Algeria’s cinema production intersects with its politics, reflects today’s turmoil

Faisal Hammoum’s “Vote Off,” an Algerian documentary on the country’s 2014 elections, has been given an important currency with the widespread protests occurring in Algeria.
Sunday 28/04/2019
Poster of the Algerian movie “Vote Off.” (Facebook)
For a timely debate. Poster of the Algerian movie “Vote Off.” (Facebook)

TUNIS - The 19th “Cinema of Peace” opened with Faisal Hammoum’s “Vote Off,” an Algerian documentary on the country’s 2014 elections that has been given an important currency with the widespread protests occurring in Algeria.

Against the backdrop of large-scale demonstrations in Algeria calling for sweeping political change in 2014, the Algerian film, which was screened in Tunis, was an interesting topic of discussion for a festival whose theme was “Destiny.”

The film festival, organised by the Tunisian Federation of Film Societies, ran March 12-17. It included a panel discussion on Algerian cinema and archives, allowing participants to explore the complex history and political evolution of the North African country.

The opening documentary studies the events of Algeria’s most recent election through spontaneous conversations with citizens and journalists, as well as footage of meetings of opposition and leading parties.

“The film depicts my reaction to the world’s changes surrounding me,” said Hammoum. “It is not a question of talking about the elections but rather what happened in the background, what people think about the elections.”

Hammoum’s portrayal of what was happening drew the ire of the Algerian state, however, which worked to censor the film. In 2016, it was denied a screening visa at the Bejaia Film Festival.

“The movie was censored in my country because the state thought the film’s depiction of the president was offensive while it only focused on people who are going to vote in the 2014 elections,” Hammoum said.

He added: “It is not a film about an event. I tried to film the president but I didn’t want to film the event of the elections itself. After all, the film ends before the results are out, which was intentional.

“We all knew what the results would be like. That wasn’t the story. We all knew he would win. Just like the title suggests, it is a vote-off. The ‘off’ is also a pun on what happens in the background of the event.”

As protests in Algeria continued now, Hammoum reflected on how the movie relates to current affairs.

“All the people in the movie went out in the protests happening today. No one expected that people would protest. I think we were all trapped in a complicated situation and in waiting. When I filmed the movie, it was 2014 and [Algerian President Abdelaziz] Bouteflika was very sick. It is surreal to think that he would still run for a fifth term [in 2019],” Hammoum said.

He added: “These are people like me and you can feel the existent rupture between youth and politics. In Algeria, you see protesters but no political parties. Protesters are also against the opposition. “

Hammoum spoke about the difficulties he encountered filming, including numerous restrictions imposed on him and his crew, he said, which was monitored closely.

Algerian film-maker and actor Nabil Jadwani said Algeria’s political climate has had a profound effect on cinema, particularly his work to compile and organise a digital archive.

“It became a political statement to try to collect and compile films by film-makers,” Jadwani said. “We need to show the other side of the history of Algerian cinema that is scattered everywhere in the world. These movies constitute an important chapter of Algerian cinema but are often neglected by the system because they don’t express the same political ideology.”

“There are film-makers who are celebrated by the state but there are others who contributed greatly but are overlooked for many reasons and it is important to give these directors their deserved credits,” he added.

Jadwani noted that the protests in Algeria reflect a long-overlooked theme in much of Algerian cinema.

“While attempting to research and retrace the history of Algerian cinema, I noticed that many films that were discarded often portrayed different representations of reality like the colonised Algeria or the post-independence era,” Jadwani said. “Many of these film-makers were exiled.

“Since independence, they were oppressed by a system that wanted to clear their image and their representation of their own realities. They managed to escape through fantasy and imagination, which is, in a way, the thread that connects many films from different eras of the history of Algerian cinema especially that censorship continues till today.

“This thread, fantasy and imagination can be seen in the protests of today. It is part of the Algerian identity.”