A young baker, Boualem, steals a speaker from the rooftop of his apartment building in the working-class Algerian neighbourhood of Bab El-Oued. The speaker belongs to the community’s mosque; it spreads the disembodied voice of the Imam across the neighbourhood and keeps Boualem from sleeping in the early hours before his shift. The theft enrages Saïd, the leader of a fundamentalist gang and a local hero of the October Riots. Saïd and his gang begin terrorising the community in their search for the guilty. Boualem loses his job, gets attacked by Saïd, and finally flees Algeria on a ship bound for Marseille. He leaves behind Yamina, Saïd’s sister and the woman he secretly loves, with the promise to return for her.
In October 1988, a series of violent protests against President Chadli Bendjedid and the socialist Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) government erupted on the streets of Algiers and quickly spread to cities and towns across Algeria. The FLN had led the revolution against French colonialism and maintained political power after the Évian Accords and independence in 1962. During the protests, students and workers united against rising prices, high unemployment, and decades of single-party political rule. The government responded to the demonstrators with brutal force: hundreds were killed by their own military. The October Riots consolidated Islamist opposition to the FLN and sparked the Algerian civil war, a bloody conflict that stretched across the 1990s. The entire period would come to be known as the ‘black decade’ or ‘décennie noire’.
The narrative events of Bab El-Oued City unfold in the aftermath of the riots, amid the swell of Islamic fundamentalism and the ominous signs of a conflict to come, or already underway. The film traces a set of growing tensions between moderates and fundamentalists, Western influences and Algerian autonomy, and revolutions past and present. Bab El-Oued City begins with a radical provocation to the new political class – a local baker, Boualem, steals one of the mosque speakers and tosses it into the sea – and ends with multiple departures. Boualem flees Algeria on a ship bound for Marseille; Mess leaves the fundamentalist gang and returns home to France; and the Imam, too, leaves the city, in search of purer hearts. Once Saïd and his thugs have installed a new speaker – ‘this’ll pop their ears off!’ – the Imam sends a prophetic final message beyond the diegesis to the streets of Algiers: ‘Violence breeds violence. There will be no more peace in Bab ElOued. You are responsible for what will happen in the future.’
Merzak Allouache filmed Bab El-Oued City within the very context of socio-political instability and everyday violence that the film represents. This context encompasses a series of radical upheavals in the Algerian film industry. In 1993, the cinema office (CAAIC) cancelled all of its contracts with state-funded filmmakers. The shift forced Algerian directors to either establish their own independent production companies or secure funds from other, often European sources; state funding was reserved for those who were willing to submit their scripts for state approval (Armes 2006: 55). As conflict in Algeria intensified, many filmmakers simply fled the country. Fundamentalist groups attacked cinemas, attempted to kill and kidnap those who worked in the industry, and threatened any citizens caught attending a screening. Throughout the 1990s, both making and watching film became an increasingly dangerous activity. This era of violence and censorship had marked effects on film production, distribution, and spectatorship: ‘cinema audiences had declined from nine million in 1980 to just half a million in 1992, while the number of cinemas declined from 458 at the time of independence to a bare dozen in 1999’ (Armes 2006: 56).
Bab El-Oued City bears the traces of these unstable conditions. Allouache made the film in Algeria with financial support from French and German production companies. He gathered his footage in secret, using a 16mm camera and the homes of family and friends for interiors. When Algiers became too dangerous, he moved his small cast and crew to cities and towns outside the capital (Khalil 2005: 152). The film thus sews these disparate spaces together, constructing a fictional Bab El-Oued out of its political realities. As a result, the film often feels fragmented and hurried. Scenes are short, unpolished, caught on the run. Remarkably, Allouache published a novel based on his film in 1995. The book does not repeat or transcribe the film (as so many film novelisations often do), but rather expands upon and deepens the narrative and its characters, as well as the tableau of civil-war era Algiers. Writing the book, Allouache explains, allowed him ‘to exorcise the many frustrations that arose when making the film. It gave me a sense of freedom not possible with the constraints of the camera, especially when shooting in a hostile environment, as was the case there’ (1998: 133).
In its representation of Algeria’s historical and national crises, Bab El-Oued City reflects the permeability and ambiguity of national boundaries, particularly in the post-colonial era. As a European co-production made on location in Algeria, the film also troubles the concept of a national cinema. For Will Higbee, ‘Allouache is a transnational filmmaker for whom the distinction between “here” and “there” has little fixed currency: for both the filmmaker and the protagonists of his films, the relationship between France and Algeria is defined by continuity and difference, and remains in constant flux’ (2007: 62). Indeed, like so many of his characters, Allouache ferries between Algeria and France. In the 1960s, he trained at the Institut National de Cinéma d’Alger and the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques in Paris. He worked for the Office des Actualités Algériennes, as well as the French Centre National de la Cinématographie (Khalil 2005: 143). The narrative of Bab El-Oued City further complicates these geopolitical dividing lines. The dialogue oscillates between French and a local Algerian dialect, with some figures moving flexibly between the two. Almost all of the characters, save perhaps Saïd, indulge in Western popular culture. Bouelem’s friend and co-worker, Mebrouk sells European imports on the black market, while (almost always) wearing a Public Enemy baseball cap, his Walkman, and an LA Lakers basketball jersey. The women watch French cinema and secretly swap romance novels. And even members of Saïd’s gang of thugs gather together to discuss the places they have travelled and the merits of Cat Stevens (before and after his conversion to Islam). In this way, Allouache presents both a city and a cinema torn between Europe and an impossibly impure Algeria.