It took a long time before the Western powers and Japan engaged in a critical examination of their colonial pasts and the crimes they committed in the occupied regions. France, which colonized Algeria from 1830 to 1962, is a case in point. The best known documentation is the 1966 feature Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo which illustrates the escalating violence and atrocities committed by French armed forces against civilians and the response by the liberation movement FLN. Several years earlier in 1962, the year Algeria achieved independence, an equally important film was completed by the American James Blue. His Olive Trees of Justice was entirely produced in Algeria. 1962 it received the first Cannes film festival award for an American feature and was restored in 2020. Lina Soualem documentary, THEIR ALGERIA / LEUR ALGERIE, is an equally important production. Like James Blue, she does not focus on the pervasive violent struggles between the French and Algerians. Through a sensitive family portrait, Soualem provides the perspectives of Algerians who left to work and live in France. For Blue, centering his story on one French family over two generations, and of their Algerian associates, was essential to understanding the views of French settlers who lived in Algeria in rural and urban areas as if they lived in France. Visual concern with the Algerian struggle for independence was secondary for Blue.
In both films, personal experience is shown through biographical time bound statements carrying more weight than statistics. In Blue’s monochrome production, there is a strong neo-realistic cinematic reflection of French and Algerian life in rural settlements and urban areas. In THEIR ALGERIA, Lina Soualem investigates three generations of her Algerian family who have been living in France. Without engaging in directive talks with her father and grandparents she uncovers their views. Their statements convey the meaning of being and maintaining an Algerian identity after migrating to France or being born and raised there. Her low key direction of THEIR ALGERIA is devoid of stereotypifications and any attempt to convey socio-political messages. Crucial for the film’s documentary success is the incorporation of images from her grandmother’s photo collection spanning several decades of her family life in France. There are revealing video recordings from 1992 by Lina’s father who worked as an actor. The elaborate marriage of her aunt and a large Algerian community celebration is caught in spontaneous images. Soualem complements them with images she took of the Algerian village her grandparents came from and of distant relatives she identified there. What emerges is the decades long social life of grandparents and their children in the Algerian communities of France, their preservation of habits and cultural customs brought from Algeria, and the strong detachment from considering themselves as French. There is not a single French person whose voice the audience can hear.
Resulting from the limited supply of labor in the late forties and fifties, the colonial struggles, and the turmoil of the sixties, hundreds of thousand Algerians migrated to France. Like Lina’s family, most planned to eventually return to their homeland. Many were followed by their families. Yet the war of independence, ending in 1962, and the incorporation of migrants, including children, into French labor, social, and educational institutions made return very difficult, if not impossible. France also offered the most elaborate European socioeconomic security to its workers. Few, including Lian’s parents, ever returned to Algeria; except to bury their relatives after they had died in France. There are now close to two million individuals of Algerian descent living in France with about half holding French citizenship. However, having lived in France for a longtime does not necessarily result in embracing a French identity and the suspension of ethnic roots. If old enough, some recall the colonial oppression and poverty they experienced in Algeria and the duress during their first decades in France. As articulated by Lina’s grandmother, life during her first decades in Algeria and France was like living in the void. THEIR ALGERIA clearly conveys that the Algerian identity in France has not been constrained by any trauma or suffering experienced by Algerian immigrants.
Claus Mueller, New York