Bab El-Oued City is also a transhistorical film. It intervenes in film history and representations of the Maghreb through the eras of French colonialism, anti-colonial revolution, and post-colonial independence. The film counters the depictions of North Africa that dominated French colonial cinema in the 1920s and 30s, including Julien Duvivier’s iconic portrayal of Jean Gabin as a criminal ex-pat in Algiers, Pépé Le Moko (1937). Duvivier’s film, among so many others, transformed the Casbah into an Orientalist fantasy of veiled bodies, exotic shadows, and labyrinthine passageways. The cinematic genealogy of Bab El-Oued City also includes The Battle of Algiers (1966), Gillo Pontecorvo’s neo-realist portrayal of the FLN and anti-colonial resistance. Allouache’s Algiers crucially reworks these picturesque and political engagements with the city. Bab ElOued City lacks the visual appeal and rhythmic precision of its former cinematic selves. This Algiers is dirty and decayed, covered in the daily laundry and concealed beneath a palette of black, brown, and beige. In her analysis of this cinematic constellation, Mary Jean Green understands this shift as a challenge to colonial ways of seeing the city. She writes, ‘Allouache turns his back on the traditional French views of Algiers as seen from the port, the gaze of the colonial authorities, which have dominated the cityscapes. Instead, he assumes the gaze of the contemporary resident, filming an unbroken line of crowded apartment buildings stretching to the sea’ (2007: 75). But Allouache also turns his back on the collectivities and unities that defined the revolution and its images. Bab El-Oued City displaces the stark visual and ideological divisions (between the French military and the Algerian revolutionaries, for example) that shaped the anti-colonial era and Pontecorvo’s film. In Bab El-Oued City, nearly every scene offers a distinct ‘residential’ perspective on the city and a new dividing line that developed in the aftermath of independence.
Bab El-Oued City embeds within its narrative several diachronic perspectives on the city and its history. One of these perspectives belongs to Ouardya, a former student radical who ‘used to believe in beautiful things: the revolution, helping the Third World, Marxism’. In contemporary Algiers, however, she lives alone and drinks away these memories. Another of these perspectival sites emerges in the figure of an elderly blind woman who wanders into and out of the film, led by her middle-aged nephew, Monsieur Paulo. This couple represents the pieds-noirs who lived in Algeria during colonialism and escaped to France just before and after independence. Together, Monsieur Paolo and his aunt visit the catholic cemetery (now overgrown), their old building in Bab El-Oued (now in disrepair), and the seaside (now deserted). At each of these sites, the nephew describes the Algiers of his Aunt’s memory, rather than the one that we actually see: ‘Padovani Beach hasn’t changed, Auntie. You should see the bright umbrellas and the pedal boats. Remember the pedal boats?… It’s almost like Miami Beach. I don’t know why it’s empty.’ The nephew, however, cannot conceal the smell of open sewers that his Aunt detects everywhere they go. The blind woman interrupts the Algerian present with its complex colonial past. She is one of the many interstitial characters who circulate between Algeria and France, belonging somewhere in between. The blind woman, like Ouardya, also straddles historical moments, at once a reminder of the way things used to be and a forecast of Algeria’s future. Indeed, in her ageing, sightless body, we find a symbol of another era’s conflicts, now crippled and weak.
The pied-noir couple further exemplifies one of the most important formal aspects of the film, namely the disjunctive interplay between sound and image. The film’s entire narrative axis turns around the loss of (speaker) sound, a conceit that simultaneously establishes and destabilises the relationship between sound and socio-political power. This narrative instability nevertheless extends to the sound structures of the actual film. In Bab ElOued City, we hear voices from sources we cannot see and from bodies that do not speak. Allouache layers images of the Algiers skyline with the voice of the Imam – that is, the voice of god – and joins a slow tilting shot of a dark and dirty courtyard to the collective murmur of the women who trade gossip as they wash their families’ clothes. The film thus invites us to compare and confuse these distinct combinations of sound and image (the powerful and the powerless), to perhaps imagine other audiovisual possibilities, other sites of political control. The film is bookended by the voice of Yamina, reading from the letters she has written to Boualem three years after his departure. In the film’s first scene, we see her writing and hear her internal diegetic sound: ‘Why am I writing to you? You left three years ago. Where are you? In what country?’ The film’s final moments redefine Yamina’s voice as a closed circuit, going nowhere, heard by no one (except us). Her letters have never been sent and Boualem has not returned. However, framed in this way, the film belongs to Yamina, begins and ends with her unspoken voice, three years after Boulaem’s departure and Algeria’s burgeoning conflict. Like the collective babble that counters the singularity of the Imam, this sound structure imagines an altogether different source of civil authority and a future for Algeria that is feminine.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Algeria, France, Germany. Production Company: Les Matins Films, Flashback Audiovisuel, La Sept Cinéma, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, Thelma Film AG. Screenwriter and Director: Merzak Allouache. Producers: Tahar Harhoura, Jean-Pierre Gallèpe, Jacques Bidou, Yacine Djadi. Cinematographer: Jean-Jacques Mréjen. Sound: Philippe Sénéchal. Editor: Marie Colonna. Cast: Hassan Abidou (Boualem), Mohammed Ourdache (Saïd), Nadia Kaci (Yamina), Nadia Samir (Ouardya), Messaoud Hatta (Mess), Mebrouk Ait Amara (Mebrouk), Ahmed Benaissa (the Imam).]
Merzak Allouache, Bab El-Oued, trans. Angela M. Brewer, Boulder, Colorado, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998 .
Roy Armes, African Filmmaking: North and South of the Sahara, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2006.
Nataša Durovicová and Kathleen Newman, World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, New York, Routledge, 2010.
Mary Jean Green, ‘Echoes of the Casbah: From Pépé le Moko to Bab el-Oued City’, Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1, 2007, pp. 68–83.
Will Higbee, ‘Locating the Postcolonial in Transnational Cinema: The Place of Algerian Émigré Directors in Contemporary French Film’, Modern & Contemporary France, Vol. 15, Issue 1, 2007, pp. 51–64.
Andrea Flores Khalil, ‘Interview with Merzak Allouache’, The Journal of North African Studies, Vol. 10, Issue 2, 2005, pp. 143–56.
Edward Said, Orientalism, New York, Vintage Books, 1979.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.