In a poignant documentary, the young filmmaker explores the psychic history of her country, made up of exiles and repressions, through the memories of her ancestors. Subjects never mentioned and often painful.
She is patient on a sofa, in the shade of a large lime tree in the press area of the Angoulême Francophone Film Festival. We did not expect the director of “Their Algeria”, a perfectly accomplished documentary released in theaters on October 13 (winner of the Docs-in-Progress Award in Cannes), to be so young, 31 years old. Nor to find the features of his parents, the actors Hiam Abbass and Zinedine Soualem, in his face so concentrated. If his father appears in his project, it is on his paternal grandparents that his camera focuses in an attempt to put words to the unspeakable, and to tell their love story and their exile.
Jeune Afrique: How did you get started in this project?
Lina Soualem : I wanted to film my grandmother from childhood, but I told myself that it was something that all little girls must feel. Much later, my father told me that my grandparents were separating after 62 years of marriage, it was a shock … I realized that I knew nothing of their history and nothing of their intimacy as couple. I was afraid their memory would disappear. This is what made me decide to film.
You did not study cinema, how did you go about it?
I first simply presented my film at Fidadoc, the Moroccan festival. I won a residency where I was able to discuss my project with editors, directors. But when I returned to France, even before I had obtained funding, I felt the need to start filming. Friends lent me a small digital camera and a microphone … and I spent a month and a half with my grandmother in Thiers (editor’s note: a town in central France, where many emigrants worked in the cutlery factories). My grandparents being separated, and living in buildings that faced each other, I saw and filmed my grandfather from afar at the beginning. But it was their relationship that interested me, and little by little I got closer to him. After three years of filming, I managed to gently bring him out of his silence.
We quickly understand that your grandparents do not succeed in expressing their feelings.
Saying what you feel is impossible for them. My grandfather was silent, my grandmother could only laugh in embarrassment when I broached intimate matters. It goes beyond the ban, it is cultural, generational, linked to their social environment as well. The camera gave me the strength to look for what was behind the unspoken.
We are talking about emigres, exiles. I wanted to highlight the complexity, to account for feelings, individual trajectories
For example, your grandmother ends up telling how she met her future husband.
She was 15, he was 19. They ended up in the same room without knowing each other… that was how it was in the 1950s, in rural areas of Algeria.
There is another love that remains difficult to express: that for the parents left behind.
It struck me enormously. See that, over 80 years old each, my grandparents still felt such sharp pain when thinking about the separation from their parents. My grandfather was unable to talk about this moment, and looked away when I showed him the photos of his family. My grandmother burst into tears when she mentioned her mother, telling me, “I couldn’t spoil her. “These are traumas that haunt you for a lifetime, and which we do not talk about in France. These lives have been invisible or melted into a uniform mass. We are talking about emigres, exiles. I wanted to highlight the complexity, to give an account of feelings, of individual trajectories, even if many people can identify with them.
As your father said in the documentary, there is a myth in the background, that of the return to Algeria.
My grandfather remained as if locked in an intermediate space… he was no longer Algerian, and not really French, it was hard for him to take root again. This is the drama of exile. There is always the fantasy of returning, but then that would be giving up retirement… the rights for which we have sacrificed ourselves all our life. He was eventually buried in Thiers, near his younger dead brother. My father also grew up with this idea of returning, he only applied for French nationality when he was 28 years old.
One of the rare moments when your grandfather’s face lights up is when you show him images that you filmed in his village, in Laaouamer.
At first, he thought it was pictures of Thiers under the snow… but when he realized that it was his village, there was a glint in his eyes. I know he told everyone about my trip, that he was proud that I was there to meet my cousins. Perhaps he was also happy that the transmission was not broken, and that there is something left of this story. It is a generation for which everything was transmitted orally. If we do not capture the memory of our grandparents, she will go with them. And their story will be treated in France as a parallel story.
Are you already working on another project?
Yes… It will also be a documentary. This time I am going in the footsteps of the story of my mother, born into a Palestinian family with 9 other children in a traditional village in Galilee.
Their Algeria, by Lina Soualem, 1:12, released in French theaters on October 13.