Two Outsiders in Islamic Society By Cristiana Paternò
Kamel, expelled from France and forcefully repatriated, and Louisa, a young wife rejected by her husband and separated from her young son because she wants to sing jazz in public, are two outsiders. They are unable to conform to the rules of a society caught between traditional values and a badly-assimilated modernity still suffering the fallout of a colonial past (evident in the spoken language, an unusual melange of Arabic and French), while also incapable of completely severing their roots. This is the premise of Bled Number One (Back Home) by 40-year-old Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, an Algerian filmmaker who grew up in the outskirts of Paris . It was given a Special Mention by the FIPRESCI jury at the 24 th Turin Film Festival for “it’s natural style, almost taken straight out of real-life, used to plunge into the painful contradictions of a small community disrupted by fundamentalism, seen through two individual destinies of exclusion and disintegration.”
Already appreciated for his first work, Wesh Wesh, qu’est-ce qui se passe? (2002), Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche with his new work owes a lot to documentary-making, like many of those competing at Turin this year. This film also features many of the author’s 600-or-so relatives as actors or extras. Documentary-like also is the beautiful scene in the psychiatric hospital in Costantine, the capital of an isolated North Eastern region of Algeria where the plot is centred, about 370 miles from the capital Algiers. Inside the hospital, Ameur-Zaïmeche lets the camera move from face to face, showing the painful but also unexpectedly creative experience of a group of patients, all women who have not known how to accept the rigid rules of separation between the sexes, branded as mad for their indomitable vitality.
They are like Louisa (Meriem Serbah), who is continually “imprisoned.” For all her increasingly desperate attempts at rebellion, she is invariably framed behind netting or a window grate, wrapped in a large white sheet that has echoes of a chador without actually being one. She is punished and even exorcised by an imam so her husband will return. But Louisa’s seductive and irrepressible physicality once again comes to the fore, as she smokes in public and walks in front of a group of young males who seem to be the most strenuous advocates for Algerian society to return to a more extremist form of Islam.
Distant, muffled echoes of the great cultural battle currently raging in the modern world reach the village, or “Bled,” a French word for a small provincial centre, a “nowhere.” So Bush and the American threat become a topic for discussion at the cafe, though these international actions also have an immediate and much more disruptive impact on the fate of individuals whose lives are barely considered in the general political debate. In fact restriction of personal freedom appears more linked to subjective and perhaps even specious interpretations of Koranic law. Now, not only alcohol but also smoking or an innocuous game of dominoes can be the catalyst for uncontrolled violence and repression, leading to a palpable feeling of threat everywhere.
Nevertheless, Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, who also plays the social pariah Kamel, is sensible enough to avoid taking moralistic sides or creating ideological barriers. In doing so he manages to keep the production finely balanced, far from demonstrative theories, open to the contradictions of reality. Like in the long and beautiful sequence showing the butchering of the bull, when the small community gathers in the field near the mosque grounds to kill an animal and divide it up, even though it is a sin for the men to eat with the women, as the protagonist is told time and again. Or in the ending, where Kamel starts to drift again, with the uncertain outcome of his attempts to build a new identity, trying to enter Tunisia without a passport. It is important to reflect on the director’s words: “ It’s a big shock when you cross from Algeria to France. It takes generations to absorb. We’re in a world that’s constantly in construction. There are building sites everywhere, full of noise and hustle and bustle. Algeria is in constant renewal and regeneration, even if its history is written in blood”.