Screens and Veils: Maghrebi Women's Cinema

Screens and Veils: Maghrebi Women's Cinema

by Florence Martin


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253223418
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 10/05/2011
Series: New Directions in National Cinemas Series
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Florence Martin is Professor of French and Francophone Literature and Cinema at Goucher College and Associate Editor of Studies in French Cinema. She is author of Bessie Smith, of De la Guyane à la diaspora africaine (with Isabelle Favre), and of A vous de voir! (with Maryse Fauvel and Stéphanie Martin).

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Screens and Veils

Maghrebi Women's Cinema

By Florence Martin

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2011 Florence Martin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35668-0


Assia Djebar's Transvergent Nuba: The Nuba of the Women of Mount Chenoua (Algeria, 1978)


Shahrazad's tales included other tales in a mise en abyme that deepened as the Nights unfolded. Contemporary Maghrebi women's filmic narratives often follow a similar pattern. The resulting films offer a complex narrative web of embedded tales. In Barakat, for instance, the surface narrative of the quest for a disappeared woman soon reveals another narrative embedded within it: the story of a past mujahida (woman freedom fighter). Shahrazad also embedded political messages in her narratives: this Sultan whose story I am telling you, she whispered to the caliph prettily, is "fair," is "wise," and acts in a politically courageous way. Similarly, Rachida, for instance, tells a fictitious story focused on one female protagonist that embodies the plight of Algeria during the 1990s (see chapter 3); and Bab al-sama maftouh/Une Porte sur le ciel/A Door to the Sky by Farida Benlyazid, for instance, tells a fictitious story focused on one female protagonist whose spiritual and feminist choices reach into the history of women in the Maghreb, and shows how to make significant personal/political choices.

Yet the narrative mise en abyme of Maghrebi women directors seems even more whimsical than Shahrazad's: it plays with the possibility of one narrative before skipping circuitously to another, peripheral, one and returning to the original one. Assia Djebar's Nuba points to several other narratives that resonate in the Algerian landscape beside the narrative of the mujahidat's (women freedom fighters') resistance to the French occupier. She resurrects musical echoes of Bartok's Algerian pieces, but also places myths side by side with archival footage and blurs the boundaries between history and legend. Yet at no point does she remain fixed in one particular narrative genre. At no point does she validate one narrative over the other. Rather, in a flowing motion, she traverses the various possible narrative realms, alights here and there, and weaves a meta-narrative, which is, in essence, "transvergent": it is beholden to no specific regime of truths. In the end, both intertexts and narrative genres end up contaminating the very format of her film. The film's lack of resolution also adds to the fluidity of the transvergent narrative enterprise: the film itself does not adhere to its own regime of truths and awaits a pen or a camera to pick up the story line where it was and keep on writing/filming.

Acclaimed novelist Assia Djebar's adventure with cinema yielded two films: Nuba nisa al djebel Shnua/La Nouba des Femmes du Mont Chénoua/The Nuba of the Women of Mount Chenoua (1978) and La Zerda ou les Chants de l'oubli/The Zerda or Songs of Oblivion (1982). Cinema is not her customary mode of expression, and yet, in what may superficially look like a Sembène-like move, she one day decided to take up the camera instead of her French-writing pen to communicate with her "clan": the women of Algeria – not the French-educated women (like herself) but peasant women, most of them illiterate, most of whom have never set foot in a cinema. "At the end of the 1970s, in Algerian cities, movie theatres were patronized by an audience that was almost exclusively male. At the same time, most women of all ages, of all walks of life, would watch television. This is why The Nuba of the Women of Mount Chenoua was produced, originally, by Algerian television -when, in fact, it deserves to be seen on a large screen." If this film breaks the silence surrounding the women's Algerian revolution fifteen years after the fact, while the government headed by the victorious FLN (Front de Libération Nationale/National Liberation Front) is busy singing the exploits of its male heroes, it does not monumentalize women as heroic subjects. (The Algerian war of independence, 1954–1962, which ended the French occupation of the country that had started in 1830, was headed by the FLN. The latter has been ruling Algeria ever since.) It does not tell a straight story either. Rather, it builds a narrative as a succession of various echoes of the central narrative of the role of women in the liberation struggle. With its mix of fiction, documentary, reconstructions, and archival footage, along with its use of a female voice-over and of music as both structure and sign, the deeply experimental form of the film did not win praise among the established critics in Algiers, as was evident by the reviews after its airing as part of the Téléciné Club program on TV. It was so controversial that, after its first screening at the Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage (the International Film Festival of Carthage, Tunisia) that year, Algerian filmmakers had the film removed from the competition – to the vigorous outcry of foreign critics. Thereafter, The Nuba received the Critics' Prize in Venice.

The film is often described as slow, not readily accessible, yet it is also a striking foray into narrative transvergence on the part of Djebar, who here undertakes not only her first film but also the first by a woman director in Algeria. The stylized narrative of the film is transvergent on several accounts: it traverses multiple layers of narrative and silences, without remaining solidly anchored in any of them for too long; it is fluid; it includes, in its various stages, diverse alien components, even obscure spots, without necessarily fully deploying them.

