Rare are Algerian filmmakers who have made it to the world stage without the issue of anti-colonial struggle as a background to their movie. Among this clique the names of novelist Assia Djebar and filmmaker Merzak Allouache top the list. In her film La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (1976), Djebar vocalized a group of Algerian women who had been silenced by the male-dominated narrative of national history. In its time, such an endeavor evinced a novel strategy of representation that hits at the core of the version of national memory that the FLN (the National Liberation Front) has flaunted and relied on to maintain its grip on power and win the hearts and minds of the Algerian people. While Djebar’s bold attempts to amend a deficient view of Algerian history still left her unable to completely steer away from the gargantuan specter of the struggle of liberation, it enabled a new experiment of filmmaking to draw attention to other agents, women, whose contribution to the national cause is often overlooked. That same year also witnessed the release of Omar Gatlato by an unknown French-educated Algerian filmmaker, Merzak Allouache, who returns home to test the waters of freedom with one of the first Algerian feature films to completely snub the struggle of national liberation. His debut film showcases the daily life of male culture in post-independent Algeria. Through the eyes of Omar, the viewer becomes witness to Algerian youth’s infatuation with virility, soccer, music, partying, and girls.
In light of the orientation that Algerian cinema has taken, both Djebar and Allouache can be considered as trendsetters in that the topoi of their movies deviated from the norm that had been set by Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) and Mohammed Lakhdar Hamina’s Chronicle of the Year of Fire (1975). Both movies, which were sponsored by the Algerian state’s petrodollars, promoted a revolutionary strain with the aim to prepare the Third World masses to a planetary revolution; Argentinean critics Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas labeled it, among others in their acclaimed essay “towards a Third Cinema,” “the anti-imperialist struggle,” “the decolonization of culture,” and “the birth of a new Man.” The ubiquity of this revolutionary strain in cultural productions across the Third World limited the scope of artistic expression and confined cultural creation to a predetermined version that has become over the years tautological and nauseating. Given the popularity of this trend of artistic production and its political symbolism for Third World subjectivity, it should be understood how brave it was for Allouache, in particular, to deviate from it by shifting the focus very early in the short history of Algerian cinema to national and more parochial issues. His films call attention to the social, cultural, and economic questions that society urgently faced more so than they do to the so-called pursuit of an ever-elusive universal ideal that only continues to repress and undermine creation and originality. These are the circumstances against which Allouache, as one of the most exceptional Algerian filmmakers alive today, had to work. That spirit of singularity and genuine originality still marks his filmic production five decades later after breaking out on the Algerian movie scene.
His 2012 film Normal refers to a pedestrian and somewhat repetitive version of post-independent Algerian history. It is the story of a country that is trapped in a vicious circle, unable to find its own rhythm that would enable it to maintain a steady pace towards the true values of statehood and democratic citizenry; its political evolution and cultural liberation constantly face ad nauseam the same hurdles that highjack its progress and protract its underdevelopment. The structure of Normal is built upon a hierarchy of narratives at once superimposed on each other like a palimpsest and, at the same time, intertwined as if showing an inevitable interrelatedness. If one were to borrow a metaphor to sum up what is taking place in this complex movie, the multi-layered structure of an onion that deceptively gives the impression of harmony would be a good example. As the viewer watches and the movie rolls on, it feels as though the layers of the onion are coming off, one after the other at once autonomous and contingent on each other, each one telling its story until nothing is left after the last peel.
This is exactly how the movie proceeds. The viewer watches until there are no more layers to peel, nothing left to watch. This aesthetic feature demands that Normal be watched with unusual due attentiveness. The main story hangs on the wishes of the protagonist, Fouzi (Nadjib Oulebsir), to complete an unfinished film about censorship that he started in 2009. As if the story of his film has become obsolete, since overtaken by the 2011 Arab uprising, he is unsure whether he should include scenes from the current daily protests in downtown Algiers and in which his wife, Amina (Adila Bendimerad), takes part or, as his wife suggests, delay the completion to a later date. Unable to convince him, she consents to his plan to show scenes he had already shot to the actors in the hope to get their impressions and feedback. Fouzi’s movie embodies their struggle to have the government sponsor their eponymous play Normal and have it officially licensed. As viewers, we suddenly realize that we are watching two movies and a play: Allouache’s Normal, which recounts the difficulties that Fouzi is facing in his attempts to complete the shooting of his movie, Fouzi’s movie about censorship, and the play: Normal, which tells of actors facing government red tape and censorship from the licensing authority. The Arab spring, as a peripheral occurrence not yet included in Fouzi’s movie, is meant to draw attention to another story, that of the thwarted aspirations of the Algerian people to democracy and freedom. The ongoing protests link up with the botched opportunities of the past and the bloody riots of 1988 that Fouzi reminded his overly enthusiastic wife to heed, as if to cast a damper on her hopes for a bright future with the Arab spring.
