Daikha Dridi interviews Saïd Benmerad, founder and director of several ciné-clubs in Algiers.
From Algiers, where he continues to teach literature at the university, Saïd Benmerad revisits the singular world of ciné-clubs that prevailed in the years that followed the Algerian revolution. He was twenty years old, a cinephile and militant on the extreme left in a city that saw itself as a light-house of anti-imperialism, passionate about politics and cinema with equal fervor.
When did you become involved with ciné-clubs in Algiers?
From around the middle of the 1970s, and until 1984-85.
Was it in the framework of a political affiliation?
In reality, my first contact with the political organization that I ultimately joined happened in a ciné-club. I was recruited as a militant of the extreme left in the realm of ciné-clubs. Before that, I was a leftist without an affiliation to a political formation. I was twenty years old, studying French literature, attending the ciné-clubs of the Algerian Federation. The ensemble of ciné-clubs were grouped under a federation, it was an outgrowth from the FLN because at that time it was not possible to do anything outside the FLN.
Why did you choose a ciné-club to conduct militant activity?
The federation grouped people who were all over Algeria, not strictly folk based in Algiers, it comprised intellectuals, academics, journalists, all were leftists and extreme leftists in addition to the gamut of colorations, maoïsts, trostskyites, etc. They were more or less at a distance from unions and syndical structures, and tried to find a channel for their militantism in the realm of culture that would be more open and allow the maximum dissemination of messages.
When I affiliated our trotskiyte political organization, the establishment of ciné-clubs became a major activity, it was there we could really express ourselves, recruit, disseminate our ideas, do our “propaganda” while maintaining bridges with unions. For us cinema showed practical examples of struggles using a medium that was not systematically censored.
If the federation was an appendage of the FLN, why was the Algerian regime also very invested in ciné-clubs and cinema?
That was a tradition since independence. The FLN at the time comprised diverse proclivities and trends, as well as a tradition of leftist militancy. Cinema was a powerful popular medium to promote the anti-imperialist charge of the revolution. In the 1970s, we were still in the tidal sweep of the great Algerian revolution, many intellectuals, filmmakers and men of culture were active through the federation.
So the bulk of network of ciné-clubs in the country was in fact created by the Algerian state…
Yes, off course the federation was a public institution that provided screening rooms, spaces for conferences and seminars. Those who worked there were on the FLN payroll. From time to time we would get a rebuke, but the system accepted this “roster of leftists”. We could dismiss the party cadres… At that time, they did not consider all of this as potentially threatening to the powers at rule or the stability of the regime.
And from the moment you were recruited by a clandestine trotskyite organization, were you entrusted with the mission of establishing ciné-clubs?
Yes, essentially. Our student as well as our feminist activitism was mediated in the ciné-clubs, we encouraged the establishment of ciné-clubs for women, in high schools, universities, neighborhoods.
It should be noted that film production at the time was also aparty to that, the body of Italian, Brazilian, African and Maghrebi cinema, were a cinema of the left. For example, we would go to Tunisia, their federation of ciné-clubs was infiltrated by maoïst communist worker groups, their ciné-clubs allowed us to sustain our internationalism, popularize it, discuss it openly and bring people in contact with revolutionary experiences elsewhere. When we screened The Grapes of Wrath, or films produced under Nazi Germany, or films about labor struggles in the US, we discussed revolutions and were able to familiarize out audience with our ideas.
Where were the ciné-clubs you animated?
On university campuses, in popular neighborhoods lile Bab el-Oued, Hussein Dey, and such, but other militants animated ciné-clubs in other cities in the country, like Oran Ouargla… We were in charge of selecting films, we prepared technical sheets, we trained animators, we conducted seminars to explain how to present films, cinema schools, etc…
Who was the audience of the neighborhood ciné-clubs?
There was a little of everything, a lot of high-school students, workers, union cadres, a kind of élite of cinéphiles, but also at the time, people loved to go to the movies!
The audience was not comprised of militants? How did people react to the choice of films and debates?
No, our audience was far from militant. I remember, for example, how people reacted to Andrzej Wajda’s The Iron Man (“Czlowiek z zelaza”, 1981), that had just screened in Poland. It was the first time the film was screening outside the country, we brought it in its original version, the room at the university was packed to the seams on a week day at 10 in the morning! Between 1978 and 1988 university campuses were then witnessing a particularly thriving period, brimming with positive energy. A lot of people were interested in cinema and knew about films. The discussions were intense, they reflected tendencies that peopled the political sphere, like those we referred to as Stalinists, Islamists who were just emerging as well as nationalists from the FLN. While political activists from diverse trends engaged in stealth debates, they usually went beyond the mass of people attending screenings. One of our concerns was to always try to pull people towards us and avoid very specialized discussions of cinema, even if as adepts of the Cahiers du Cinéma, we were very well-versed in aesthetics and genres, we wanted to approach films as a platform, a venue for a larger dialogue and not slip into the technicalities of film schools.
