The birth of Algerian cinema is closely linked with the struggle against French colonialism. From the beginning of the insurrection in November 1954, orchestrated by the National Liberation Front (FLN), to independence in July 1962, the war caused at least 1.5 million deaths on both sides — there is a long and extenuating debate over the exact figures. It had a vast echo in Europe and beyond, partly because of the use of torture by French troops. Though some footage from the war circulated in the West, including on newsreels, these images were carefully curated and for the most part excluded any documentary evidence of French atrocities like torture and the use of napalm.
The scandal caused by the publication of a set of such photos in the French magazine L’Express as early as 1955 shows how ambivalent the French public was with regard to the colonial presence in Africa. As Emma Kuby has noted, the images by no means came “to serve as iconic representations of the Algerian war”; though they “successfully provoke[d] a collective response of horror and shame,” they weren’t enough to change the terms of political debate. Insofar as there were French films made during and about the war — as was the case with, among others, Le petit soldat (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963), Muriel (Alain Resnais, 1963) and Adieu Philippine (Jacques Rozier, 1962) — they were either plainly censored or the release date was delayed. That said, some images of the war did circulate in France in what has been called the cinéma parallèle, a sort of alternative and clandestine distribution system.
The war in Algeria, for a long time denied and reduced by the French authorities to some “events” (événements), was also a war of images — one where images served as weapons. Like the French, Algerians, too, started to develop their own set of images for circulation during the war. It is now accepted that “cinema was born out of the war of liberation and made to serve it,” as Hala Salmane wrote in Algerian Cinema, published by the British Film Institute in 1976. How did it serve this war of liberation? In large part, the mission of the first years of Algerian cinema was to show that a war was going on and to counter the French narrative about the war. This was a national narrative, but it is important to emphasize that it was influenced by ideas and people coming from abroad, many of whom had been inspired by Algeria’s liberation struggle and opted to go and participate. This solidarity, internationalism and Third-Worldism were foundational to Algerian cinema in its early stages, and helped to shape the country’s cinema to come.
The birth of Algerian cinema, then, was deeply transnational. In its early days it was characterized by a constant flux of equipment, ideas, and filmmakers between Algerian and other North African countries (predominantly Tunisia), as well as between the two shores of the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. Filmmakers came from France to participate in the early days of Algerian cinema. One filmmaker in particular, René Vautier, was fundamental to this process; in the words of film historian Ahmed Bedjaoui, his name is “forever linked to the birth of Algerian cinema.”
The role of Vautier cannot, and has not been, underestimated. Born in 1928, he fought at a very young age in the Resistance against Nazi fascism in France before turning to filmmaking. His early films — such as Afrique 50 (1950) — were openly anti-colonial. After 1954, he didn’t just side with the FLN, but helped the Algerian army develop its own capacities to shoot and edit film.
He shot the medium-length film Algérie en flammes (1958), one of the very first films produced during the war, which was edited and developed in East Germany — a clear example of internationalist solidarity and support for the Algerian revolution. With the French-Martinican intellectual and militant Frantz Fanon, he wrote the screenplay for J’ai huit ans (1961), shot in Tunisia and directed by the French former soldier turned anti-colonialist Yann Le Masson and French-Yugoslavian Olga Poliakoff. The script was based on the drawings of Algerian children who were refugees in Tunisia, collected with the help of the Italian Giovanni Pirelli, a key figure in Italian Third-Worldism.
Footage shot by Vautier was then used in Djazaïrouna (Notre Algérie, 1960-1961), codirected by Pierre Chaulet, Djamel Chanderli, and Mohamed Lakhdar-Hamina; Lakhdar-Hamina would go on to become one of the most important Algerian filmmakers. At that time in Algeria, the concept of authorship was more fluid than it is now. Filmmakers worked collectively across several films devoted to the Algerian cause, each sharing the credit of director.
Solidarity between Algerians and radical French filmmakers was significant. Jacques Charby, a member of the Réseau Jeanson (the Jeanson Network, which helped the Algerian struggle from France), was active in Algeria and Tunisia and made the first feature length Algerian film, Une si jeaune paix (1965). Journalist and novelist Serge Michel — a fascinating figure about whom more research is needed — was part of the FLN and contributed to the various media outlets linked to the party, as well as making films. Editor Cécile Ducugis, a key figure of the French New Wave, directed Les Réfugiés (La Distribution de pain) at the Algerian-Tunisian border in 1957 and was later imprisoned for her support of the Algerian cause. Director Pierre Clement was also part of the film group of the FLN. As Mohammed Bedjaoui accurately noted, “By integrating foreign militant filmmakers, including a number of French ones, the FLN succeeded in sending a modern message of the revolutionary aspirations of the Algerian people.”
