“After 62 years of living together, Lina’s grandparents, Aïcha and Mabrouk, have decided to separate. Together, they came from Algeria to Thiers, a small medieval town in the middle of France, over 60 years ago. Side by side, they have experienced this chaotic immigrant life. For Lina, their separation is an opportunity to question their long journey of exile and their silence.”
Thus the synopsis of Their Algeria, the Arab French filmmaker-actress Lina Soualem’s debut, which won the Doc Corner Best Doc in progress award at Cannes Festival and was selected to premiere at the Visions du Réel International Film Festival. More recently, at the 4th of El Gouna Film Festival (GFF), it also won the El Gouna Star for Best Arab Documentary Film (US $10,000). The daughter of celebrated Palestinian actress-filmmaker Hiam Abbass and Algerian French actor Zinedine Soualem, in her debut Lina focused on her patrilineal heritage, leaving out the Palestinian side of the story.
With Covid resulting in the world premiere taking place virtually, Soualem still feels fortunate to have made her first film at the right time. “I wanted very much to share the experience with the audience,” she says, “but at least the festival had a lot of online visitors so it was sold out and attracted a lot of media coverage.” The MENA premiere at GFF – “a great platform to meet the public and other, Arab and international professionals” – was her first, long awaited physical meeting with an audience. The Arab world is important, she says, because so many Arabs contributed to Their Algeria.
Covid was not the only challenge, however. Producing a debut feature is never easy. Soualem says it was a tough journey. “But I learned a lot. Also, to find support on the way from many different places and people was heartwarming especially when you’re doing a personal film about your family and you don’t know if the story is going to resonate emotionally with other people.” It took a long time to bring about, though it was Covid that did the most damage by delaying its participation in festivals and necessitating virtual screenings.
In a film that tackles the untold story of Algerians who were moved to France before the war, one challenge was the sensitivity of the topic itself. French history in Algeria is complex, Soualem says, and France’s official memory does not account for all of it. “But the good thing is that this is the right time to tell these stories which people of my generation need to be able to talk about. Our story needs to become part of the official history of the country where we were born. We need to reconnect with our families’ Algerian roots so that we can find our place in both two worlds, and find balance. It is difficult when you don’t really know where to belong.” Though not mentioned in the film, Palestine was never far away.
“In my Algerian family we used to hide our own truth deep within ourselves as silence is the mode of communication. The opposite is true of my Palestinian family where the transmission of history has always been very vocal because it is through speaking that we survive and forgetfulness is fought with words.” Making Their Algeria, she kept the Palestinian experience in mind, if only to emphasize that difference. “My Palestinian history has always been transmitted to me from a very young age and I used to go to Palestine every summer with my family but I’ve never been to Algeria. I spoke Palestinian Arabic and I was never taught Algerian Arabic. So there was a big contrast between these two parts of my identity. Their Algeria was vital because part of my story was missing and I had to understand why.”
It is worth mentioning that Soualem’s next project, Bye Bye Tiberius, also took part in the CineGouna Platform (the GFF project development and co-production lab), where it won three awards worth $30,000 in total, and is going to be filmed among her mother’s family “It is also about communication among the women of the family and It will also rely heavily on archival imagery.”
Archives were essential to Their Algeria where the past is cleverly combined with the present. The archival footage was her starting point because it was had always been through visual heritage that she related to her Algerian identity. “They never told us their story but I had these images in which I would see so much of Algerian culture. It was very important to me to be able to have them in my film especially since they were filmed by my father.” But this archival material did not come into the film until the final stages of the editing: “I was delighted when I found a way to fit them in.”
Aïcha and Mabrouk were married in 1952, in the village of Laouamer in Algeria, without knowing each other. Two years later, they settled in Thiers, a small medieval French town where they have been living for over 60 years. Mabrouk worked his entire life in a knife-making factory. Aïcha followed a husband she did not know to an unknown country, to start a family with him. And so the two main characters in Their Algeria are her silent grandfather who always has too little to say, and her grandmother who in her old age awakes to her unfulfilled dreams and decides to start living to the utmost, putting the past behind her. Mabrouk’s silence is the main theme, but it was Aïcha who propelled Soualem into the thick of things.
“I used to see her only through the hardships she experienced and I always had great admiration for how she was able to tell her story in a cheerful way when actually what she was saying was very tragic. I always wondered how she found the strength to live her life in this way when she never really had control over her choices as she was dragged out of Algeria at 17 married someone she did not know and arriving in a country she did not know without the ability to speak French or to read but now all her friends believe she is the funniest among them. She was my main character but when I started filming her I understood that I could not have her without having my grandfather. One could not be without the other even if they were separated and not communicating. It was as if my grandfather had some key contribution to this story”
Although the most challenging thing was her grandfather’s silence, Soualem appreciates those moments when he managed to share some of his little secrets: “Every time it was a big discovery even though he was saying only one or two sentences. It was a valuable opportunity to spend so much time with them as my grandfather passed away last February when the film was just finished. Of course it was sad but I felt relieved that I’d have his memory with me in the film forever and be able to share it with others. I feel it was destined to happen the right time.”
One of the questions the film raises is the exploratory attitude of third-generation compared to second-generation immigrants: Lina compared to her father. Supportive though he was, she felt she was raising issues that had always been on his mind even though he never had the courage to ask them. Growing up Zinedine had always been told he was Algerian and would go back one day.
“He belongs to a generation that never questioned their parents’ choices,” Lina says. “My dad and his brothers and sisters knew that they could not question anything because there was no other choice and they did not really question their identity because for them it was clear that they were Algerians growing up in France. My film might be a way for him to get answers through me and to connect to his parents through me, because I can have more of a distance from the story. I was born in France; I have a different understanding of the identity question. But I think he was also happy and proud to see his daughter was interested in the history of his parents.”
When her grandmother watched the film, Soualem says, she found it so real she laughed and cried at the same moment. “I was very happy to share it with her. We watched it three times till she told me, ‘Now I am ready to go to the cinema with you and to watch it with other people.’ It was a great moment.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly