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Interview with Algerian film maker Habiba Djahnine

Culture

Bejaia doc - Carole Filiu

Habiba Djahnine, born in 1968 in Kabylia, is a filmmaker who, in the 1980s and 1990s, was a political activist and a feminist. On February 15, 1995, her sister Nabila was killed in Tizi-Ouzou. She was the first feminist to be killed by Islamist bullets during the black decade.

Habiba’s debut feature “Letter to My Sister” was released 11 years after her death. It dwells on the itinerary of Habiba’s sister through interviews with her entourage. Later, the movie was screened in numerous festivals. Her following movies all ask the same question: what is activism and how to be an activist? Habiba Djahnine is also the founder of the Bejaïa doc festival, where filmmaking workshops are held and documentary films screened. Its sixth edition started on October 3, 2011 in Bejaïa. Carole Filiu met with Habiba Djahnine in a coffee shop in Algiers.

There is no film industry in Algeria: there are only filmmakers at work! It’s a catastrophe.

There is no film industry in Algeria: there are only filmmakers at work! It’s a catastrophe. It’s extremely complicated to produce a movie in this country and to find state subsidies, simply because the state doesn’t tolerate creative freedom. Institutional cinema does exist, ruled by the Ministry of Culture. We could see it this year with Tlemcen. Capital of Islamic Culture 2011 movies were made and financed on this particular occasion, but not outside of the frame.

The true will is to shut down cultural life in Algeria.

The Algerian state’s excuse is blaming terrorism. But behind the security issue lays the true reason for the reluctance of the state vis-à-vis the film industry. Its true will is to shut down cultural life in Algeria. We try to create something on the side, thanks to NGO funds for instance, but it’s not yet an actual alternative movement. You need a political will to make movies.

There is no proper film distribution and many theatres have closed down, even in Algiers. As a result, people have lost the habit of going to the movie theatre, even though there are still many craving for new productions. We have tried to set up a network of movie clubs but it’s difficult. Some documentary films are shown abroad and live a second life thanks to festivals. Letter to my sister, for example, was screened a lot because I personally took care of the distribution.

People have lost the habit of going to the movie theatre.

No actual documentary can be made in this country. Mostly, fiction and reports are produced. We are at most five or six Algerians working on documentaries with a very intimate approach. There was never any effort done on image in Algeria: images come from outside and young people can’t identify to them. They need to make their own images. This is why we created Bejaïa doc in 2003: we offer a year-long training to four to eight interns during which they make one movie. Each of them shoots in his native town, so from one year to the other, we get drastically different results. Overall, we covered the entire Algerian territory.

The Documentary Film Festival (Rencontres du film documentaire) is held every year in October. In between the screenings, it’s a place dedicated to work and thinking.

I am no longer an activist

In the early 1990s, I belonged to the core pool of the Algerian feminists. Even if I still consider myself as a feminist, I have a critical look on what the movement has become today. I try to understand its evolution through my movies.

During the 1990s, we witnessed the relentless destruction of all the active places of thinking in the civil society.

It’s very difficult to talk about activism. The feminist movement in Algeria underwent a significant break-up in 1992: some chose to support the army while others continued to fight on the ground against the power and against barbarism. During the 1990s, we witnessed the relentless destruction of all the active places of thinking in the civil society. The intellectual circles were drawn out.

Since the 2000s, NGOs have brought a new form of culture: they trained the managers of these associations according to European standards, with action plans and so on. There are some very interesting initiatives in this magma, such as the CIDEFF (Center of Information and Documentation on Children and Women’s Rights) and the Réseau Wassila (Network of Help for Female Victims of Violence). Today, there are volunteers but no longer activists. Associations with a strong political identity have almost entirely disappeared. Activists used to be the base of social thinking. In the 1980s, they were on the street all the time and took part in political gatherings: it was a social movement which belonged to this decade.

Today, there are volunteers but no longer activists. Associations with a strong political identity have almost entirely disappeared.

As far as I’m concerned, I am engaged but I am not an activist, even though I am still very close to the political debate. Structures do exist but I’m not interested in those; I am no longer a regional activist. As soon as serious things happen, like in Hassi Messaoud, you have to do something. I travelled there to support the victims, to understand what was going on. But it was a personal initiative and activism is about collective action.

It’s problematic to see the discrepancy between civil society and political parties, which shows how weak our social situation is today. It will take years for it to change: we are stunned by what is going on. We don’t seem to be able to grasp what the Algerian people really want. There is no social project, no political debate. After 15 years of violence, people want to live. For that, we need to understand what has happened during the past years.

We don’t seem to be able to grasp what the Algerian people really want.

They don’t belong to anyone

In Hassi Messaoud, women are creating a new space, a new geography of the region, through the way they inhabit it, run errands, work. They are the pillar of their families at only 25 or 28 years old! They have incredible responsibilities. This is why these women shock: because they don’t belong to anyone. It’s a collective trend which is completely new. These women have to live under pressure, but they accept it. They are incredibly brave. Some of them these young women have been raped but don’t want to move out. It only shows how much they want to stay! They have neither collective nor political conscience whatsoever but they are in solidarity, they support each other. Something new is happening there.

The article was first published on Carole Filiu’s blog Fatea.

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