Movies & TV

Capturing a world of protest in Algiers

BERLIN: “I just need some narratives of utopia,” reflected Karim Ainouz. “I can’t stand anymore waking up and talking to my friends about how horrible this government is, how horrible the climate crisis is. What I’m trying to do in this film is to show that there are people resisting.”

Ainouz is a familiar figure on the international film festival circuit, known for distinguished fiction and nonfiction work. “The Invisible Life of Eur?dice Gusmao,” his most recent fiction, took the Grand Prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section in 2019. A veteran of the Berlinale, his latest doc “Nardjes A.” debuted this week in the festival’s Panorama section.

Best known for his work in Brazil, Ainouz documented the stories of new Germans in “Zentralflughafen THF” (Central Airport THF), which debuted here in 2018.

“Nardjes A.” grew out of another doc Ainouz had planned to (and did) shoot in Algeria in the spring of 2019. That had been his first trip to the country of his father’s birth and the filmmaker and his crew found the capital in ferment. Then-President Bouteflika’s declaration that he’d seek a fifth term in office provoked an ongoing series of weekly nonviolent demos dubbed the Hirak Movement (aka Revolution of Smiles).

“I wanted to shoot the demonstrations, to have it as an archive of resistance,” he told The Daily Star in a two-on-one interview Wednesday, saying he hoped the footage would become more than images of an uprising. “Those images somehow evaporate very quickly on social media platforms. So I thought of having a character that I could follow throughout one day of demonstrations.”

Ainouz decided one Monday to document the demonstration called for Friday, falling on March 8, 2019, International Women’s Day.

“I didn’t know if [protest images] would have the strength to make a film,” he recalled, “so I thought it would be interesting ... to follow it through [a woman’s] eyes.”

The protagonist who pulls the doc into focus is Nardjes Asli. A young actor and activist, she’s an energetic and well-spoken figure who might easily be seen to embody qualities shared by a younger generation of Algerians who -- not-unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the Arab world, and in international flashpoints like Hong Kong and Santiago de Chile, began rallying against their governments’ authoritarian manner and neoliberal policies in 2019.

“I wanted [the protagonist] to be an actress because it was important to have someone who can relate to a camera and not be looking into the lens all the time,” he said “There was something furious about her, yet also fragile. She’s very small [physically]. I didn’t yet know her story -- which her grandparents had died during the war of liberation. The only thing that came to mind clearly is her energy and charisma ... The other thing is there’s something quite fierce about her.”

Class, Ainouz said, was just as important in choosing Nardjes as gender. “I found out she lived in a quarter called Bachdjerrah, one of many neighborhoods built after the war of independence to house people migrating from the countryside. She’s not the elite. I might have made a movie about my enchantment with being the in the middle of this uprising. Nardjes is much more interesting.”

Ainouz readily admitted his decision to make “Nardjes A.” can’t be separated from the events surrounding the rise and consolidation of Brazil’s Bolsonaro regime.

“I was raised with this fantasy of Algeria’s war of independence, of this country that had really stood up against colonialism,” he mused. “I must say that, when I first arrived, it seemed the country was crumbling. Literally a week later people took to the streets in a way that was very liberating.

“I seemed to be the opposite of what’s happening in Brazil. I don’t think we’re on the brink of a civil war but the way the country’s been completely divided politically, the fact that that this abject man was somehow elected a year ago has put us in a state of trauma.”

He recalled how, while outlining the priorities of the Bolsonaro government’s cultural funding program earlier this year, Brazil’s short-lived secretary of culture had paraphrased a speech by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister.

“There’s such a discourse of despair, of darkness, of doom in Brazil now,” Ainouz said. “Then I arrived in Algiers, [where] the streets have been taken by people playing drums, and shouting and saying ‘Get out now! We know what we want from our own history.’

“At the beginning,” he added, the demo footage “was like, ‘How can I capture these images and maybe somehow use [them] in another movie, something that I can keep to myself that I’m missing in Brazil now.’ I understand why it’s not happening [in Brazil]. They’ve done something that colonial powers did very well, which is to divide and conquer.

“No one [in Algeria] is naïve. I don’t know where this is gonna lead, but there is a sense of permanent struggle [and] a wisdom that I felt,” he said, recalling the demonstrators’ decision ignore efforts to ignore the violent provocations of state agents and to steer the marches clear of the presidential palace, in order to avoid confrontations with heavily armed police.

“This sense of wisdom is something that we do lack in Brazil these days. People are traumatized. I think we’re paralyzed. People don’t even know where to start ... I’ve been calling for civil disobedience for a long time but it’s very hard to call for civil disobedience when you have a popularly elected government.

“So it’s great to meet people with blood in their veins, fighting for something different.”

Ainouz says he was so charmed by the positive energy of Algiers’ demonstrators that it didn’t occur to him that distributors and audiences might be suffering protest fatigue or exhaustion with Arab crisis.

“There was something very joyful about what was happening in Algeria at that moment,” he recalled, “an experience you could immerse yourself in.”

The filmmaker was surprised to learn that distributors in Italy and France were excited about giving “Nardjes A.” a theatrical release, saying he’d imagined the doc would be disseminated more informally.

“I made this film to be shown in the back lots of Algerian towns and elsewhere in Africa [but] I think it’ll be really interesting if the film is released on this --” he said, pointing to the smart phone on which the journalist was taping the conversation. “My ideal is to have the film released on a platform that will allow it to be seen on smart phones and hand gadgets as well.

“I think it would be great if the joy on these peoples’ faces inspire other uprisings in other countries,” he reflected, “not only to inspire but to feel that we own this together.”

For more on the Berlinale 2020, see:





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