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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Exposing Algeria and the existential angst faced by its youth

Madame Courage is a movie that exposes the rough edges of the African country's society.
Merzak Allouache directed the Algerian movie Madame Courage. Courtesy Merzak Allouache
Merzak Allouache directed the Algerian movie Madame Courage. Courtesy Merzak Allouache

Algerian director Merzak Allouache says he made his new film Madame Courage out of a sense of frustration.

“I took people and characters that I thought would show what it’s like to live in Algerian society,” says the 70-year-old. “I believe that for Algerian youth, Algerian society is sick. And that’s a big problem because in Algeria, young people make up the biggest section of society – and for them there are a lot of problems.”

We see these problems in Algerian society through the eyes of Omar, played by Adlane Djemil. He is a petty thief who steals necklaces and handbags. It is noticeable that he is very slow, a character from the underclass of society.

He lives in a shantytown in the suburbs of Mostaganem with his mother and sister, a prostitute. When she is beaten up, Omar decides to take the law into his hands. Allouache says he chose these characters carefully.

“I don’t want to make a film about the middle class,” he says. “The lower class are more numerous in society and also it’s the group most of the youth belong to. In the film, I want to show the people who have nothing.”

He is concerned that if nothing changes, Algerian society will increasingly come under threat from the “scourge of radical Islam and corruption that has plagued African society for decades”.

“Algerian society is blocked,” he says. “There is a risk today because the boundaries are dangerous – there is Egypt, Tunisia and Mali. But most of the disquiet we see is on the internet – and we know that the internet is mostly used by the youth.”

The title of the movie Madame Courage is a reference to the pills that Omar takes.

“It’s a drug that is everywhere in the Maghreb,” says Allouache. “It’s a psychotropic drug that makes people feel like they can do anything with no consequences.”

Omar takes the drug before he robs or commits acts of violence.

Yet the title also is a riff on the famous Bertolt Brecht anti-war theatre piece Mother Courage. It has influenced Allouache in the narrative design and the fact that he has created central protagonists with whom most audiences will find it difficult to identify. The method of filmmaking he uses fits into Brecht’s ideas about creating an alienation effect, so that viewers have to consciously decide what to think about what they see, rather than just have the director impose emotions on them. Therefore, there is no music to guide the viewer’s emotions and the acting is underplayed.

“I followed my actors and asked them to play naturally and not be influenced by what they see in dramas on television,” Allouache says. “You could say that is the method of Brecht or Stanislavski.”

The film was shot in 17 days and all the locations are real places. Allouache guides the camera to show the rough edges of Algerian society, especially the growing problem of a failure to remove rubbish from the streets.

“I don’t have the time or budget to control anything, so I have to shoot what I see,” he says. “When I see beautiful things, I will show it – but for now, the rubbish is a big problem. When people leave trash in front of their houses it’s not picked up and it’s left abandoned.”

Madame Courage received post-production funding from Sanad, twofour54’s development and post-production fund, which was formerly linked to the defunct Abu Dhabi Film Festival and had it’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival this week.

The director studied filmmaking in Algiers at the Institut National du Cinéma and IDHEC in Paris, directing his first feature Omar Gatlato in 1976.

He lived in France from 1983 until 1988, then returned to Algeria where he directed Bab El Oued City in 1993.

Since then, he has directed films in France and Algeria. Normal! (2011) won the prize for Best Arab Narrative Feature at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. The Repentant (2012) was screened during the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. The Rooftops (2013) was an official selection at the Venice Film Festival and played at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Despite his success, Allouache is frustrated – he is a filmmaker working in a country where it is difficult to see his films.

“I’m frustrated because the cinema is not a media that counts,” he says. “There are nearly no theatres. We can’t go to the cinema and see the debates they bring about.

“When I grew up, there used to be 200 or 300 cinemas, and students would go to the pictures and debate cinema. Now the only way to have such a debate is on the internet. My films are pirated straight away, so they are seen. I can see how many click to watch the film but I don’t know if they watch the whole thing – but in the comments there are arguments both for and against.”

Yet piracy will not stop him making films. “Whatever the frustration, I must continue to make films because in a decade or so, we will be able to see through these films what Algerian society was like,” he says. “Cinema is a witness to events.”

artslife@thenational.ae