Finally, the film undeniably acquires added shades of meaning after the publication of Vaste est la Prison (So Vast the Prison – 1995) and La Femme sans sépulture (The Woman without a Grave – 2002), as followers of Djebar place it in her oeuvre and against the larger context of the Algerian experience.


Djebar, one of the most visible Algerian literary figures of the second half of the twentieth century, elected to the Académie Française in 2005, routinely rumored to figure on the list of finalists for the Nobel Prize, turned to the camera in 1977 after ten years during which she had written no novel. Over these ten years, she had wondered about writing again: the war of independence was over, Arabic was the language of the new nation, and yet the language she wrote in was French. During that hiatus, she felt attracted to the performing arts, to theater in particular. In 1969, she coauthored a play with her then-husband, Walid Carn, Rouge l'aube/Red Dawn, staged and directed at the time by Mustapha Katab and performed at the third Pan-African Cultural Festival held in Algiers that same year. The play attracted only 1,953 spectators. Its topic, the war of liberation, was treated on an individual scale, and the play insisted on the cruelty of war (rather than adhering to the contemporary state discourse that tended to focus mostly on the heroism of the National Liberation Front male veterans), as its conclusion underscores: "Like you, I cannot see anything, neither the executioner, nor the martyr. Only the sky and the purple of dawn; a red dawn above my brother's blood."

She also acted as assistant director in a number of productions, and finally directed her own adaptation of American playwright Tom Eyen's 1971 play The White Whore and the Bit Player in 1973, in Paris. She was no stranger to cinema either – or at least its critical study, having taught French literature and cinema upon her return to Algiers, in the French Department of the university in 1974–1975 (fellow author Tahar Djaout even took her film seminar before he shot a documentary on the making of The Nuba).

Hence, when Assia Djebar took up directing, she apparently sought to speak to women (and men) in Algeria, a larger public than her usual francophone literary one. And as her film explored a new way of delivering a message to a larger audience, it also experimented with a range of media. Although she switched languages, and addressed her audience in Algerian Arabic (rather than in her customary written French), Djebar did not leave her literary art behind: the opening credits of the film (in Arabic lettering) metamorphose into a long text read by a voice-over in Arabic:

This film, in the form of a nuba, is dedicated, posthumously to: Hungarian musician Béla Bartók, who had come to an almost silent Algeria to study its peasant music in 1913; Yaminai Oudai known as Zoulikha, who established a resistance network in the city of Cherchell and its mountains in 1955 and 1956. She was arrested in the mountains when she was in her forties. Her name was subsequently added to the list of the missing.

Lila – the protagonist in this film – could be Zoulikha's daughter. The six other talking women of the Chenoua tell bits and pieces of their life stories.

The Nuba of the women is the moment when their turn comes to tell their stories. But the nuba also refers to the classical "Andalusian" musical form with its precise tempo.

Pointing here to what Aresu identified as Djebar's "creative continuum" between spoken and written text, the words, both printed and read aloud by a female voice, open up the film to various interpretations: the construction of its meaning will be manifold, accessible via multiple tracks, the oral and the written ones constituting only two among others.

The fact that this film would allow the novelist to take up her pen again later on in order to explore the making of the film (in Vaste est la prison/So Vast the Prison, 1995, in particular), and thus prolong the film experience into the realm of the written, is in many ways crucial to the understanding of The Nuba. The latter is – literally – "inscribed" in an overarching oeuvre that contains and supersedes it. The film would also launch the writing of an entire novel, La Femme sans sépulture (The Woman without a Grave, 2002), centered on Zoulikha, the mujahida to whom the film is dedicated and whose story occupies 7 minutes of the 115 of the entire film. As a piece of the Djebarian "re-membering" of story/history (that is, piecing diverse stories to the main body of history), the film is a pivotal point in the author's work: it builds on previous experiments with theater and also fuels future written textual production. It also marks a transition from what one might call "straight fiction" to "mixed media": Djebar now explores storytelling in radically different ways, far from, say, her storytelling in La Soif (Thirst – 1957) or Les Alouettes Naïves (Naïve Larks – 1967). In The Nuba, she mixes fiction with oral history, myth with history, and intersperses excerpts of documentary archival footage. She would write in a mix of narrative genres similar to these in several of her later books.

She acts as a double or triple agent as scriptwriter and filmmaker, as she draws from her formal training as historian (at the French École Normale Supérieure and the University of Algiers), from her talent as novelist and playwright, and then breaks both sets of formal rules as she edits her film in a striking nonlinear fashion in order to constantly reorient her collective, female history/storytelling. "Narrating must not tell the story, but interrupt it: i.e., suspend it, surprise it at all costs." She also takes advantage of her outsider/insider position. For, if Djebar returns to Cherchell to shoot The Nuba, she also brings with her a vision of independent Algeria as a French-educated woman of Arabic and Berber ancestry, who does not, however, speak Tamazight, the Berber language of that region (just like her fictitious character Lila, who admits that much to the women she interviews); she is also a vocal, unveiled, and bicultural (French and Algerian) urbanite, removed from the women of the country she is filming. This film could be seen as Djebar's attempt to fill gaps (along lines of class, education, culture, language) in her representation of the peasant women of the Cherchell region. In it, Djebar wants to target, first and foremost, the women who have been the victims of French colonialism and then of independent patriarchal Algeria.