Each layer deserves its own space of interpretation but also reaches out to the other layers to form a coherent story about Algeria. When Amina asks her husband Fouzi what he is trying to do, he responds: “I am trying to capture Algeria. I want to shoot some scenes with my actors in the protests.” Their discord in the early scenes of the movie revolves around the scenario, which Amina had initially written and Fouzi later embellished with improvisations and additions of his own. To her, he has betrayed his commitment to the initial story and, for this particular reason, he should wait to complete the movie instead of supplementing it haphazardly with an inane story of love and random events from the Arab spring. His disagreement with her stems from the fact that the discrepant nature of his movie emulates the history of the country, a hodgepodge of events finding their coherence in the incoherence of events leading up to the chaotic state that marks the current state of affairs. This issue comes up again when Nabil (Nabil Asli), the playwright of Normal, criticizes the movie for its lack of stability and cohesion, pointing to the shallowness of its characterization, and its inconsequential editing. Listening attentively as each actor spells out their views of the film, Fouzi responds with an answer that highlights the processural nature of the story; the movie is made up of disparate events that, all combined, lead to people taking to the streets: “The obstacles, the lack of grants, artists that are kept from working, the ordinary citizen who can’t get by! All that is a process, which leads to the explosions in the street.”
One of those odd events, of which Allouache also speaks in the special features that accompany the DVD, lies in Algeria’s organization of the 2nd Pan-African Cultural festival, forty years after it had hosted the first edition in 1969. In a country where things move at a snail’s pace and nothing major happens, Algerians were dumbfounded to witness, in the words of one of the actors, “African women dancing naked in the streets of Algiers,” the capital. The same character remarks, “And they didn’t know that was customary in Africa. It’s idiotic.” After decades of turmoil, isolation, and instability, all of a sudden the borders of the country are stretched wide open to the whole continent and billions of dollars, according to Yasmina Soltani, the Director at the Ministry of Culture in Fouzi’s film, are wasted when they could have been used to help with job creation and housing. Behind the inclusion of the festival in the screenplay lies the intention partly to point the finger at the misguided politics of the government and its flawed priorities and partly to raise the question of the limitations that society imposes on the freedom of young aspiring actors. Fouzi has to call upon the services of an actress, Lamia (Nouha Matlouti), from France to be able to shoot a scene in which two characters in the play are kissing each other. The shooting eventually takes place, but not without Mina’s discontent who has to film her own husband, Nabil, kissing Lamia after an Algerian character, who was supposed to play that role, was ejected from the cast when he claimed that Lamia was trying to stick her tongue inside his mouth.
The Director at the Ministry of Culture, Yasmina, who rejected their request for a grant and reminded them how unpatriotic their actions were, was quick to point out later on in the discussion of Fouzi’s movie how Algeria is falling backward, its streets and dwellings grimier and starkly dirtier than when she was young. She deplores how backward people’s mentality has become, how shocked people are to see two young people kissing, or Lamia dancing in the streets with the Africans. In her generation, a kiss was just a token of love between two people. It is in the conversation that the characters are having about Fouzi’s movie that the viewer grasps the far-reaching implications of what would look to Westerners, in particular, as innocuous and “normal.” Normal here, as the title of the movie and the play, carries a significant meaning, a deep-seated irony that points to difficulties that make the completion of Fouzi’s movie an impossible undertaking. Fouzi’s film project is hampered not only by government censorship, but also by the mentality of the people, by self-censorship that is keen to protect against government reprisals and social alienation. Before ordering her staff to confiscate the cell phone of one of the characters who has been filming her, Yasmina asked them if they lived in Sweden, the US, or France, why everyone in the play is drinking beer, and that their language would be an egregious affront to moral conduct, threatening, as they are about to leave her office, that it would not be ruled out for them to be sued by the government.
The mosaic of social, economic, and cultural issues with which Allouache infuses his movies attests to a film practice that shows him at his best. It seems as though he is saying that the answers to the malaise of Algeria do not exactly lie in the re/presentation or the re/writing of the colonial past, nor does the formation of its identity in need of an attitude that hearkens to anti-colonial heroics. Rather, the answers lie in an esthetic of representation solely preoccupied with the exploration, exactly like Normal, of a host of simultaneously discordant and intertwined pressing questions of the day. To move Algeria forward to the modern world, it needs what Pierre Bourdieu has called “the conquest of autonomy,” which is also what Allouache blames the Algerian youth for lacking. They are restrained by fear and taboos, exactly like Mina who got upset with a character for a role she would not have wanted her husband to play, or Fouzi himself who fears for his wife’s life at the Arab spring protests while shooting a movie about government censorship. Eventually Fouzi joins his wife but would not go back to the street the following week, as his cynicism got the best of him. The movie that is occasionally punctuated by the sound of a chopper in the background, the symbol of state surveillance and control, ends the way it began, exactly like a French rondeau from Middle Age poetry, on a banner on which is written, “Algeria democratic and free,” leaving the viewer with a simple statement to contrast with the complexity of the movie.