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French Version

Documentary offers look at fringes of Algerian society

Bensmail's 'Alienations' also provides insight into national psyche

In the opening scenes of Malek Bensmail's documentary film "Alienations," the camera walks us through the site of an ancient bathhouse. Women go there to take the waters if they're feeling troubled, which in local parlance often means being possessed by a jinn.

The young Algerian man explaining the various aspects of the exorcism ritual seems very much a creature of the contemporary world. He looks sane, but there's no question he believes in the rituals he's describing.

"Alienations" acknowledges the importance of living traditions among Algerians but it isn't interested in tradition per se. Rather, Bensmail investigates life in Constantine's modern psychiatric hospital. His inspiration, he confesses early in the film, was his father. A psychiatrist for many decades, the elder Bensmail's views on the Algerian condition weren't hemmed in by the arcane box of psychoanalytical theory. He took a broader view of what afflicts the mental health of his countrymen and Bensmail the younger angles his camera from his father's perspective.

The final product is a film that is expressly about those on the fringes of Algerian life - the insane. Bensmail's vignettes, however, suggest discrete insights into Algerian society as a whole.

The first patient we see is a young woman in hijab admitting herself to the hospital. During her interview with a team of doctors, she seems perfectly sane. She tells them that she never sleeps. Though perfectly alert and energetic, she says, she simply finds she needs no sleep.

She tells the doctors that she's studied English, medicine, engineering, law, a host of other disciplines, has finished university degrees in some of them and has nearly finished others. The further it goes, the more delusional the young woman's story grows. She describes how she's being followed, has been verbally abused as she leaves the university and, on one occasion, beaten.

Later her distraught father tells the doctors that his daughter was in fact an excellent student. But she gradually began to lose grasp of reality. When she went to see the doctors about her condition, she began to internalize the symptoms of the other patients she spoke with. "She takes everyone else's problems as her own," her father says.

Later, during a group therapy session, we see one young man become aggressive when his monologue is interrupted. Otherwise his remarks seem to express not madness but intense, if inchoate, frustration. During the same session we overhear another young man remark matter-of-factly that he feels Jewish because the Jews are good people. He says he follows the teachings of a prophet who has shown him the path to righteousness - a sheikh his fellow patients have never heard of.

We later watch as patients queue restlessly for their daily allotment of drugs. One or two demand more tranquilisers than they're prescribed, professing that they're feeling particularly bad that day, or that their allotment was unreasonably slashed. Sometimes the doctors concede to their requests.

One of Bensmail's more startling scenes shows a group of women sitting together in a common room engaging in a spirited and incisive critique of Algeria's leadership. It's more or less the same discussion you'd overhear in a bar anywhere in the world. After a moment of questioning your own sanity it occurs to you that perhaps some of these psychiatric patients aren't actually mad at all.

Bensmail agrees. Though he acknowledges that there are patients in this asylum who do seem to be legitimately insane, he doesn't think the ones he's filmed are "mad." They are, he says, exhibiting symptoms of a long-term malaise within Algerian society. It is a malaise he discussed many times with his father, and one that likely would have been more explicitly treated had his father lived to see the film produced. When the younger Bensmail spoke about "Alienations" at the recent Ayam Beirut Cinemaiyya, he was much more blunt about the matter than his film.

"Algerian identity has suffered a series of ruptures that have left the people there uniquely alienated," he says. "It began with the French occupation in the 1830's." Algeria has the distinction not only of having been occupied for longer than France's other North African colonies, but of having been considered an integral part of France - which helps explain the large settler community there.

"A further disruption took place after independence, when the elite that assumed control over the state apparatus stole the country's independence from the people, and ruled Algeria in an increasingly authoritarian manner."

Bensmail regards Algeria's relationship to language as emblematic of the country's disrupted history. When France took possession of the area, French replaced Arabic and Turkish as the language of the elite. Today's older generation of Algerians are francophone. Bensmail's own generation is equally comfortable in French and the Algerian dialect. The state has since done away with French-language training in schools altogether, replacing it with modern standard Arabic.

"We used to be Algerians," says Bensmail. "Now they tell us we're Arabs. The state is alienating the younger generation from the older generations and from the history embodied in our relationship with the French language. They've robbed them of probably the only positive thing to come out of colonization."

Yet another disruption came at the level of religion. "Islam was always a personal faith in Algeria. The dislocations within Algerian society that resulted from over a century of colonial rule and another half century of home-grown authoritarianism left a psychic wasteland within Algerians. It was that vacuum that Islamist clerics have taken advantage of to pursue their own agenda."

Bensmail divides his time between France and Algeria. His films are funded by European money and diffused on European television. He's never taken funding from official Algerian sources and says that, in fact, they don't support documentary filmmaking. "I think this is because they're afraid of reality and the documentary image is like reality. They finance fiction films because fiction provides a metaphor that twists reality and doesn't challenge their authority."

His money is foreign but his intended audience is still Algerian and he tries to make his films from an Algerian perspective. "In Algeria everyone watches Western satellite television, not local TV. So when they know a documentary on Algeria is being shown on one of the satellite networks they watch it because they believe it will address their reality with more truth than local television. Newspaper critics write about the documentaries that appear on satellite as if it had appeared locally."

Though he is under constant pressure to find the funds for his work, he doesn't feel that reliance on foreign funding has influenced the topics he's chosen to work with, principally because his French producer protects him from such pressure.

"In fact he encourages me to do the movies I want to do. When the TV station imposes a formant or length, the producer will say, okay, we'll use the format they want but you will do your own version as well, the one that you want for the cinema. This [105-minute] version of 'Alienations' exists thanks to the producers because the television network that commissioned the documentary wanted it to be only an hour long."

"[Lebanese director] Mohammed Soueid's O3 Productions [a Dubai-based independent production house for Arabic-language documentaries] is very important because they're trying to find funding from the Arab world and not rely on Western money for documentaries that deal with Arab issues. The alienation continues when the people in the West are more interested in our issues than we are."

Malek Bensmail's Alienations will open in France in November. If the film is approved by state authorities, it will be shown on Algerian television as well. For more information, contact Beirut Development and Cinema at beirutdc@inco.com.lb.

Beirut,10 11 2004
The Daily Star
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