Beyond France, an important figure was Yugoslav cameraman Stevan Labudović, most famous for his work with Josip Broz Tito, whom he filmed both at home and abroad. For his work filming the Algerian war he is now considered a hero among Algerians; he even has a space in the National Museum of El Moudjahid in Algiers. Surprisingly little has been known about him, until filmmaker Mila Turajlić, who had interviewed him before his death, released a documentary diptych based on archival footage — Non-Aligned and Cine-Guerrillas — both of which are now touring film festivals.
Even less recognized is the involvement of Karl Gass, a prolific documentarist for the DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, the state-owned film studio of the German Democratic Republic, or GDR), who shot a trilogy in Tunisia, at the border with Algeria, in 1961. These three films show not only the involvement of East Germany in the struggle but also how the Algerian question became the catalyzer for other issues. In a 1962 interview with the French film journal Positif, Gass noted that the main purpose of the film Allons enfants . . . pour l’Algérie was to denounce the neocolonialist spirit of Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Writer Perrine Val concluded that for the GDR “the Algerian war was an occasion to show solidarity with the FLN, but above all to have additional arguments in its ideological confrontation with the FRG.”
Italian filmmakers, too, were involved in these early days of Algerian cinema. Some made or tried to make films about liberation, for which there was much sympathy in Italy. An interesting case was the project of an unfinished film, cowritten by, among others, Sergio Spina (who went on to later direct an Italian-Algerian coproduction) and The Battle of Algiers writer Franco Solinas; Jean-Paul Sartre, too, was at one point involved. Unlike the French, whose national involvement in the war saw its filmmakers come to Algeria earlier, Algerian-Italian coproductions largely took off in the aftermath of the war — most notably with the Algerian production company Casbah Film (founded by the former guerrilla fighter Saadi Yacef), which would most famously go on to produce The Battle of Algiers. During the war itself, Italy’s most important contribution was the editing and developing of Algerian films in Italian film laboratories — a relationship that continued after 1962, as it was not until much later that the Algerian film industry had the capacity to develop films. Editing and developing films was also an act of solidarity.
Capital of the Third World
These international exchanges had a broad impact. René Vautier remained in the country to help organize film institutions, which proved to be, in the first years of the life of Algeria, very open to foreign cinema, particularly political cinema. And it wasn’t just cinema that flourished in those years: the capital Algiers became, as Amílcar Cabral famously quipped, the “Mecca of the Revolution,” or the Third World capital, a place where dissidents, revolutionaries, and anti-colonial agitators flocked.
We can see the effects of this in the famous films by William Klein, such as Festival Panafricain d’Alger (1969) and Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1970) — the Panthers leader was exiled in Algeria — and in Archie Shepp chez les Touaregs (1971), recently rediscovered at the Institut national de l’audiovisuel in Paris.
Another example is that of L’Aube des damnés by Ahmed Rachedi, written by René Vautier and the great Amazigh intellectual Mouloud Mammeri, perhaps the person who has contributed most to the survival and reorganization of the Berber language in Algeria. The film is about the struggle for independence, both in Algeria and elsewhere. Algerian directors who started filming during the war, alongside international directors, became some of the masters of Algerian cinema, such as Rachedi, director of L’opium e le baton (1971), and Lakhdar-Hamina, who won the Palme d’Or in Cannes with Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975). Foreign filmmakers like the French Charby and Vautier, or the Italian directors Ennio Lorenzini and Gillo Pontecorvo, also contributed to Algerian cinema.
Algeria’s cinema was born from this unique experience of cross-cultural exchange and international solidarity against French colonialism and war. The transnational cooperation that underpinned the country’s film industry shows that in Algeria, as elsewhere, a “national” cinema — a cinema that takes up questions of national concern — need not be nationally contained. In Algeria, the work of filming, editing, training, developing film, and fomenting ideas moved across borders to create a vital national cinema.