Assia Djebar’s Forgotten Films: La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (1978) and La Zerda, ou les chants de l’oubli (1982)
On 6 February 2015, Assia Djebar passed away in Paris. Djebar was one of the foremost Algerian women in history. Her death, at a Paris hospital, was announced by the Académie Française, which elected her as a member in 2005. She was frequently mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and was a professor of French and Francophone studies at New York University.
Djebar was born Fatima-Zohra Imalayen on 4 August 1936 in Cherchell, a small Berber city in Chenoua, a mountainous region on the northern coast of Algeria, just west of Algiers. As Djebar’s father was a teacher of French language his children were sent to the French language school, and she always expressed regret about not being able to speak the Berber language, Amazigh. Djebar had her doubts about writing in French, the language of her homeland’s colonisers, but also saw it as a source of liberty and emancipation, because it allowed her to educate herself. Her studies continued in Paris, at the Lycée Fenelon, and she became the first Maghrebi woman to be accepted to the École Normale Supérieure. As a student in Paris in the 1950s, she joined the student protests against the occupation of Algeria and for Algerian independence. Her political activism went further when, during the war for independence, Djebar contributed to the Front libération nationale (FLN) newspaper El-Moujahid. Her personal experiences as a woman involved in the Algerian war for independence have heavily influenced the subject matter of her stories, novels and papers, as well as of her two films, La Nouba des Femmes du Mont Chenoua (1978) and La Zerda, Ou les Chants de l’Oubli (1982).
Djebar wrote her first novel when she was twenty years old. La Soif (The Mischief) was published in 1957. She anticipated the controversy that would later surround the novel and therefore took on the pen name Assia Djebar. She continued with this pen name and also continued to confront the controversial topic of the relationship between France and its ex-colony, even when it was still a taboo in French political and cultural life until well into the 1980s. The disappointment of Algerian independence, the role of Muslim women in society, migration and the longing for home are consistent themes in her novels.
In 1974, she returned to Algiers to teach French literature and cinema for the French department of the University of Algiers. It was during this period that Djebar began to consider the role film had played in the political emancipation of Algerian society. The mythology surrounding this important feminist author and filmmaker was that she was experiencing a writer’s block in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, it is more likely that it was the potential of filmmaking to open up her stories up to a newer and wider audience (illiteracy – especially among women – is still a serious issue in Algeria) that convinced Djebar to work on two documentaries. The fact that these documentaries were made specifically for Algerian television confirms this hypothesis, as women were the prime audience for televised media. So, with Radio Télévision Algérie (RTA), she produced La Nouba and La Zerda, and the idea was to retell history from a women’s perspective, reaching an audience of Algerian women as part of the large contingency of television audiences in Algeria.
With La Nouba, Djebar not only wished to focus on women’s positions in her home country and in Islam, but also to challenge the documentary tradition. As a docu-fiction, the film transgresses style and form expectations, when the genre had also been dominated by male stories, and male directors. Assia Djebar was the first woman to take up the camera and set the record straight. La Nouba looks at Algerian women and their social and political status in history and specifically during the war for independence, rather than portraying women as the symbols of the revered motherland and bearer of the burden of tradition, as was the case in several films made by men (for example by Mohamed Lakhdar-Hamina). Djebar engaged her fellow countrywomen in the debate on emancipation. While the spoken word is of central importance in her films, the gaze is equally a highly politicised notion, addressed explicitly. As La Nouba shows, women fought a vital part of the war for independence, but afterwards lost their agency, which was put back in the hands of the victorious men. Moreover, testimonies of rural women were extremely rare. La Nouba is thus the sum of many firsts: the first film by a woman in Algeria, the first film by Assia Djebar, the first time women’s histories were inserted into Algerian history, and the first time rural women were given a voice. In the context of the very complex history, both colonial and postcolonial, of the women in the country, this film addresses women’s testimonies through their silences.
La Zerda (1982) is perhaps easier to label as a documentary, as it uses archival footage and voice-overs. Its montage of colonial images combined with rapid zooms, pans and diagonally shot slogans really place it within the purview of Third Cinema in Algeria, also called cinema mujaheed (‘guerilla cinema’). The clash between sound and images, and the non-synchronous sound, parallels the clash between the apparent content of the images and the explicit content of the spoken words. A zerda is a feast, a celebration, which, as the voice-over states at the start of the film, is being observed at a distance by the French, and under scrutiny of the exoticist gaze, it loses its power. As a poetic-political film-essay, a collaboration with her then-husband, poet Malek Alloula, it analyses the colonial, exoticist gaze, which is challenged in the poetic, forceful voice-over. A contemplative montage of black and white images shot between 1912 and 1942 is edited together in such a way as to tease out cinematic and political injustices.
One of the reasons La Zerda is never discussed in much detail is that it is hard to find, and almost never shown in public. Like La Nouba, it was made for Radio Télévision Algérie, but apart from a one-off private screening by and for Le Cercle des Amis d’Assia Djebar in 2011 in Paris and at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin in 2014, I know of no other occasions on which this film has been screened. It is archived in the Centre culturel algérien in Paris. Half of the film (25 out of 58 minutes) has also been available on Youtube since 2012, in Arabic (without subtitles):
Both films are structured around musical principles. A Nouba is a song with five movements, each movement enabling a singer ‘to speak in her turn’, as Djebar states at the start of the film. Her emphasis on ‘her’ turn, speaks volumes of her preoccupation with women’s voices and the ability of the woman filmmaker to provide a platform for women’s voices to be heard. La Zerda encompasses four movements, each embodying a forgotten song – or a song of oblivion. With the word ‘oblivion’ in La Zerda, Djebar referred to forgotten histories, and the silencing of colonised voices during French occupation. They are thus both experimental films by and about women in revolution and war.
Djebar considered herself first and foremost an author, and as such her films foreground the power of the spoken word, which includes oral storytelling, poetry, the lyrics of the songs, as well as the testimonies of the women she interviews. At the same time, the failure of the spoken word in history is foregrounded through silences, which highlight the power of the image. Thus, Djebar calls her films images-son, or image-sounds (or sound-images). For La Nouba, Djebar received the Grand Prix de la Critique Internationale at the Venice Film Festival and for La Zerda the prize of Best Historical Film at the Berlin Festival. The book that followed the release of these two films in 1985, L’Amour, la fantasia (Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade), engages with the films, and further explores the women of Algeria and the roles they are able to create for themselves in society. While the films have been neglected in Algeria’s complex cinema history, her novels and essays have flourished as part of a continuing testimony against French influence over its ex-colonies. Seen together, these films and novels will ensure that Djebar will live on through her work, which echoes the voices of Algerian women everywhere.