Beneath her eyes: a history of North African women in film

Still from The Battle of Algiers
Still from The Battle of Algiers

‘Fist clenched, eyes ablaze, hair in the wind, her body moving defiantly to the sound of the drums and cries of the crowd around her, an Algerian woman dances in the street, taunting the French troops and waving in her hands the flag of the nation that eight years of bloody civil conflict have brought into being’ (Roberts, 2007).

Gillo Pontecorvo’s revolutionary classic The Battle of Algiers ends with an image so emblematic to the comprehension of the Algerian woman, through its powerful homage to her legacy in her society. As with many films from the postcolonial era of North Africa, there’s an intriguing array of female characters, whose journeys towards both personal and social emancipation remain timeless. In light of their reflections as cinematic figures (evoking multiple images of an authentic social discourse) I felt compelled to revisit notable classic and contemporary portrayals, as their spirits may even arouse our own…

Exploring the cinema of postcolonial Algeria, we find that women were often conceptualised as agents whose emancipation was directly linked to the pursuit of their nation’s well-being. Drawing upon the lives of historical female fighters such as Hasiba Ben Benali and Jamila Buhrayd, films such as the 1966 The Battle of Algiers were symbolic in conveying their valour. In what I feel is one of the film’s most poignant scenes, we witness three Algerian women disguising themselves as European settlers in an act of revolutionary masquerade. As the scene couples realistic documentary aesthetics to the overwhelming buildup of cinematic tension, the soldiers’ sexism leads them to misperceive them as French and flirtatious, whereas in reality they are Algerian and revolutionary. As much as such realist portrayals are monumental in conveying the psychodynamics of oppression, they also stress the extent to which women were active participants in their nation’s journey towards liberation.


Still from Battle of Algiers “What a nice girl”

It is in a similar spirit that Tlatli introduced to us the eminent personage of Alia, in her 1994 Tunisian classic Silences of the Palace. Narrating the coming of age of a young girl’s brutal journey towards emancipation, the film unfolds at a decisive historical moment, on the eve of the Tunisian national liberation. As she learns the secrets of the palace, where she and her mother live and serve, the film’s discourse of gender politics is by far the most prominent aspect. Using poetic realism to convey the strong themes of female seclusion and thwarted liberation, the protagonist’s journey is artistically conveyed through expressive interplays of sound and silence. As a silent scream evokes ultimate subjectivity, I also admire the refined decision of using sound to vocalise Alia’s liberty. For as she learns to embrace her voice, both musically and authoritatively, it is only then that her journey towards emancipation truly commences.

Till from Silences of the Palace

Still from Silences of the Palace

Reflecting further on this aesthetic, we can also sense an echoing notion through the way song is used as a means of reflecting female unity. As the palace maids share their strengths and sorrows through traditional communal singing, we find that these women engender a strong sense of female empowerment, which I feel elevates the film’s essence even further.

 In recent years, Mihaileanu’s 2012 film La source des femmes, or The Source, parallels such narrative themes. Set in a mountain village of Morocco, the film calls for a change in gender politics, showing local women protesting in the name of equality. While the partial division of manual labour is central to the film’s narrative (as they seek to persuade the men to construct a water pipe that will end their precarious walks to collect life-sustaining water) a deeper yearning for love and respect lies at the heart of their enmity. In one particular scene, we witness the women openly denouncing the men’s lack of initiative, by strategically changing the lyrics of traditional folklore songs, and protest their rights when collectively performing for European tourists.

Still from La source des femmes

Still from La source des femmes

When considering such portrayals of North African women, we are left with the lingering impression of strength. Not solely seeking to fulfil a purely individual emancipation, most of these portrayals served to convey the revolutionary regard of their wider societies. Calling for a deeper exploration of future generations, there is also the enigma of how such women will continue to resonate in cinematic form. In any case, what remains promising, is that such films will continue to reach the souls, and evoke a deeper purpose to alarm, intrigue and inspire the individual.


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