One sure way of sounding like an old fart to younger generations of Algerians, is to keep reminiscing about the good old days when you could still go to the movies in Algiers, before the wide spread of video and satellite television in the end of the 1980s.
Considering the handful of surviving movie theaters now serve as shelters to more or less solitary lovers and cohorts of listless and unemployed boys, it is tedious to explain there was a time, not so long ago, when one could casually discover images of the world, at least those the authorities –guardians of moral rectitude– deemed beneficial for us to see.
In spite of extreme prudery regarding anything that related to representation of sexuality, the spectrum of possibilities was still vast, including Italian comedies, Le détachement féminin rouge, Ingmar Bergman films, Youssef Chahine films, Brazilian cinema novo, Walt Disney flicks, French auteur films, militant films from all over the world, and even a relatively impressive national roster that, aside from the unavoidable propaganda reels, contained some small cult gems like Mohamed Zinet’s Tahia ya Didou, Farouk Beloufa’s Nahla and Merzak Allouche’s Omar Gatlato.
There was also the Algiers Cinémathèque, born with the benediction of Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque of Paris, that allowed thousands of students, including myself, to familiarize ourselves with Jean Luc Godard, Orson Welles, Frederico Fellini, Wim Wenders’s early work, Souleymane Cissé, Jean Rouch, Désiré Ecaré, followed by obligatory debate and tireless reflections on our Africanness, Arabness and the bright future that undoubtedly awaited the people of what was then known as the Third World.
Longing for the freshness and candor of these exchanges, ought not carry the bane of shame even if history seems to have given reason to those who sat in the back of the room, snickering. At least then we were still able to project ourselves into the future, with the multitude of catastrophes that have befallen us since, it gets harder every day now.
The Cinémathèque’s gang was embodied by its chief, Boudjemâa Karèche, aka “Boudj”, who arbored a beard, as we did then, back when bush-like facial hair was a badge of affiliation to the left, and not to Islamism.
Deeply reticent of his retirement, he has since become clean-shaven, and can barely see, as if his eyes followed the dimming stream of images. Move on, move on, nothing to see here. Allocations of resources never matched what the ought to have been, and the Algerian Cinémathèque was never able to live up to its ambitions as an institution dedicated to the conservation of films and archives. Its role was limited to the distribution of scratched prints to a handful of repertory theaters, a far cry from the vanguard it heralded as its credo.
One could go so far as to draw a non-exhaustive list of auteur filmmakers whose work was never screened at the Cinémathèque –filmmakers who would have been very significant to us, Abbas Kiarostami, Pedro Almodovar, Nanni Moretti, David Lynch– but what would be the virtue of such an excercize?
Today, any Algerian cyber-cinéphile can compile a collection of films, obtained by means more or less legal, richer than anything we could have accomplished back then, and certainly more a long road traveled from the time we lugged heavy metal boxes with conspiratorial airs, while pretending to run a ciné-club.
Take me, writing to you now, in the voice of the pseudonym owed to Woody Allen (who was also never screened anywhere under our own skies), some thirty years ago, I organized a screening of Easy Rider at the university’s ciné-club with relative success. The repertory was usually more along the lines of Old and New or Battleship Potemkin, so I had to supply our bureaucrats with an ideological justification for my choice, which I presented as an “unforgiving critique of the American capitalist system”.
When the crowds of students attending the screening displayed a degree of appreciation for the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” motto of the film, my career as a benevolent film programmer was abruptly cut short, but not my proclivity for dark theaters that welcomed us, so long ago.
Photo: Satellite dish in Hassi Messaoud, eastern Algeria. (Credit: Keith Miller)