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Essaha

Essaha

By Andrew Latimer • November 18th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
ESSAHA (THE SQUARE) (MOVIE)
Les Films des Deux Rives

Release date: February 8th, 2010
Running time: 113 minutes

Country of origin: Algeria
Original language: Arabic with English subtitles

Director: Dahmane Ouzid

Cast: Manel Addoune, Habib Aichouche, Amine Boumediene

Essaha

There are certain cultural and critical booms in film which prompt movements, define new genres or establish original brands of commentary on national identity. It happened in Quebec with the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s; in France and Germany with their respective New Waves in the 50s and 60s; in Algeria, it happened in the mid-60s – an age of post-independence and French decolonisation.

After exploring these areas, I considered the role of identity as the core propellant of film movements. It’s how a nation both separates to explore individual and area-specific identities, and also how this relates back to a national characteristic. How do artists express a sense of place and freedom after decades of political transformation, decolonisation and reintroduced upheaval? Essaha takes up the torch in refreshing the debate around Algerian freedom, but it’s really a film about history itself – that of the filmmaking and theatre industries in Algeria, but ultimately about how history repeats itself. In order to truly explore how it elicits such a debate, I feel it necessary to look at how Algerian cinema arrived at this point.

Films made after the War of Independence in 1954 dealt directly with notions of liberation; Such A Young Peace (1965), The Dawn Of The Damned (1965) and the truly remarkable The Night Is Afraid Of The Sun (1965) were all projects devoted to exploring Algerian deliverance. They were submerged in the consequences of war, the weight of ensuing ‘Arabisation’ and policymaking, and how the war wounded the young. This idea of Algeria’s youth being most impacted by the war is an interesting approach to cultural development, suggesting that the psychological suffering caused by the war would have its greatest and most lasting effects on the younger generation. Hell For A Ten-Year-Old (1968) and Stories Of The Revolution (1969) both explored the nature of this corollary – the former a more rigorous investigation into the more instant implications on children.

Essaha

This trend continued into the 1970s, as filmmakers grappled with the concept of renewed autonomy. Patrol In The East (1973) and Forbidden Zone (1974), again, were fictionalised stories of the revolution, almost directly about the war itself. Still, this struggle to explain and detail the shock of warfare was connected to Algerian filmmaking. As with most social and political turmoil, it took decades for filmmakers to process reactions and feelings about the future of Algerian society and what they had been offered at the end of the war. It may not have been as liberating as was once thought in the early 1960s.

The 1980s elicited more experimental and progressive ventures, concerned with discussing the position of women in Algerian society, as in I Exist (1982), and utilising advances in sophisticated storytelling, as in The Refusal (1982). Of course, interestingly, the 1980s also represented, to some extent, a ceremonial handing over film from the veteran filmmakers of the 50s and 60s to newcomers and practitioners who were starting to explore different avenues. Importantly, these new filmmakers had (mainly) attended film school and so were trained in more avant-garde production methods. This, coupled with general reform of the late 80s, led to a wholly new establishment of films in the 1990s.

But just when it looked exciting and potentially prosperous, the Algerian Civil War began (1991). And two years later, the production industry was privatised, encouraging filmmakers to pitch ideas directly to the state and receive funding for specific projects rather than developing ideas independently. Algerian cinema was in danger of becoming heavily institutionalised, and this, along with the ideological struggle embedded in the civil war, led to the production of some key films. Tushia (1993) twins a conversation about entrapment in the early 1990s to the feeling of loss experienced in the early 1950s. This is where the conversation around history repeating itself took shape; Algerians were devastated by the loss of Essahahope at the dawn of the War of Independence, just as they were cornered by demonstrators and conflict in the early 1990s. The industry began to self-restrict, and as a result, a lot of the films that were made stood as French/Algerian co-productions. This seemed to undermine a lot of the history of Algerian political cinema and it has driven many directors into exile.

This is where I’ll reintroduce Essaha. Sorry about all the history. It felt necessary to have the discussion about Algerian filmmaking before talking about it. Firstly, you might be surprised to hear that it’s a musical, Algeria’s first-ever musical comedy in fact. Directed by Dahmane Ouzid, it’s filled with songs about how the youth of today are viewed by politicians, what the position of women is, how technology has impacted on communication, how old, traditional values have clashed against liberalised perspective. The story is about The Square (the meaning of the film’s Algerian title) – and focuses on the young men and women who try to prevent their little patch of gravelly land from being taken over by corporations and government who plan to exploit it. It represents a corner of freedom, something untouched by the State yet enjoyed by its citizens.

SOURCES:

  • Leaman, O. Companion Encyclopedia of Middle Eastern and North African Film(2001), London: Routledge

Within this, there are arguments about what should be done with the square (told through song) and also love interests and comments against the West are introduced with enviable nous. Think West Side Story (1961) meets Grease (1978) meets Black Cat, White Cat (1998). It’s funny, fiercely political and satirical, current, refreshing and enlightening. It pits old voices against new ones (some of the old male characters are emblematic of conservative reservation) – and discusses how Algeria’s youth may prosper in a fragile global economic climate. It focuses on job creation and opportunities, something which of course resonates around the world. At the end of it all, it concludes that history is self-maintaining and all projects will come full circle as new values crystallise and become the status quo. These ideas are masked by the level of energy and humour involving the film’s characters, but are present throughout.

It’s tough for North African cinema, specifically from the Maghreb, to be delivered worldwide, and without film festivals and brave UK distributors, these films which tell us about historical struggle and identity may never reach our screens. Perhaps Essaha represents a corner of filmic freedom; one which is told without fear of upsetting governments and funding bodies but instead enriches the lives of people who watch it. I felt like this after seeing it; I learnt about how artists viewed their country and its future, and was rewarded for seeing deep into the heart of Algeria.

Andrew Latimer

Andrew Latimer

Andrew started out writing theatre reviews in Edinburgh while studying for a degree in Arts Journalism. His interest in film came after attending several festivals across the UK. In particular, he discovered a love of documentary cinema, specifically the work of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.

Andrew loves films which investigate stories of undocumented struggle and solitude. Some favourite docs include Grizzly Man, King of Kong, 5 Broken Cameras, L'encerclement, Inside Job and Shoah.

Andrew runs a Scottish arts review website, TVBomb, and you can follow him on Twitter at @ajlatimer.

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