Lyès Salem’s The Man from Oran (L’Oranais), masterly scripted and acted, strikes a sweepingly rich and stylistically lighthearted chord of a saga from the very beginning, although its underlying theme is dark and complicated; the continously disturbed relationship to France, problems of corruption and heavy handed party-liners that slowly erode the sense of unity and hope.
It tells the personal story of two brothers in arms, Djaffar (Lyès Salem) and Hamid (Khaled Benaïssa, rightly awarded at JCC as the best actor) who gradually drift apart when the euphoria of Algeria’s liberation has calmed down and the newborn nation has to administer its newly won freedom and treat the wounds after an unusually bitter war against colonial France.
It spans from the 1950s all through to the 1980s, a period in between wars. In the personal stories of Djaffar and Hamid, it depicts a process which in a sense paved the way for the bloody Algerian civil war that ravaged the country all through the 1990s.
In Algeria an official memory has been established and maintained surrounding this period. In France there has been mostly silence. Even if numerous feature films have dealt with the war between Algeria and France, it’s a documentary about building the country that comes to mind: Malek Bensmaïls “La Chine est encoreloin” (2009).
I am also reminded of the very funny popular comedy The Mill of Mr. Fabre (Le Moulin de Monsieur Fabre, 1986) by Ahmed Rachedi about the shortcomings of Algeria’s nationalization plans and Abdelkrim Bahlouls The Trip to Algiers (La voyage à Alger, 2009).
But The Man from Oran takes on a broader vision, as it seeks understanding more than deciding who was right in the past. Especially when it comes to the seemingly impossible task of sharing a common memory with France, the colonial power which built and industrialized Algeria – just forgetting to share it with the Algerians. Somewhere along the line someone complains: After not having been entirely French, now we’re not entirely Arab.
Lyès Salem even weaves into his story a direct quotation from Algeria’s president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, when in 1975 he said that the sooner Algerians and French start talking about what unites them the better. “It’s more important than what divides us.” Salem seeks and finds some excellent metaphores of this schizofrenic postcolonial condition, without ever abandoning or stereotyping his main characters.
If “charm” is applicable to a story which deals with arson, rape, deceit, corruption but ultimately, in a beautiful last image, atonement within families and friends, then so be it.
Did I forget to mention that The Man from Oran is a highly entertaining piece of political incorrectness?
Edited by Yael Shuv
© FIPRESCI 2014