Filmmaker Djamila Sahraoui gave her nephew Mahoud a camcorder to track the progress of friends and townspeople who were beautifying their rundown neighborhood in the eastern Algerian city of Tazmalt. What develops after nine months of shooting is “The Trees Grow Too in Kabylia,” an extraordinarily cohesive vision of small town life, its rhythms, its intimacies and its impasses. There are doubtless many reasons not to live in Tazmalt (rampant unemployment at the top of the list), but, for 86 minutes, it’s a hell of a nice place to visit. Warm, amusing, surprisingly well shot pic with gallery of colorful characters could click with cable auds.
After a while, viewers begin to recognize the town regulars — the kindly doctor, the amateur mechanic who spends half his days fixing his car and the other half bitching about it, the astute old ladies on their doorsteps who know all the town’s secrets, and the young men who catch and cage songbirds as a moneymaking endeavor. (“He knows 11 songs,” brags the would-be bird vendor to a prospective customer, trying to hit him up for an improbable amount of cash).
If selfishness and double-dealing stalk the streets of Tazmalt, these negative forces never make it to the screen. Merchants cheerfully extend credit to their customers, boys help half-blind old biddies walk home, and everyone pitches in to pave the streets, paint the exterior walls of houses blue and plant the trees of the title.
Such industry results as much from boredom and dead-endedness as from civic pride. Jobs are non-existent, and everyone speaks of going to France or to the United States, not because of any burning desire to do so but because nothing is left for them at home. “Why do you want to film here?” one kid asks. “There are only chickens, old women and old men.” The absence from the film of any female between 6 and 60, underlined when a lone young woman briefly appears behind an ancient crone on a doorstep, remains unexplained.
During the shooting, civil strife sweeps through the Berber town of Kabylia as it sweeps through the entire eastern part of Algeria, leaving protest, unrest, smoke, rubble and dead bodies in its wake, though its impact is largely kept in abeyance. Meanwhile, on-screen, work on repaving and tree planting resumes. In docu’s final images, the trees are flourishing, even if the people are not.
“Trees” is one of three films helmer Sahraoui has made in her hometown of Tazmalt. The first, “Algeria Anyway” (1999), was filmed by a professional crew. When it was screened for the inhabitants, people were appalled by what their neighborhood looked like. The next two films were a direct result of that shame. Both the 51-minute “Algeria Forever” (2001) and the feature-length “Trees” were assembled from footage provided by Sahraoui’s gifted nephew.