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New MIT series showcases recent Algerian films

Tearsheets: Alia Arasoughly, August Light Productions, P.O. Box 891, Cambridge, MA 02238

Suggested headline: Recent Algerian films featured in series that begins today at MIT

LIBERATION & ALIENATION

IN ALGERIAN CINEMA

Begins tonight at 7:30 pm in 10-250.

Continues through April 12.

By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR

TIME AND AGAIN, countries that have eased official censorship and provided relief from financial and logistical barriers have found that the art produced in those countries blooms and flourishes as a direct consequence. Recent film history, for example, is replete with success stories born on the heels of political and economic liberalization: the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Argentina in the mid 1980s, Spain in the late 1970s and 1980s. Back in the 1960s, it was Algeria's turn. Gaining political independence from France in 1962, Algeria formed some film organizations, and gradually a national cinema established itself. In 1976, an Algerian film won the Palme d'Or, the top prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

Most American filmgoers, however, have virtually no knowledge of the renaissance in Algerian filmmaking. That omission will be corrected by a series of nine films that begin showing tonight here at MIT. As an added bonus, the festival organizers are presenting at least eight of the nine films in their original 35mm format, making this opportunity to experience these films as valuable as it is welcome.

Waqaii Sanawat al-Jamr ("Chronicle of the Years of Embers"), the aforementioned Palme d'Or winner, opens the festival tonight. This 175-minute epic, shot in Cinemascope, follows a peasant family in Algeria who migrate to the city for economic reasons but instead end up joining the resistance during the Algerian independence struggle.

In one scene, the peasants listen intently to a shortwave radio as a Nazi propagandist declares that "destiny has already chosen" Germany as the winner of World War II. Viewing France as their oppressors, the peasants cheer the propagandist's claim that "France will soon be defeated," but one peasant presciently warns that if Hitler wins, the Arabs will be among the first to be annihilated. The parallels to the support Palestinians gave to Saddam Hussein during the recent gulf war are strikingly obvious. But the director of Waqaii Sanawat al-Jamr could not know in 1975 about the events of 1991, and one can't help but speculate that a future filmmaker will have to replicate this scene almost word-for-word when making a film about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Al-Tahouna ("The Mill"), which will be shown on Monday night, is renowned not for aesthetic or artistic reasons but because it was banned in Algeria -- censorship was not completely abolished, it seems -- for two years after it was completed in 1985. The film takes direct satirical aim at the bureaucracy and the intelligentsia in Algeria, topics which, of course, have been a favorite of satirists since time immemorial.

Finally, one film which should not be missed is Hikayat Liqaa' ("Story of an Encounter"). Drawing on two extraordinarily effective performances, director Brahim Tsaki tells a touchingly human story of a young Algerian boy and an American girl who meet and try to develop a relationship together. Their families provide them neither with solace nor with a sense of identity, and Algerian society shows little hope for the future. Given this environment, their relationship becomes the one thing in their lives that seems to make a difference and provide a measure of happiness.

What makes their relationship particularly poignant, however, is that both the boy and girl are deaf and can communicate only with sign language. As a result, when the girl gets into arguments with her father, the usual sparks that would accompany such scenes are necessarily subdued. Yet the performances are so honestly molded that the film leaves no doubt about the intensity of the frustration, hurt, and despair that the young couple feels.

Perhaps equally as important, the film's implicit criticism of Algeria's newly found economic prosperity for its emphasis on material goods and American pop-culture is as political as the film gets. Director Tsaki keeps his focus on the elemental and human story that constitutes the heart of the film.

Except for a rather clumsy depiction of the girl's father and unnecessary references to her institutionalized mother, Tsaki's direction resists the temptation to indulge in melodramatic excess. The closing shot of the film is easily the most potent moment in the film, and it is Tsaki's skill at evoking and focusing on the genuine emotions being expressed by his actors that guides his film to its success.

Hikayat Liqaa' will be shown on Thursday, April 11 at 7:30 pm in 10-250.

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(Editor's note: The Museum of Fine Arts will be repeating two of this festival's films, Waqaii Sanawat al-Jamr and Omar Gatlato, as well as premiering a well-regarded new Algerian film called El-Kalaa ("The Citadel"), April 11 and April 18.)