Contemporary Arab cinema is characterized by chronicles with a backdrop of civil war, insurgence or war as such. The turmoil and insecurity of people in wartorn areas are usually the central focus of the narrative. In one way or another the Arab countries are disturbed, and their cinemas naturally reflect the ethos and aspirations of the people. Filmmakers from these territories make it a point to depict the present state of affairs in subtle frames. But Algeria is seemingly calm and serene when we look from outside as the struggle for independence resulted in the freedom of the country from the clutches of France and the period of internal political uncertainty and rebellion that followed has also subsided. But is Algeria still tranquil and placid? This is the paradoxical question put forward by one of the most authoritative filmmakers from Algeria, Merzak Allouache, in his recent film The Rooftops (Es-Stouh).
Rooftops are open spaces where you are very near to the sky. In a busy capital city like Algiers confronting housing problems rooftops are being occupied by the homeless, making it a haven for poor living. Most of the rooftops have illegal temporary constructions where the working class make their dwellings. Some miscreants also make use of the abandoned rooftops for their erroneous feats.
The film The Rooftops offers a unique treatment. It has five stories occurring on five different rooftops in the historic neighborhood of Algerian Capital set across the five different daily Muslim calls to prayer. The stories take place at five different places in the five quarters of Algiers namely Casbah, Bab el Oued, Balcount, Notre Dame d’Afrique and Telemly. The stories are, however, not connected and are independent. All of the incidents take place in one day starting from the call of the first Morning Prayer and ending with the last call at midnight.
The opening story is from the Notre Dame d’Afrique quarter of the city. A man, Adlan, is water-tortured by two associates of Hamoud, the underworld don. Hamoud wants the man to sign some papers and he promises to set him free if he obeys him. Even though the director Allouache doesn’t explain the nature of the deal we do understand that the dispute is over some real estate business. Adlan is so adamant that even at the height of the torture he is unwilling to sign. Meanwhile a documentary crew with a director and two technicians arrive at the rooftop to make a few high-angle shots of Algiers for their new project ‘Algiers: The Jewel of the Arab World’. The torturing team hides when the camera crew arrives. They are skeptical about the crew and in a later development one of the crew members who searches for the crying sound happens to be in the hands of the gang and gets killed.
The next story takes place in the Bab el Oued quarter of the city. An old woman is seen with her drug addict nephew Krimo and his half-crazed mother Aicha on the rooftop of an apartment complex. The old woman is occasionally confronted by the landlord who is demanding their eviction, but she is helpless. On one occasion he advances to throw their things out and is fatally handled by the drug addict boy.
In the Casbah, old man Uncle Larbi is in chains and is locked in a wooden cage on the rooftop. He is fed occasionally by a woman, Layla. The mad man tells Layla tales of the war of independence of Algeria with the French. As he narrates the story he becomes emotional, making loud sounds and eventually the woman has to resort to severe means to make him stop. He reaches the heights of emotion. In the evenings the same rooftop is taken over by an Islamic Jihad group who pretend to be conducting a prayer meeting.
On a rooftop in Telemly, a band meets to practice for a musical program. Assia, the firebrand singer in the group is irritated by the constant staring of a woman from an adjacent rooftop all day. They continue their practice and in the course of the day they are shocked by the beating of the woman by a man, supposed to be her brother or husband. Eventually by evening we see the woman jumping from the rooftop killing herself.
In Belcount, the final story takes shape on another rooftop. An alcoholic man Halim occupies the adjacent washroom, which he rents out for people for enjoyment, extracting heavy rent from them. His outside space is rented out to a boxer to practice in. Halim rents out the inner space to Sheikh Lamine. The Sheikh occupies the space and is soon visited by a lady. Under the pretext that he is offering pastoral care to Fatiha, he is deriving enjoyment from the woman in the most unnatural way.
The relationship between each story and the chants of muezzin calling the faithful to prayer five times a day, from dawn to midnight, is uniquely exciting. While the faithful are praying with full religious fervor, life flows uninterruptedly in various quarters of the city with all its ebbs and tides. Most of the acts in the stories taking place on the rooftops are against the preaching of the religion. The contradiction of the prayers and the practical life of the folk is a major concern of the film. The contradictions create an undercurrent throughout the film that has a touch of humor. These contradictions are also manifested in the characterization, for instance the old Sheikh in the Belcount story. The sheikh is too worried about the images of obscene scenes on the wall of the dingy room, but his acts with the visiting woman are quite contradictory to his religious teachings. The claim of Merzak Allouache that the film continues his exploration of the contradictions of Algeria is thus rightfully satisfied by the visual treatment.
The neighbor woman wearing a hijab is an incomprehensible character of The Rooftops. She is always seen staring at the female singer in the band. The girl is very annoyed by the woman’s constant meddling in her affairs. The girl, in fact, complaints to the other band members of her strange behavior. But quite unexpectedly during the course of the day the woman builds a silent rapport with the girl and this prompts her to react violently when the woman is beaten by a man. It is interesting to note that in the night the woman jumps from the rooftop after giving a message to the girl! With great shock the girl witnesses the woman’s suicidal act.
The narrative shuttles between the different stories, always keeping the viewers engaged. The variety of the characters and the uniqueness of their behavior are extremely manifested with utmost brevity and visual beauty. The stark realties depict the everyday life of the marginalized people of Algiers, who do not enjoy the luxuries of an apartment or other decent dwellings. The story of the old woman, her drug addict nephew and his half-cracked mother invites sympathy and concern. The landlord is constantly pushing to evict them, and they are vulnerable. The old woman is the only sane person in the family, and she doesn’t know what to do. The accidental killing of the landlord at the hands of the drug addict boy again places the old woman in a dilemma. Later in the day when the landlord’s son searches for his father they just shrink into their shells of self-protection.
Death is a major apprehension in the film. And all the death occurs quite accidentally too. We do normally expect the death of the person who is water-tortured. But surprisingly he survives until the end. The crew member of the documentary film unit is unexpectedly killed by the torturing group. And the death of the landlord is also quite accidental. The suicide of the neighborhood woman too is quite unexpected even though she gives warning before jumping.
We are afforded glimpses into Algier’s through the stories of revolution told by the old man in the cage. The French occupation of Algeria and the country’s later liberation appears as a milieu in his story. The inhuman nature of present-day Algeria is also brought out vividly with the depiction of this character. The turmoil of Algeria’s present is aptly reflected in the meeting of the Islamic Jihad group that happens under the pretext of a prayer meeting. The attitude of the youth is finely represented by the film director when he asks his cinematographer to bypass the Christian and Jewish cemeteries while panning over the city. She thinks that they are quite foreign places as far as a film on Algiers is concerned.
The Rooftops addresses various elements like humanity, violence, love, politics, corruption, class, history, religion, death, music, food, shelter, madness, isolation and confinement and the director Allouache has used the power of the medium to juggle these elements with a master touch. Shot with a stunningly realistic style, keeping the panorama of the cityscapes vibrant, The Rooftops presents a microcosm of Algerian society with its class and religious divides. The characters haunt you and they leave lasting impressions on our emotions and intellect. Allouache has, no doubt, succeeded in imparting a new cinematic experience to the spectators looking for new horizons of Arab and World Cinema.
Edited by Carmen Gray
© FIPRESCI 2013