North African cinema celebrated at Locarno festival
Locarno, Switzerland - The North African filmmaking industry was celebrated at the 68th Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland from August 5th to 15th with screenings of short films and documentaries as well as project pitches at the Open Doors’ co-production lab.
Contre-pouvoirs (Checks and Balances), made by French-Algerian documentary maker Malek Bensmail, earned the applause of the audience.
The 97-minute documentary, which was projected in avant-première in Locarno, revolves around the period of Algeria’s presidential election campaign in April 2014 during which Bensmail was filming at the headquarters of the French-language daily El Watan in Algiers.
Journalists were filmed debating freedom of expression in Marxism and Islam, a debate that goes on and on without reaching common agreement as Bensmail’s cameras wade deeply into El Watan’s offices to capture the daily pulse of the main characters of the documentary.
As the presidential campaign heats up, the editor-in-chief gathers his team to debate the events that are likely to change the political landscape in Algeria with the protests across the country led by the Barakat movement against a fourth term sought by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
“I chose the timing of the presidential election to shoot the documentary because of the various subjects that could make the story fascinating during the six weeks of filming,” Bensmail told The Arab Weekly.
“This is the only moment when there is so much concentration in field journalism.”
As for the venue, Bensmail said he had the freedom to film at El Watan headquarters and wanted to highlight the idea of how journalists work and gather information to create an article while being stuck between four walls.
The documentary sheds light on foreign labour in Algeria’s labour market. Chinese, Turks and black African workers are seen working at El Watan’s state-of-the-art headquarters overlooking the Algiers coast.
Bensmail’s chef d’oeuvre, which is dedicated to the memory of hundreds of journalists killed during the 1990s, highlights the concept of “counter-power”, which struggles for freedom of expression and democracy. The documentary is to be screened in Algeria in September, pending approval by authorities.
Plenty of other short films and documentaries were screened as part of Open Doors, which focused on North African creations. Ten Libyan short films made their debut in Locarno thanks to the initiative of the British Council in collaboration with the Scottish Documentary Institute.
The Libyan short films were focused on the period after the 2011 fall of dictator Muammar Qaddafi and touch cultural, political, social and religious issues.
Land of Men by Kelly Ali highlights the sex discrimination in post-Qaddafi Libya as women feel more coerced in a male-dominated society. Ali said it was difficult to film a woman outdoors due to the dangers they face.
Graffiti by Anas El Gomati and Ibrahim El Mayet depicts the revolutionary paintings on Tripoli’s walls, which were some of the most striking weapons against Qaddafi’s regime during the “Arab spring”.
“We have been running many workshops in the MENA region in order to help young filmmakers develop a voice and make films for both local and international audiences,” Noe Mendelle, director of the Scottish Documentary Institute, said. Besides the film screenings, Open Doors organised a co-production forum in which eight out of 11 North African producers who pitched projects won grants. Six of the 11 projects were debuts.
“We had some strong projects this year at Open Doors which have been really appreciated,” said Ananda Scepka, head of Open Doors. Le Fort des fous (Madmen’s Fort) by Algeria’s Narimane Mari won a production grant prize of $30,500. Mari’s feature film is a story that portrays the Algerian Sahara in 1860 where settlers dream of a utopian society in an uncharted and mystical land, a blend of power and domination. British- Moroccan Fyzal Boulifa’s feature Pagan Magic won a $10,170 grant. The feature film will be produced by Louise Bellicaud’s Paris-based In Vivo Films.
“We came here to develop the project and try to get some money,” Boulifa said.
“The story is taking some aspects of the early life of my mother who is my strongest connection to Morocco,” said Boulifa whose short film The Curse won the Directors’ Fortnight’s top prize in 2012.
Pagan Magic, which is budgeted at $965,020, is a story based in Morocco in the 1960s about a woman and her adopted daughter embarking on a journey from the mountains to the city to seek a better life. The child works as housemaid for a middle-class family. Conditions become difficult as she begins to practise black magic to survive and change her life.