Back to Book
The contradictions of Algerian society are also shown through a very personal moment when Amal and Samir go for dinner and struggle to find a place that will serve them alcohol. But is there more to it?
Selling alcohol in Algeria is legal but there are some places that keep to old traditions and what is called ‘le code de la famille’ (family rule) that has nothing to do with what is legal or illegal. ‘Le code de la famille’ was made in the 1980s by the Islamists and was introduced in the government. A part of society still believes in it even if it is against the law. ‘Le code de la famille’ is totally anti-constitutional because it limits women’s rights. This mentality is really toxic because people believe the law is what your neighbour decides it is, so it’s very subjective and based on old traditions. Some people might not complain about legal breaches because they don’t differentiate between the ‘le code de la famille’ and the actual law. The new generation is fighting against this conservative way of thinking in new ways, not like our parents who were more likely to avoid religion altogether. Now, when young women believe in religion they want to worship in their own way, they don’t want to be told how to express their religion. For example, they don’t believe that a dress code for women should be imposed. There is a character in the film who represents this new way of thinking about religion. It is this generation that is having this debate. The adults are more extreme in their views, whichever they are.
Can you tell us a bit about the film scene in Algeria?
A lot of Arabic filmmakers are now going to festivals in Europe and becoming internationally known and yet when there is western money involved, these production companies appropriate the production. This is a problem. Les Bienheureux, for example, was made with French money through a French company and they have promoted the film as totally French, even if I received some help from Algerian businesses and local councils, there is no mention of it. That’s why in Algeria you want to secure the nationality of your own film by creating your own production company, and that’s why I created mine. There is now funding available from Saudi Arabia and this would allow me to claim my productions as Algerian. If they’re co-produced, I’ll be able to say that the film was a French-Algerian production, for example. Now it’s not possible. I also hope that the interest and investment from Saudi will push the Algerian government to promote filmmaking in Algeria. We will have money from France but we will also be able to make our film Algerian. I will be equal to my French producer. These films are inspired by our societies and countries, they tell Algerian stories.
Some people would say they are ‘westernized’ but I hate to use this word because these values do not only belong to Western Europe, they are universal values. Progress and modernity are not only the property of Western Europe, they are also a priority for many people in the Arabic and African world. In Europe there is also the danger of the far-right and there is no difference between them and the Islamists; for example, they both are against women’s rights. So these rights aren’t a Western guarantee.
Amal seems very disappointed and frustrated about how things are going in Algeria. This frustration plays out particularly through her expectations about her son’s future and her disagreement with Samir about what is best for their son.
Amal wants her son to go to France to study. She belongs to the generation who fought in 1988. It was the first true revolution in the Arab world and Eastern Europe. Algeria functioned like a communist country, with one party, one TV channel, etc. That generation decided to fight against that situation and many people were killed. After that, Algeria was the first country in the Arab world to set up the first free press. Amal and Samir belong to this generation. It means that they had great ideals and, suddenly, in 1991 everything collapsed when the Islamists won the election, followed by the Black Decade. We started a nightmare that lasted 10 years. In 2008, Amal realises that nothing has changed. She has no hope and feels the need to send her son to study his degree in France. But she’s not interested in his opinion. She’s obsessed with her own beliefs. Her son is actually happy in Algeria and doesn’t want to go to France. He belongs to another generation with different views. Samir, though, also wants his son to stay in Algeria but for very different reasons: he thinks his son needs to keep fighting and making this country better. But the son doesn’t embrace these views. He is not a militant.
Through Amal’s feelings, the political and the intimate become strongly intertwined with each other. Is Amal projecting her political and social disappointment into her marriage, or vice versa?
What makes this film universal, even if the political background is very present, is that this is a story about a marriage of 30 years. There is a kind of lassitude in the marriage and their disagreement in regard to their son’s future just makes this more obvious. Their son is what keeps them together and what separates them at the same time. It does reflect their ambivalent position towards the Algerian situation. Politics influences intimacy and private life, yes.
Interview with Sofia Djama
On the occasion of our forthcoming publication Satisfaction by Nina Bouraoui, we interviewed Algerian film director Sofia Djama about her film Les Bienheureux, 2017 (The Blessed). Djama’s film is an independent award-winning production that tells the story of an Algerian family in the early 2000s, after the civil war in the 90s. Les Bienheureuxtakes place in 24 hours in which we enter the life of a middle-class family. Sami is a gynaecologist that performs clandestine abortions, Amal is a college professor and she is very disappointed about Algeria’s political and social reality; a disappointment that is also reflected in her marriage with Sami. A wonderful film to consider next to Satisfaction as both stories explore the clash of cultures in Algeria and the way women respond to it.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, Sofia? Where did you grow up? Where do you live?
I was born and raised in Algeria and I still live there, although I spend long periods of time in France. I have the opportunity to go from one country to the other whenever I want to but I’m not French although my adoptive mother is French. That is why I feel very comfortable with both cultures. My French mother lived in Algeria with my adoptive Algerian father. But even people whose parents are both Algerian share this double culture. Until the late 1970s, French was very present in schools. It wasn’t until the early 80s that schools started to teach more in Arabic, except for French literature. The new generation speaks less in French than my generation and the previous one.
Can you tell us more about the contextualisation of the film?
In the film there are references to the civil war in the 90s. We call it the Black Decade, which goes approximately from 1991 to 2001. We consider that was the length of the war but it is not exact because after this we still had terrorist attacks from the Islamists. In 2006-7 there were attacks that killed a lot of people. The film takes place in 2008, and all this tension plays in the background.
In the film, Samir, the husband, is a gynaecologist that performs illegal abortions. What is the situation of abortion in Algeria and why did you choose to incorporate this aspect in your film?
Abortion is illegal unless you have been raped, your life is in danger, or the baby is very sick. I wanted to show that there are illegal abortions anyway, so why not legalise them all? Samir does it because he says he wants to help these women but Amal is more cynical about it and tells him abortion is also a business and he makes money with it.