Suffer For Those We Love

in 9th Dubai International Film Festival

by Jean-Marie Mollo Olinga

After “Barakat” in 2006, where she portrayed a young doctor in search of her journalist husband, Djamila Sahraoui‘s second feature film “Yema” is also about a woman boldly confronting  the hardships of a difficult life.

“Yema” which means “mother” opens with a woman Ouardia, played by Djamila Sahraoui herself laboriously pulling a heavy load, as one might drag an iron ball. She is dragging home the body of her son,  and Sahraoui uses  a wide shot  to show that life will unfold in an inhospitable setting. It is mountainous, the soil is dry and resistant to the hoe. This mother’s family  is subjected to sufferings of various kinds:  one  son, who hates the hostile environment must be tamed at all costs to become the mayor, that is to say, the agent who holds the power. A second son, a rebel may have killed his brother. He has also taken away his brother’s wife, who is with child.

Sahraoui has given us, through a well-crafted story, a film which unfolds like a classical Greek tragedy.

The seeds of this tragedy lie in past events, old family conflicts. “Yema” is also a film where the director plays with the imagination of the spectators. The absent wife, an  important part of the plot, is often mentioned, but we never see her. The film is hard, and yet there is a question of love (of a woman, of course, of an obsessed implacable mother, of a land to which all the characters seem to be attached).

Admittedly, the plot does not unfold in a day. But in one place (a small village in Kabylia, Algeria), and for 90 minutes, with only seven characters, the film manages to keep the audience in suspense, maintaining uncertainty throughout. It is a hard film, and a strong one:  the story of the loss of a son , a soldier, probably killed by his brother, whose wife he has lured away. The pain of the mother, forced to bury his brother, as Sophocles’ Antigone, is so strong, the harsh dialogue is reduced to essentials . Contacts between the characters are themselves cold and rigid. How can they be otherwise as the mother is scared all the time and monitored by a henchman of her other son? As if to add to the film’s hardness, Djamila Sahraoui gives us a film without music: the only sounds we hear are the wind and the cries of ravens, precursors of misfortune. However, these silences are eloquent: they give a certain sensitivity and poetry to the film.

Some aspects of “Yema” are eerily reminiscent of  Sahjraoui’s first film “Barakat”. There two women take refuge in an isolated house, and here again, the action takes place in and around a house also isolated in the countryside. Clearly Sahraoui the director is attached to her native land. She cultivates it in her cinema as does her heroine Ouardia: to revive life, a rebirth symbolized not only by the plants she nurtures, but also a newborn orphan. Out of death and a past too heavy to carry, a rebirth.

Despite some unfortunate sequences – for example the scene where the body of the son exposed for burial, lasts so long that the body eventually breathes – Yema is carefully constructed, with Sahraoui herself masterful as the mother, ably supported by Samir Yahia, as the guardian, and Ali Zarif as Ali.

Edited by Julie Rigg