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Algeria’s Lyes Salem: ‘Humanism Distinguishes Us From the God Crazy Folk’

Actor-director Salem talks about his second directorial outing, ‘The Man From Oran,’ a corrective to the official history of post-independence Algeria

In the first of a short series of articles in Variety’s UniFrance Rendez-vous Dailies on directors and French productions pushing the boundaries of freedom in the Arab world, Variety talks to French-Algerian director Lyes Salem about his second feature, “The Man From Oran,” sold at the UniFrance Rendez-vous by Films Distribution.

Buoyed by the spirit of the Arab spring, best director winner at Abu Dhabi’s New Horizons “The Man From Oran” is one of the most ambitious films to come out of the Arab world in the last 12 months. Playing out like “Once Upon a Time in Algeria,” it follows two friends –Hamid and Djaffar — from Algeria’s uprising against France to their total estrangement three decades later. Hamid becomes a minister after independence; Djaffar, played by Salem, originally a carpenter by trade, morphs into a (at first, reluctant) freedom fighter, then official war hero, a widower — his wife dies, having been raped by the son of a farmer who Djaffar accidentally kills, gives birth to a son, Bachir, then dies from shame – then apparatchik, club owner: He last appears as an increasingly disillusioned, and finally outraged, witness to Algeria’s degeneration into a corrupt one-party state, as he seeks to mend his relationship with his son. Salem talked about how “The Man From Oran” and the controversy it has stirred in Algeria:

In “The Man From Oran,” Hamid, an idealistic fighter, degenerates into a minister whose decisions are made for self-enrichment or the mere maintenance of power. You also show the regime rewriting history. In a sense, the film – in a humanistic fashion — is “de-writing” the official story….

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I like your play on words. It’s something like that…Through the questioning of memory, the film “un-writes,” or “de-writes,” the official history of this country 50 years after independence. I belong to a generation that continues to be frustrated by an independence we’re still dreaming about. Between a search for identity and aspiring to modernity, the ways have crossed and led nowhere. The notion of humanism is, without doubt, one of the most important things to be found in Algeria (as in other places in the world); it is what distinguishes us from what I call the God-crazy folk, those who believe only in Him — God — because they no longer believe in Man.

Your vision of war questions heroic stereotypes: War is largely a matter of bad luck, accident, where circumstances dictate very much the side you’re on. This is clearest in the circumstances that force Djaffar to become a freedom fighter whether he likes it or not…

No, it doesn’t dictate which side one finds oneself on, but it sometimes precipitates events. That’s what happens to Djaffar, who hadn’t set out to be part of the cause, the struggle for independence, but ends up being obliged to, because he’s overrun by events. But once he’s with the cause, he goes right to the end, because for him there is no doubt, as there isn’t for me, 60 years later, that combat is legitimate and necessary. But it is true that this is something of a departure from previous films on the subject, where it had been the norm to present resistance fighters as men who were convinced and committed from the very outset. I think that one is never born a “hero”; one becomes a hero, because one comes to do much more than one could ever have envisaged.

Yet again, Djaffar does have to commit one act of courage, saving Hamid from the French farmer who has captured him. Doing so he kills a man who has never treated him badly. Your vision of history is also one that highlights the contradictions and the complexity of events…. 

I’m the son of a French mother and an Algerian father. Every day for all of the 15 years I lived together with both my parents I literally had this question for dinner, in all its complexity … Seriously though, yes, I did indeed wish to deal with the complexity of the France-Algeria issue, through Kotias, the farmer who in a way bequeaths the character of Bachir to Djaffar. Bachir isn’t born out of a gratuitous or malicious act of rape. He is born out of an act of reprisal perpetrated on a son who’s just seen his father killed by someone he esteemed. Djaffar says so: Kotias used to carry them on his back when they were kids, and Zyad, the cell leader, wholeheartedly agrees. Kotias was not malicious. Djaffar joins the struggle for independence killing someone he lived with, someone with whom he might even have even been able to live in a country that was truly free…

The film does not criticize independence, but what Algerians have done with it. Ordinary and younger Algerians — Bachir, the child Djaffar’s raped wife gives birth to; Said, a fellow resistance fighter; Halima, Djaffar’s sister – they see little benefit from regime change…

Independence clearly hasn’t lived up to what it promised. And the greatest victims of this are that silent majority represented in the film by Said and Halima. One can often look at the behavior of certain Algerian leaders and see similarities with the former colonial rulers… Like cousins that get along well, one could say. A chip off the old block…But that seems human nature, doesn’t it? To do unto others what one was once made to endure. I was humiliated and now that I’ve got my land, I’ll always find justifiable reason to humiliate someone else. It’s an era full of examples of unbearable paradoxes. In the case of Algeria, what makes it even more dreadful is that we are humiliating ourselves.

This is a large film from Algeria. How was it financed?

Seventy-five percent of the finance came from France (CNC, Canal Plus and other, diverse sources, such as Sofica tax funding), and the rest came from Algeria, through AARC. I wish to stress that the script that was originally presented to all the different Algerian commissions is exactly the same script that was finally shot. At no time did any authority attempt to censor the film in any way at all. It’s only now, today, when the film has been shown in Algeria, that it seems to be a problem for the authorities.

Reception to date – the best director prize at Abu Dhabi – has been good. How do you think the film will be received in Algeria and all the more so France, which has traditionally disavowed its actions in the Algerian war of independence?

After the avant-première screening organized here in Oran, there was some controversy with Islamists (preachers and Imams) and some Moudjahidine children’s associations. The point of controversy was alcohol and the presence of swear words in the film. There was an outcry from the vast majority of the press and some intellectuals who defended the right to artistic expression as well as a less official vision of history. For two months, the film was the source of much debate and controversy on social networks and in the written press, as well as on TV programs. But the vast majority of those who talked about it, whether for or against, hadn’t actually seen the film, which won’t be available here in Algeria till this month. I think that a small part of the power apparatus is using Islamist puppets to attack the film, drawing on little details which can of course seem shocking (the consumption of alcohol, certain swear words), but I think that’s only a smokescreen for other questions, which are far more serious, that the film deals with. So the film will be widely launched across Algeria from January, but DVD will no doubt be the most massive outlet. And if we are in any way hindered, I am prepared, myself, to post the film on Internet, because for me the most important thing is for the film to be seen by as many Algerians as possible. It is my intention to make what I call cinema that is necessary; so all the possible vectors for diffusion are good and legitimate for that.

What were your influences when making the film? Were there films you admire from other countries?

There were two films in my head, as the range within which I wanted my film to be situated: “Once Upon a Time in America,” by Sergio Leone, and “We All Loved Each Other So Much,” by Ettore Scolla. I’m a great admirer of Chaplin, Sergio Leone, Emir Kusturica, and also, of course, of a great deal of the independent American cinema, starting with Scorsese. But I also like Ken Loach, Maurice Pialat. And I’m also quite willing to like many films I still don’t know or haven’t had the opportunity to discover.

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