Daikha Dridi interviews Chafia Djemame, founder of the Women’s Ciné-club in Constantine, Algeria.
While barely in her thirties, when Chafia Djemame founded the Women’s Ciné-club with friends from Algerian universities, they were surrounded by young women so young they affectionately referred to her and group of friends as middle-aged. From Jijel, an eastern port city, Chafia recounts the adventure of the ciné-club in the 1980s, in the heart of Constantine, one of the most conservative cities of the country.
In the 1980s you founded a women’s ciné-club in the city of Constantine, can you paint a social and political portrait of the city then?
We wanted to create a cultural activity for women in a city renowned for being deeply entrenched in tradition, the Algerian islamist reformist movement was born in Constantine, it is a city located in the interior heartland, not very open to the exterior, the rest of the world. It is not a port like Algiers or Bejaia. Henceforth a very regressive city where Islamist movements in their diverse variety existed as far back as the 1970s. On university campuses, for example, conflicts between students were already mired in the dichotomy of islamist versus non-islamist.
This was happening prior to what is referred to as the democratic opening in 1989 and the 1988 protests. In 1986 in Constantine we could already detect the tell-tale signs, with a student protest and strike that lasted for months as well as arrests of teachers and students. These were the precursors of 1988. It is in this environment of intellectual dynamism and effervescence, the desire and need for spaces for expression that the idea of a ciné-club was born.
Why a “women’s ciné-club”?
The ciné-club was founded in 1986 by three women, university professors, and launched on the 8th of March. We called it the “Women’s Ciné-club” but on the March 8th 1989, after a particular screening framed within this title specifically, the ciné-club was transformed and became attached to a “women’s association”.
I taught linguistics then, my two other friends taught chemisry and library science. It was important for us to identify it as a women’s ciné-club to distinguish from a student or teacher ciné-club, and also because in 1986 there were a number of incidents targeting women that year, overt machist behavior, campaigns organized by pre-Islamists groups, a sort of social and political control from Islamists groups regarding women.
Was the Women’s Ciné-club in the university campus?
No, the ciné-club was based in the Constantine Cinémathèque. The idea was born in the campus, but the intention was to create an activity decidely for the city and its female constituency. Our audience was diverse across generations, social classes and political diversity, there were high-school students, workers, we quickly totalled 20 women who ran the screenings.
The Cinémathèque was in crisis then, its audience was dwindling, resources drying up, they could no longer host filmmakers, festivals, etc. The space was furnished with equipment and matériel and run by technicians, but needed the livelihood of a ciné-club to resurrect it.
Where is the Constantine Cinémathèque located?
It is right before the suspended bridge of Constantine, at the meeting of three arteries built by the colonial to beak-up the old city’s fabric. So the Cinémathèque is really at one end of the old city and in the heart of the modern city, surrounded by high-schools, colleges, popular neighborhoods, and some hundred meters away from the two most popular markets.
Describe the audience of the Women’s Ciné-club.
By virtue of its location, in the beginning we attracted a lot of students, but slowly, working women and young high-school students joined. They were our most challenging audience during the debates and discussions.
How did you select the film program?
The selection was culled from the Cinémathèque’s stock. It was out of the question we incur additional costs on their resources, so we plumbed old archives of the national cinémathèque, the films were livered from Algiers. It was a bit of a mess, we would request a title and another one was dispatched… Grossly, we had identified general lines: first was the question of language, we wanted the discussions following screenings to take place in Arabic and the films in Arabic to the extent possible. This is why we started with Egyptian cinema (for example, Salah Abou Seif), films with social themes that allowed young women –in the beginning our largest constituency– to discuss social issues, but also to compare the Egyptian cinema broadcast on Algerian television and the one they discovered at our ciné-club. The latter usually inspired the most lively post-screening discussions, because they paved the way for discussions of women’s living condition in general, the significance of marginalisation, the issues salient to Arab cultures across countries. After a while, once we had established a reputation and credibility, we were able to finance our own activities. We even managed to invite a Moroccan filmmaker who came and screened her film, it was a little « exoticizing » but defended the place of women in Islam. I remember that for us, hosting a film presented by its filmmaker was a big event.
