Rewriting Our Histories
This is an interview with Algerian filmmaker Damien Ounouri about his debut film "Fidai", supported by AFAC.
I was born in France and lived there most my life. My father is Algerian; he gave me a French name because it helps to ease the brunt of racism towards Arabs. When I was a child, he always talked to me about his uncle. “You know, I have an uncle in Algeria. He fought for Algerian independence. He had a gun. He learned to read and write in jail.” I grew up fascinated by this uncle.
I studied filmaking, film theory, and founded a group of independent filmmakers. For my graduation thesis in 2007, I was given the privilege to go to China and make a film with renowned director Jia Zhang Ke. Together, we explored the connections between memory, location and identity. It became evident for me that I needed to travel to Algeria and make a film about my own family history.
I called my father’s uncle and asked him if he would agree to tell, for the first time, his story in all the details. He had never told anyone about what he did, he is usually silent about the past. But he agreed. I had to meet him and discover him first. We started in 2008, four years ago; it was my first trip to Algeria. When I was a teenager, I longed to go, but it was the “black decade” of the 1990’s, a complicated and difficult time for Algeria. And after that I was studying film and doing my projects. So this was also about my ‘return’ to the land of my fathers.
My roots are there. It is so important for me and for my generation to understand what happened. The Algerians in France need to know where they come from. We all carry this truth. I want to connect the generation of Algerians in France to the real Algeria. We have to build this memory. It is so important to make films about our history. Yet the topic of revolution is consecrated in Algeria. It is owned by the government; set into the official history. This is so unfair because revolution belongs to everyone. We have to leave aside this official history and connect to reality in a very subjective way.
My film is about identity and truth; it is not about identity crisis. In fact, discovering this part of my identity and my family history makes me stronger and it was an important part of the filmmaking process, especially at the beginning. Even visiting Algeria for the first time, it felt so familiar and easy to connect to. It is a beautiful country, much gentler than the poor and hostile place depicted by mass media. That is also something I wanted to show in my film.
But for my great uncle and me, it is more than a family story. My uncle represents a generation of former freedom fighters and our story is the same story of many Algerian families. The film seeks to build a different collective history that comes from personal stories and feelings - things that are not taught in history books. Official histories are often just headlines and numbers; we need to build a more authentic memory. The majority of former freedom fighters in Algeria did their duty out of their own sense of principle. They then returned quietly to normal life. My uncle committed to telling his story in the same way that he committed to joining the National Liberation Front. He thought about it then made a decision and stuck to it. I think it was important for him too. I asked him why he never told his story to his children, or even to his wife. He was a little bit ashamed. He was afraid that his children wouldn’t understand and that they might see him as a terrorist.
Sometimes I am the director, sometimes I am the nephew. You have to find a good equilibrium between ‘behind the camera’ and ‘in front of the camera’. You can go in front of the camera and speak about yourself, but I prefer to stay behind and film the person that is very close to me, thus reflecting on what is meaningful to me. Finally, I appear especially in two particular scenes with my great uncle, when I went in front of the camera with him because I felt he needed my presence. I had to help him make the memories come back. It was not easy to speak about them.
For example, I asked him once to tell me about a specific event when he killed a man, a traitor. He told the story in just 30 seconds. It was not enough. So I took him to the exact street and the bar where the event took place, and put a gun in his hand. I stood in front of him and told him to direct me, I would play his target – go back in memory and tell me what happened step by step. We reenacted the scene, in real time, in silence. This is where it feels like a movie. See how the line is blurry between fact and fiction? People were a bit shocked. Is it a really good idea to play the victim? Is it a good idea to push my great uncle in that way? Was I being too intrusive? But then all the memories came rushing back at that moment. His body language suddenly changed. His body remembered. It was very powerful.
There is an ethical question here. The director should avoid being cruel. I think I was being pushy because I realized that if I didn’t take the process to the end, it might be worse for him. You can’t open the box of memories only half-way, you need to clean everything out. Both as filmmaker and nephew, my goal was neither to judge nor to justify. My goal was to simply to be honest, to witness this reality and bring it out of the dark.
The film is about human choices and sacrifices, about making a decision and following it through. My uncle was 18 when he became a Mujahid. He was a farmer from a poor family with no interest in politics, but he believed in a cause, in fighting for his homeland, and was ready to sacrifice his life. This idea of commitment fascinates me. If you were in the same situation, what would you do?
In the 60’s and 70’s there were so many causes that people believed in. I don’t mean just in the Arab world, but also the rest of the world; opposition to the Vietnam War; communism. But today, what do we believe in? Wars have become more rampant no matter how many people oppose them. They told us that Communism is dead. We don’t have choices of ideals in a capitalistic world. We are so poor in values today. It is hard to understand, hard to live in. This is the dilemma of our generation. My film is just starting its life in the festivals and reaching the people, including people in countries I don’t know. It was screened in Toronto and in New York. I’m very happy about that because it makes these questions also universal, not just Arab or Algerian.
I dream of a day when independent Arab artists can unite. We need to write our own stories freely without having to depend on Western funds. Western support for Arab films usually comes with expectations, certain topics have to be portrayed and our social issues get categorized in rigid and stereotypical ways. In France, the topic of the Algerian revolution is surprisingly still a little bit taboo and while there are cinematographic centers that fund us, the Algerian authorities are not cooperative with filmmakers funded by European producers. What AFAC is doing is crucial. We feel that we are not so alone anymore. AFAC not only granted us money but opened up the Arab cultural circles to us. We were on the radar and were contacted by the Doha Film Institute in Qatar and the film market in Dubai. It is great that AFAC now exists. It gives us power and we feel stronger.
I want to rebuild the memory of Algeria and open up all that has been suppressed. We have to learn from our elders, what were their dreams. We need to find a way to replace the official narrative with our own truths. Speaking about the Algerian revolution is a good place to start.