Merzak Allouache: It’s Time to Sound the Alarm!
The veteran Algerian director Merzak Allouache is an integral part of the Festival this year on multiple levels. His first narrative feature Omar Gatlato will be screened as part of ADFF’s Debut Films by Arab Filmmakers, a special programme this year offering a platform for Arab filmmakers to showcase their first films. Allouache will also be receiving Variety’s Middle East Filmmaker of the Year Award in a celebration to be held October 29 at the Festival. But more importantly, Allouache’s new film, his fourth in four years, is part of this year’s Narrative Competition.
In his new film The Rooftops, the story focuses on Aisha, the poor single mother wonderfully played by Amal El Kateb. Other key characters bring the story to life and offer a staggering representation of the social life they are living, thus bestowing on the film a chorus-like impression. All different characters appear within the same time frame, without necessarily facing the director’s camera. Allouache, considered one of the most important Arab film directors today, has masterfully intertwined the fate of his five characters, over the stretch of only one day, from day to night.
You’ve directed four films since 2009, and I have a feeling you don’t wait anymore for all the financial requirements to be available first to get your project going?
When you reach a certain age, you become too impatient. I must say I've been through a phase which you may call a “bureaucratic cinema” stage, one that leaves you waiting for financing, usually too slow to arrive, so I decided that in our countries, we don't need that anymore. We have to create our stories fast to cope with today’s ever-changing world. I might be busy shooting, but I am also carefully listening to all that’s happening in the Arab countries, especially to young filmmakers. I am quite well informed on what is going on, particularly in Algeria, and can clearly see they have been too patient, and that they have long been imprisoned in production convictions that belong to old times. This prolonged wait on their side to realize their films and to obtain a huge budget to pursue their big plans is indeed harmful to them. I have a feeling that we don't need this anymore, at least in our countries since we need to discuss urgent issues. This is the best time to sound the alarm. There is a pressing need to tell stories. My previous film The Repentant, was simply filmed with a camera I had bought from Paris for 4,000 euros. I filmed it extremely fast, without makeup or special effects, just a handheld camera, and that was it. The film bowed at Canes and later on many other festivals too. I can say that obviously the cinematography was somewhat imperfect, but at the present time, this is the least of my worries.
As long as you are talking about change, we have a feeling it is happening much slower in Algeria than in other Arab countries.
This is only an illusion. A mere impression, as we say. Today, and for quite some time now, Algerians have withdrawn to themselves closely watching what was taking place in other Arab countries with a kind of mockery, hidden at times and explicit in others. I am of course talking about the prevailing mental attitude. Algerians tend to believe they have had their own Arab spring way before all other Arab countries in 1988, when we got rid of our sole party and succeeded in having a little bit more than 150 parties among which the Islamic party stood out, and as a result, we witnessed 10 years of utter violence and civil war and assassinations. The second millennium came to put an end to such violence, even though it still lingers in Algerian society in different forms up until now. Today, we are living in stability, and everyone holds on strongly to it. It’s as if we are undergoing a phase in which we are content to watch others and let them feel our presence from time to time. But, this makes us forget our biggest issue: Violence exists in an unimaginable scale in Algeria. Our society is plagued by it and has never produced any real solutions for it. There is a kind of collective amnesia that doesn't resolve anything, and it scares me. It’s sad we haven't come up with any solutions. As for me, I have been trying through three films to get a perspective of this troubled and suffering Algerian society.
But your new film The Rooftops, seemed a bit ambiguous; yesterday with some critics, we were trying to understand what you meant with the religious inserts you have used, for instance. There was a certain difficulty reading what you had in mind.
The film is not ambiguous. I am recounting five stories, those of a city, through five rooftops. Algeria the capital has a hill, an old city, the colonial city and Al Qasaba. It’s a cityscape that has changed since independence. Today, with the overwhelming population growth from which Algeria is suffering, people are living on the rooftops. These rooftops seem as if they were occupied. Even the caves are occupied. I have chosen to talk through these rooftops about Algerian society. The plan was to shoot over the stretch of a day, from morning to evening, in a city where the call to prayer is repeated five times a day creating its own daily tempo. But this tempo is just a pretense. I can clearly see lust and evil, people doing whatever they please, never really grasping what the call to prayer means. Can you imagine what the call to prayer means in a city where the loudspeakers have been planted everywhere? It is a noise too loud to be heard. And between each call to prayer and the next, one can kill, rape or steal with a clear conscience.
Last time we met, you said your generation was more fortunate. But, to see everything collapse right in front of your eyes isn't this a kind of bad luck too?
Definitely! As a director, I can say that preventing me from showing my films in Algeria leaves me devastated. I wish it only had to do with prevention; I just don't know how to show my films in my own country. If censorship alone was responsible for that, it would be easier to take. But it’s much more complicated than that. There are no cinemas in Algeria nor a true audience for film. I went recently to watch a film made by an Algerian, and there were only five people in the cinema. The show was bad, the picture and sound were poor simply because no one cares to look after cinemas, even with all the promises given to do so but never delivered. In any case, the reopening of new cinemas does not mean that those who have deserted them will ever return.