades later, Algerians would have to rally again, this time against their own. On February 22, 2019, weekly protests swept the country. People took to the streets to reject former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s fifth mandate. This movement is called hirak. While it has been made clear that Algerians will not give up until the torch is handed to them, no formation of a political party has taken place, nor a clear philosophy proposed as a basecoat for reestablishing just government. There are no leaders. 

This is in direct contrast to what we see in The Epic of Cheikh Bouamama (Ben Omar Bakhti, 1985), which takes place between the 1880s and early 1900s. Uprisings against French penetration in the Sahara characterized this time period and Cheikh Bouamama himself led a famous battle. In the film, however, we hardly see Cheikh Bouamama (Athmane Ariouet) mounted on his horse in combat. Instead, the most memorable, prolonged scenes are of him speaking to his constituents, stitching together beautiful lines of speech. Ariouet’s eloquence in Arabic and steadfast attitude radiated through the screen, making him the perfect man to be casted for this role. 

Already renowned for his craft in the industry, Ariouet’s ability to internalize a stoic yet soft composure for the film was crucial in communicating to the audience just how much this historical figure was deserving of the utmost reverence. Previously tucked away in history books, Bakhti breathed life into Cheikh’s Bouamama’s religious, political, and military contributions by directing this film. From seeing Cheikh Bouamama in action through Athmane Ariouet, we are able to make cross-contextual comparisons. Like Omar Mukhtar who was nicknamed “Lion of the Desert” in Libya for leading a resistance against Italian occupation, Cheikh Bouamama earns the same badge of respect. 

A religious ethos was seen as a particularly nefarious threat by French colonels. Pierre Fromont who plays the main general professes, “A zawiya [Islamic school] is more dangerous than a military post.” Cheikh Bouamama never bows down to their reservations, and instead remains confident in his intent to protect his land and people. Typical in movies that are set during the colonial period, we see Algerian translators who facilitate communication between the French and locals. This detail is likewise embedded in The Winds of the Aures (Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina, 1966) and The Opium and The Stick (Ahmed Rachedi, 1971). It is practically necessary to include because it captures how colonization is only truly effective when those on the receiving end of foreign domination choose to support their new rulers. 

In The Epic of Cheikh Bouamama, however, it demonstrated the basic need to understand one another before conflict bubbled to the surface, when there would be no need for verbal interaction. At that moment, the language of war would come into play, and both parties proved to be fluent. Preceding this kettle blow, it’s important to note that Cheikh Bouamama never learned French. It was a Frenchman who went out of his way to master Algerian Arabic, in order to gain access to the man who lit fire in the hearts of those around him. 

Cheikh Bouamama was not hungry for power either, in fact, he was never physically at the frontlines. The battle scenes were raw and gritty, and very far from the bravado of Hollywood visual effects. Horses fell to the ground, dust covered the lens, and the sword fights were comically unrealistic. But because of these messy clashes, where we can only identify two opposing sides from the differences in costume, we understand that Cheikh Bouamama’s spiritual leadership was not overshadowed by his militaristic command. His role in leading the pack never overshadowed the power of the group. 

Like in Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) where freedom fighters hid handguns under the hayek, in The Epic of Cheikh Bouamama Algerians in El Bayadh used the hawdaj to hide men with weapons. Both were tactics to spring up on French officers and surprise attack. It was not the work of Cheikh Bouamama alone that this resistance lasted for as many years it did, but it was his light that guided men and women to remain strong in face of the enemy.

In Chronicle of the Years of Fire (Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina, 1975), which takes place in November 1954, after a century of French colonialism and when the revolution officially began to brew, the “hero” is a peasant named Miloud. Not only did Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina direct the production, but he also starred in it. The film presumably takes place in a province like Laghouat from what can be seen by the landscape and attire. Lakhdar-Hamina and Bakhti do something important by highlighting Algerian history from these desert-edge regions that often go unnoticed. Lakhdar-Hamina in particular frames the story in a way that could be said to be uncommon. He shows how the war was not only about Algerians versus the French, but how internal fighting occurred between Algerian laborers and Algerian judicial elites (caids) who were co-opted into the French system and used to maintain control. They were privileged, wealthy and could hold positions of authority so as long as they helped those above them keep their hand over Algerian land. 

There is a captivating scene where Miloud yells to a group of lower-class workers, telling them to “get up”, not physically but figuratively. He repeats that “the time for freedom has arrived” and urges the medina (city) to wake up – as in realize they no longer have to be slaves on their own property. In between the legs of camels carrying heaps of hay, we see Miloud enacting his oratory ritual, being ignored and perceived as a madman. There is a direct cutaway to the next scene where the French flag is being hung in the town square. Throughout the film, Miloud is an unconventional hero who, at the end, is defeated by negligence. But like Cheikh Bouamama, he was poetic and persistent. He didn’t fill the air with catchy slogans for the sake of it, he recited meaningful words of hope and emphasized the principle of due-diligence. Despite the fact that he faded into death, his faith had already made its mark.

But in Bab El Oued City, which takes place during the Black Decade, a civil war following a coup, there are no heroes. Different characters are fixated on what is played on the speakers traditionally used for the call to prayer around the city. Allouache’s choice to use these speakers as a motif perhaps speaks to the ideological tug-of-war that was happening at the time. Ben Bella said the revolution had no ideology but he of course was speaking to the pact made between all major actors. Of different political stripes, they joined together to put an end to Charles de Gaulle’s empire. The different modes of political thought included Marxism, which Ouardya cites explicitly in Bab El Oued City, socialism, which became the main current moving into independence, and Islamism, which is vilified in the film through Said (Mohamed Ourdache). The government that reigned after independence appealed to populism, until FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) won in the 1991 democratic elections. The army refused to recognize their legitimacy and a war broke out. The 90s in Algeria was a time of disillusionment and merciless violence. Ex-intelligence agents testify that the army would grow out their beards, dress in identifiably “Muslim” clothing, kill people in cold blood, then pin it on the Islamists. Since this period, whose history is still being unpacked and trauma is still being healed, Algeria has not known who she is. 

Some call the present-day hirak an extension of the 1962 revolution, and others call it a political impasse draped in naive passion. If Algerians want to see change, they don’t need to necessarily frantically look both ways for a self-proclaimed messiah to emerge from the masses. The essence of leadership is not about putting blind trust in another potential tyrant, it is about having a clear idea on how to maneuver a shift in political tectonic plates and decide upon which corpus will define the nation’s values. The utility of “One hero: the people” has expired.

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