In many ways, Merzak Allouache, Variety’s Middle East Filmmaker of the Year, is the cinematic face of Algeria, the most recognizable son of that nation’s film industry and an establishment gadfly ever since his feature debut in 1976 with the justly acclaimed “Omar Gatlato.” So it’s fitting that he’s being honored in Abu Dhabi just one year after celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence, even though, or especially because, the helmer has always cast a critical light on his country’s institutions while revealing the humanity of its people.
It also helps that he’s had an exceptional run these past two years, with “The Repentant” preeming in Cannes in 2012 and “The Rooftops” in competition at Venice just a couple months ago. Throughout his career, whether making social dramas or comedies, Allouache has looked presciently at the problems facing a young nation defined, at least in the 20th century, by painful political and social ruptures, from machismo to fundamentalism, from emigration to unbalanced power structures.
“I consider myself a filmmaker who must be engaged,” says the director. “I’m happy to speak about the situation in my country, but at the same time I would point out that I’m not a politician. The responsibilities of someone who makes a film under these conditions are not the same as those of a European or North American director.”
Allouache came of age during Algeria’s war of independence, studying filmmaking in the newly born national film school and also in France. In 1975, one year before his debut feature, Algeria won its first and only Palme d’Or with Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina’s “Chronicle of the Years of Embers,” a film whose epic scale and historical specificity stand in direct contrast to Allouache’s neo-realist “Omar Gatlato,” a nuanced take on contempo life in Algiers that was a breath of fresh air for a nation used to a steady diet of carefully controlled message pics and glances back to a mythologized past.
Since then, it’s been Allouache’s style to view the present with an independent mind. “I wouldn’t defi ne myself as someone who works as part of a group. I simply tell the stories that I wish to tell,” he says.
Not everyone was happy with what he wanted to say: “Bab el-Oued City” (1994) took a scalpel to the violence and growing fundamentalism plaguing the country, and the official backlash directly led to the helmer’s move to France. Once established in Gaul, Allouache’s popular comedies such as “Salut, Cousin!” (1996) and “Chouchou” (2003) addressed problems like exile and gender identity, milking knowing laughs out of issues he treats equally in his dramas. Since returning to Algeria in 2004, his work has turned darker, looking at immigration (“Harragas,” 2009), the Arab Spring (“Normal,” 2011) and the strain of political Islam (“The Repentant” and “The Rooftops”).
Now he’s producing his daughter Bahia Allouache’s first film, described as a “blistering comedy,” and the experience may bring him back to a lighter vein. But fortunately, with Allouache, lighter will never mean bubble-headed.