Was your decision to avoid discussion on form deliberate and strategic to focus strictly on a film’s theme or content?
Yes, these were more or less instructions we were given, but in reality we often found ourselves talking about cinema and only that. The level of sensibility and knowledge was unimaginable, people attended and wanted to discuss signifiers, semiotics and film technique. I remember, for example, when we screened The Cranes Are Flying (“Letyat Juravli” by Mikhaïl Kalatozov, 1957) we spent hours discussing what is still known as a “Russian frame”, which at the time was a novelty. People debated it, and not necessarily the experts, but also average cinephiles.
It was a genuinely fascinating time, when Algeria was a light-house in the Third World, there was a real critical engagement with film, Algerian cinema was acquiring renown, and the Algiers Cinémathèque hosted all the filmmakers in the world. Some lesser-known French filmmakers first passed through Algiers before Paris and going on to become stars. A good number of films screened in Algiers before earning acclaim. The Cinémathèque really welcomed everyone, all the African films screened there before fraying passage to France. Syrian, Lebanese, French, and German filmmakers were regulars to Algiers. It was a very impressive center for film culture, where a solid familiarity with aesthetics and film culture mixed with militant fervor.
How were your rapports with the authorities and the FLN?
The federation allowed us to obtain films, in spite of the fact that we had constituted our own network of ciné-clubs, we could get them for free, we also took advantage of the cinémathèque’s stock.
How were your ciné-clubs different from others in the federation?
We started from the principle that our aim was not to initiate people to questions of aesthetics in cinema, rather, films were a means to present a discourse, when we screened Norma Rae (by Martin Ritt, 1979) a film on worker revolt in the US, we wanted to show how resistance is organized in factories, how women were oppressed in the workplace, and how they can fight back. We were not going to delve into questions regarding the filmmaker’s intentions or the actors’ performance, etc.
One must not forget that cinema was at the time like that, on the left, anti-imperialist and such. When we watched films from Germany, the themes were all related, reflections on nazism, etc. Our discourse was not only founded in the Algerian experience, it articulated in a universalist vocabulary, we were internationalists and so we followed the struggles taking place in Brazil, Mexico as well as Africa, they were all springboards we used to develop an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, feminist discourse, our militancy. This said, we were also trained to discuss form and technique, it never eluded us.
How did the regime react, was there tension around your ciné-clubs?
There were instances where screening rooms were emptied by the university administration rather than the police. In reality, we were never really censored, I think the regime regarded us as marginal groups that talked about cinema and could never carry a real threat. The federation was known to have been a “nest of trotskyites”, to borrow the expression of the time. We did not really transgress the measures of tolerance, once or twice they bugged us about conferences, but we were not censored. Later, the federation was shut down and we lost our space. That was in 1984 or 1985 I believe.
Were there incidents that led to the closing of federation ciné-clubs?
No, the FLN were re-appropriating their own structures. At that time, all the ciné-clubs were shutting down. The political field had begun to open around 1980-81, we were no longer invested in the ciné-clubs with the same energy. We suddenly had the opportunity to work in other venues, we had established structures more suited to our aims and begun to withdraw from the sphere of cultural activities. When they reclaimed the federation, we had successfully transitioned our political organizing to the realm of workers. By the time the federation was dissolved it had become an empty shell, it had lost all the power it leveled five or six years earlier because all the energy fueled by militants from the extreme left had been channeled elsewhere, to union organizing, factories, streets (particularly with the Berber Spring) and to campuses. At some point, we were the chief force on the university campus, we no longer needed the guise of cultural activism, I recall that militants considered ciné-clubs to be the least “prestigious” venue in political organizing.
How could a period so rich and dense not imprint a trace on film culture in Algeria today?
Since the mobilizations of 1988, the overall context in the country underwent an upheaval, and in general, the left has receded everywhere. Society was reconverted, but the chief reason it seems to me is that the ideas we defended and notions of progress were no longer credible. We lived a sort of socialism that brought nothing to the population and so it lapsed withe everything else.
And cinema in all of this?
It was over… I recall that one of the last films I presented was Apocalypse Now (by Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) a symbolic ending.
Photo from the Arab Film Posters Collection of the Near East Collection of Yale University Library.