While the film is for and by these strong women, these heroines of the war, it also reflects a formal quest on the part of author-turned-filmmaker Djebar. In that sense, because the film talks to several audiences at the same time (e.g., movie buffs and women of Algeria), it starts to remedy what historian Benjamin Stora described as one of the most dire shortcomings of the cinematic representation of the Algerian war: "Memories do not mix: when one makes a film, it is a film for oneself or for one's own 'community.' It creates a constant feeling of absence which comes from the non-encounter of memories." Instead of targeting a specific audience (e.g., former colonists, Algerians, Harkis) on either side of the Mediterranean, Djebar narrates history/herstory to both audiences: the first time, ostensibly to the women in Algeria, and the second time, when she publishes La Femme sans sépulture, to a francophone, literate audience in 2002. Hence, seeing her film in the larger context of her oeuvre, The Nuba constitutes the first panel of a diptych representing Zoulikha, the disappeared, forever mute Algerian woman fighter.


The narrative format of the film is framed: a fictitious story leads to a documentary of sorts, spliced with a very few black-and-white frames of French archival footage (since the only available archival film of Algeria until its liberation is French). It is structured in the seven movements of a nuba as announced in the written text, a fact to which we shall return. The narrative layers of the film function along various degrees of anamnesis (as thoroughly and brilliantly explained by Donadey). The framing narrative opens up onto three distinct temporal subjective tracks, as the character of the framing fictitious story, Lila, puts together the memories of women (oral history), and through their accounts, uncovers an episode of history. The latter eventually reaches a mythic dimension, as she narrates the story of the local saint and his seventh wife, a story of blessed abundance and loss.

Film Synopsis

Framing fictitious narrative: Lila is a young woman, married to Ali and mother to Aïcha. The three of them live in a small house in the country outside Cherchell, near Mount Chenoua. Lila drives around to interview and collect the stories of women who have participated in the war of liberation. Ali, a veterinarian, has fallen from a horse and, as a result, must use a wheelchair at the beginning of the film. This image of powerlessness is compounded by the fact that he barely speaks throughout the film. As the story unfolds, he starts to gradually walk again, with the help of crutches. Although we are shown that his initial paralysis will eventually end, he sits as the remote observer of his wife and child, in whose games he cannot participate. He appears in stark contrast to Lila, who is mobile (she is constantly walking, driving, and is even seen on a boat at the end of the film) and expressive: her inner monologue reaches the extra-diegetic spectator in an almost constant voice-over.

Framed collective narrative no. 1: the stories Lila hears are multiple and told by each woman "in turn" (in their nuba) and by Lila herself. The narrative voice is female and multiple yet also orchestrated by the supra-voice of Lila, the protagonist of the fictitious piece and the reporter of women's memories and stories of the war, who had been, herself, a prisoner during the war, as we learn later in the film.

Framed narrative no. 2: Lila's voicing of these narratives leads to other reminiscences that predate the war of liberation. Lila remembers her grandmother's tale of an episode of heroic resistance to the French invader in 1871. At the time, the Amazigh clan from which she descends, the Beni-Manacer of the Berkani tribe, had rebelled, and their leader, Sidi Malek Saharaoui, had been killed by the French troops as he was riding his horse. The latter is shown onscreen returning without its rider to the Dahra grotto, where the women of Mount Chenoua had taken refuge.

Framed narrative no. 3: one of the women remembers the story of a mythological figure – that of the seventh wife of benevolent saint Abdel Rahman, whose curiosity led her to open the plentiful jars of oil, butter, and honey, to which the villagers would help themselves every night. As she did so, she released the magical doves that allowed the miracle of abundance, thus leaving the jars forever empty. The saint later informed the sad villagers: "That woman stripped you of my blessings."


Excerpted from Screens and Veils by Florence Martin. Copyright © 2011 Florence Martin. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Overture: Maghrebi Women’s Transvergent Cinema
Act I: Transnational Feminist Storytellers: Shahrazad, Assia, and Farida
1. Assia Djebar’s Transvergent Narrative in The Nuba of the Women of Mount Chenoua (Algeria, 1978)
2. Farida Benlyazid’s Initiated Audiences in A Door to the Sky (Morocco, 1998)
Act II: Screens & Veils
3. Yamina Bachir-Chouikh’s Transvergent Echoes in Rachida (Algeria, 2002)
4. Raja Amari’s Screen of the Haptic in Red Satin (Tunisia, 2002)
5. Nadia El Fani’s Multiple Screens and Veils in Bedwin Hacker (Tunisia, 2002)
Act III: From Dunyazad to Transvergent Audiences
6. Yasmina Kassari’s "Burning" Screens in The Sleeping Child (Morocco, 2004)
7. Selma Baccar’s Transvergent Spectatorship in Khochkhach (Tunisia, 2006)
Appendix A: Political and Cinematic Chronology
Appendix B: Primary Filmography

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