Merzak Allouache, no doubt, succeeded through 30 years in putting his name forcefully on the map of Algerian cinema. He directed many controversial films that aroused lots of discussions. In them he expressed his deep feelings of the Algerian status and the different changes that took place in the society since Algeria’s independence from France till now.
Allouache’s films were always considered among the most important of Arabic films. His first film Omar katalato (1976) was received with great appreciation because of its daring approach to macho behaviour in Algerian society and its daring cinematic language. This film left a special mark on the Algerian and Arab modern cinema movement. Allouache also introduced many influential films like The Other World, The Adventure of a Hero and numerous other films which were considered a road mark to the Algerian cinema.
Now he returns with his film Harraga (which means young men who burn their identity papers before stealing their way to Europe by boats so that the guards on the European side would be unable to discover their identity). We are here before a group of idle young men from the city as well as farmers and desert sons trying to get the chance of travelling away to escape their harsh conditions.
The film is about three young men; Omar, Nasser, and Rashid along with a young woman called Iman who is Omar’s sister and Nasser’s lover. The film begins with Omar committing suicide after being desperate in finding a chance of escaping his painful reality, but Nasser and Rashid insist on continuing their adventure because “staying leads to death and leaving leads to death as well” as Rashid says.
The director introduces the journey through Rashid’s point of view during the first third of the film, then turning to Iman who insists on travelling with them because she is not in harmony with all that surrounds her .She doesn’t want to wait for Nasser to send for her if he could make the trip but she would rather share the trip with him. Caused by a change in the characters circumstances as a result of the trip, we are then introduced to Hassan; a man specialized in smuggling men and taking use of their need to cross from the south to the north. Subsequently, we begin to get introduced to the journey’s characters and thus the incidents begin to flow and characters begin to appear, some of them add to the plot but others change its direction.
Sometimes we go back to the original story which is reaching over to the other side of the sea but what gives the dramatic extension to this film is the way that the director introduced the journey. Although there are many other films that handled the subject of ships’ immigrations (both documentary and feature), in this film Allouache introduces the story not just for mere description, although he really cared for drawing an image of it, but he cared more for describing the psychological elements and social dimensions which move his characters and pushes them to this adventure.
The director draws us towards characters without any stereo types, carrying with them their own humanist problems, without any fabrication or nonalignment. This gives the story a human dimension which leads the person watching to a sort of existentialist contemplation.
We are subsequently introduced to a young Islamic man who is the neighbour of Nasser and Rashid. We know through them that he was their intimate friend but he diverted into a different road because he loved Iman and she rejected him and loved Nasser which led to his going far away from them. The director portrays the character with a human side and its dramatic complications which helped him not to fall into the character type in which other films introduced the Islamic figure. On the contrary the director gives a true description of the Islamic man‘s emotions and human dimensions in spite of his almost silent role.
We also have the character of the young man that appears suddenly and controls all by his fear and threatening. He uses his gun in the face of everybody, leading Hassan the smuggler and killing him, then beginning to choose those that will go with him and those that stay in Algeria. This armed man we will discover was a former policeman, running away from his job. The director introduces him to us with all the complications of his character which you hate but pity at the same time, so that you feel perplexed. Although he seems a fascist he also carries the feeling of being prey. The armed man commands the two young men who know how to sail the boat. He keeps control all the way, threatening everybody until he is confronted by Iman and her friend Nasser which drives the Islamic young man to fight with and drown him along with himself.
The boat reaches the beach of Spain. The motor is not working. The rest have to swim for a number of kilometres to reach the beach. This is not easy for the four farmers and desert men to do because they don’t know how to swim. They stay in the boat waiting for who could save them, while Iman swims with Nasser, and Rashid swimming alone.
They reach the other side but they are captured by the Spanish police who deport them afterwards.
The director ends his film by writing some shocking information about the number of those who drown each year through these dangerous trips and the number of those arrested and sent back to their countries.
The film is a testimony to the desperate conditions in which the Algerian men and women live and the world full of disturbances encircling their lives at every second which leads fierce fully to such an adventure in which he or she is ready to gamble all for a moment of luck which might not come.
The film portrays successfully the inner world of the characters which led the director to use the different details surrounding the places and human beings as cinematic elements to assure the psychological and emotional dimensions of the characters on the account of realistic detailed dimensions of places and surrounding social relations.
The style that Allouache used in his cinematic picture gave us a high feeling of harshness and dimness to condense the feeling of loneliness and solitude even during the moments of street shooting. All this strengthened the individual story and forced on the audience a high degree of concentration on the human obsessions and fears which moved the lives of all these individuals away from the game of documentation which might turn them into numbers. We can consider the film of Allouache a desperate yell to those who want to listen.
Edited by Steven Yates
© FIPRESCI 2009