Algerian filmmakers face political, religious censorship

Authorities tightened control over film productions dealing with the Algerian revolution since 2011. But not only films about the revolution are banned and controlled by authorities.

Thursday 10/09/2020
Bachir Drayes sought to highlight important details of Larbi Ben M’hidi’s life. (aps)
Bachir Drayes sought to highlight important details of Larbi Ben M’hidi’s life. (aps)

ALGERIA – Algerian authorities blocked the screening of the historical film “Larbi Ben M’hidi” on the country’s annual Independence Day celebration July 5, despite earlier leaks saying the film’s director, Bachir Drayes, had reached a consensus with authorities to allow the film to be displayed for the first time since its completion in 2018.

The banning of the film, which focuses on one of the most prominent figures of the Algerian revolution, shows that censorship remains alive and suppresses local filmmakers, observers said.

Algerian demonstrators march with a photograph of revolutionary Larbi Ben M’hidi (top), one of the founders of the National Liberation Front (FLN) as they stand chanting slogans before members of the security forces during a protest rally,  in Algiers, in January 2019. (AFP)
Algerian demonstrators march with a photograph of revolutionary Larbi Ben M’hidi (top), one of the founders of the National Liberation Front (FLN) as they stand chanting slogans before members of the security forces during a protest rally,  in Algiers, in January 2019. (AFP)

The film, which took five years to be completed at a cost of over $5 million, drew push-back from the government. Algeria’s culture ministry and veterans ministry had requested that the content of the film be revamped, including by cutting or changing some forty scenes.

Director Drayes, however, insisted on playing his final version of the film and refused to make any changes. He stressed that “art is a means to present updated readings and (shed) light on hidden points, even if that contradicts the official narrative.”

“Larbi Ben M’hidi” focuses on the life and career of the Algerian leader who fought against French colonisation. M’hidi is considered one of six members who first sparked the liberation revolution against colonialism on November 1, 1954, and is often described as “the wise man of the revolution.”

This handout picture taken in the fifties shows Larbi Ben M’hidi, an Algerian anti-French leader tortured to death in 1957.  (AFP)
This handout picture taken in the fifties shows Larbi Ben M’hidi, an Algerian anti-French leader tortured to death in 1957.  (AFP)

Drayes sought to highlight important details of the man’s life, especially by showing intellectual and ideological differences between leaders of the revolution. The film shows how M’hidi dared to criticise prominent leader Ahmed Ben Bella, who was his companion on the revolutionary path and went on to become Algeria’s first president.

Former Algerian Culture Minister Azzedine Mihoubi said “the state does not give funds for distorting history,” in reference to the allocation of funds from the culture ministry, veterans ministry and some government companies to the movie.

The details and history of the Algerian revolution have largely been confined in the country to the official narrative, even in cinema.

Many films attempting to portray a competing version of the revolution and the Algerian war have been censored, like “Al-Wahrani,” which drew strong criticism from a broad sector known as the “revolutionary family.”

Authorities tightened control over film production on the Algerian revolution in 2011 by approving a law stipulating that “all films related to the liberation revolution and their symbols must be subject to prior government approval.”

The absence of “Larbi Ben M’hidi” on Independence Day sparked anger among many Algerians who are calling for overarching reform.

Muhammad Larbi, a relative of M’hidi, said that “the film is very professional from a technical and historical point of view, and that the quality and value of the work is unmatched by any previous work.”

”The problem with the film,” he said, “is that it deals with what is secret by exposing the political views in the life of the symbolic hero, while the Ministry of the Mujahideen (veterans ministry) wants it to be a film without soul, by focusing on the depreciated and repeated scenes about the revolution.”

Algerian film director and producer Larbi Belakhal has also had two films banned in the country since 2016. He said: “Bachir Drayes and I are paying the price for our political views,” and called for “the liberation of cinema in general and films about revolution specifically from tutelage of the Ministry of Mujahideen (veterans ministry).”

Not only are films about the revolution banned and controlled by the authorities. Other artistic works have also been subject to censorship, such as the movie “Papicha,” whose director and lead actress Mounia Meddour were given no official explanation for it being banned.

It is likely the film was censored due to religious and political considerations, as it presented a critical vision of religious extremism that dragged the country into a bloody decade-long civil war and featured a lead character who expressed sympathy for the 2019 protest movement (known as the Revolution of Smiles).

Mounia Meddour holds her Cesar award for Best First Film for the movie “Papicha” on February 28, in Paris. (AP)
Mounia Meddour holds her Cesar award for Best First Film for the movie “Papicha” on February 28, in Paris. (AP)

The film, which took six years to be produced, received critical acclaim after competing for Best Foreigner Award in the 2020 Oscars and Best Arab Film Award at the El Gouna Festival. It drew more attention in Western media after it was shown in 155 halls in Paris and a number of French cities.

“Papicha,” a common Algerian term to refer to a beautiful and elegant girl, shows the life of a university student during Algeria’s bloody decade (1990 – 2000) that spurred major ideological and social transformations.

It also shined a light on the life of women in extremist societies. The film’s heroines were shown displaying struggle, continuity and resilience in the face of violence and extremism.

“The film was a way to cure from the fear instilled in me during that time; Cinema, art, and time,” said actress Meddour.