Was it difficult to institute the Women’s Ciné-club?
What baffles me till this day is the extent to which the word “women” was bothersome. At the time, when we launched the idea of a women’s ciné-club, we printed posters that simply read ‘if women are interested’, and listed time and place of the meeting. That first meeting ultimately did not take place because there were more young and older women than seats in the room! Shortly thereafter we found ourselves embroiled in an tough arm wrestle with the university administration because it was a “women’s ciné-club”. They proposed all sorts of compromise formulations, “ciné-club” only, “the ciné-club of the city of Constantine”, “the Meriem Bouatoura ciné-club” –she was a mujahida (nationalist fighter) of sorts–, anything they said as long as the word “women’s” was not included. The debacle reached the Ministry of Higher Education, because we needed a license for a public activity of this sort. The battle lasted until the following school year. We presented the authorities with a petition signed by more than a thousand women, we mobilized seven to eight hundred women in front of the university administration building, only after all this was the ciné-club officially established.
How do you explain this controversy your use of the word “women’s”, was it Constantine’s conservatism?
No, clearly the ministry was as discomforted as the university administration. In my opinion, the word “women” had a political resonnance, and at the time, anything with a political connotation was feared. When students celebrated the International Students’ Day, on May 19th, a high tension reigned, because there was expression of a political will in the midst of the campus. We were in an Algeria where the order was to adhere to the official discourse.
In preceding years, political activism in the midst of ciné-clubs was perfectly well tolerated…
To the university’s authorities as well as to the city’s, a women’s ciné-club was potentially a source of troubles, a discordant voice. The 1986 protests in Constantine that started on the university campus and spilled over to the city led to a clamp down by the authorities. The university was under tighter surveillance, specifically the Constantine campus.
Were there more obstacles once the ciné-club was launched?
The ciné-club was never censored, we had a few problems, for example threats to some of the women that frequented the club. In no time the schedule of the sessions for women became known to the entire city, consequently, courtship séances emerged around the screening sessions but also incidents of aggression.
The screening sessions were not mixed?
No, there were intended strictly for women, a choice that earned us criticism from all sides. Those self-described as progressice did not understand why we organized an activity strictly for women when we were supposed to fight for gender mixity, which we had done in other contexts. Islamists critized us because we robbed them of a specificity they claimed to monopolize, particularly at a time when they were organizing gender-segregated halaqate (religious circles). They were disturbed that we borrowed a practice that did not shock traditional social mores, thus earning approval, for activities they deemed much too subversive because they were aware of the issues discussed after the screenings. How women managed to survive in the everyday in spite of brothers, uncles, fathers, ruling order, the State, and such things. The criticisms leveled were plural and intersected more often than not.
Making these two à priori choices, regarding language and gender, are they not forms of segregation?
Once again, the city of Constantine imposed these choices, it is an Arabophone city, we wanted to reach out to the women residing here, discuss their lived quotidian, how they survived or found their happiness, we tapped a real and profound need for engagement and encounter…
Our rejection of mixity facilitated social acceptance. You know, a year into the running of Constantine’s women’s ciné-club, there were a few articles in the newspapers, as a result teachers and students in other cities like Sétif came to us to help them set-up a similar ciné-club in their own cities or universities. It generated something like a collective unwritten manifesto, but I believe it was really the choices we made with regards to language and gender mixity, the choice to define a space for us…
How did the adventure end?
The ciné-club ended slowly, after 1988, the agenda became more overtly militant and the ciné-club transformed into an association with multiple and plural activities.
When you were thinking of creating activities for women and about women, why did you choose cinema in the first place?
Cinema is more vast… Firstly, it is more pleasant and a lot less complicated than a book-club, but also, and mostly because the choice of cinema was in itself a provocation in a city like Constantine, where movie theaters, even for male audiences, no longer existed. When I was a student, there was one theater that accommodated for a female audience and two others in the old city strictly for men, but even then those theaters had no attendance.
Cinema was the most stellar medium to come into contact with neighboring cultures, to be open oneself onto the world beyond one’s quotidian and yet still be able to see it and talk about.