Arts & Culture | Interview | Drifa Mezenner: “I lived in the absence twice”

In her debut feature, “j’ai habité l’absence deux fois”, Algerian filmmaker Drifa Mezenner captures in words and images the emotional aftermath of separation and civil war. She talks to Ceasefire's Rachida M Lamri about the absence and emptiness reverberating through the lives of Algerian youth, a story told through her own experience and that of her family.

Arts & Culture, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, April 1, 2014 15:43 - 0 Comments

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‘Sofiane’ looking out of the old house’s balcony (film still)

Algerian film maker Drifa Mezenner gracefully bridges the narrative and documentary genres in her debut short film “j’ai habité l’absense deux fois” (‘I lived in the absence twice’), released in 2011 and selected for the Golden Hawk award, at the International Amateur Film Festival of Kelibia in Tunisia in 2012, the short film also appeared in several film festivals around the world.

Setting the film in Algiers, in the heart of her life and that of her family, Drifa revisits her old neighbourhood of Kouba where she tries to remember the past. Her brother Sofiane is central to the narration of separation and pain. He is the brother who, in 1992, had fled the country’s turmoil and immigrated to Britain in search of a better life; the same year a general election won by an Islamist party was annulled, heralding a bloody civil war between Algerian governmental forces and armed Islamist rebels, in which more than 150,000 people died.

Drifa delicately leaves out the details of her brother’s departure; the viewer would assume it a straightforward and legal immigration, or perhaps not, due to the UK visa restrictions on the North African country. In her soft voice and poetic storytelling, she talks of the civil war years, known as the ‘Dark decade’, and the long wait for peace to return and her brother with it.

In 23 minutes, Drifa manages to convey and bring to the surface a lot of emotions and pain felt through the father’s rant in the garden in the opening scene, through the mother’s melancholic expression and subdued smile and through her second brother’s views on political and economic reforms, social justice and peace, but also her own emotions of nostalgia and longing for her childhood and for better times.

The narrative carefully and gradually touches on the most sensitive nerves, running through Algerian society and perhaps inadvertently raises a crucial question; the generational conflict taking place between her and her father as they talk of the two wars, the War of Independence against France (1954-1962) and the Civil War (1992- early 2000s), Drifa feels the need to proclaim her personal experience of the civil war and that of her siblings and peers against her father’s claim of ‘their’ (i.e. the youth) supposed frivolity (he is referring to Sofiane’s choice of immigrating and not returning for many years) and somewhat easier life.

Drifa feels amnesic and confused between the time that stood still for her in civil war-torn Algeria and her brother’s exile. She lived in the absence twice.

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In the old neighbourhood, Kouba, Algiers (film still)

CF: Drifa, your film focuses on the social issue of illegal immigration, the hopelessness of the youth which you experienced visibly through your brother’s departure and in your old neighbourhood of Kouba where illegal immigration specifically to Britain is vastly known…why Britain?

DM: I think it started early in the sixties or the seventies, some people think it was because of football fans of Celtic football club whose green-and-white team colours  were the same as those of the local team, RC Kouba; but I think it’s mainly because of the tolerance they could find in England, and the possibility of having a quiet life in comparison to other host countries, such as France!

CF: You talk of the dark decade, the civil war that killed thousands of innocent civilians and drove a thousand others to flee abroad. Do you think the civil war was the main reason? Illegal immigration continues now despite the end of the civil unrest and despite the economic and social reforms that followed the National reconciliation in 2004.

DM: In the 90s the political situation was one of the main reasons, now, everyone might have his own (different) reason, I think it’s about the longing for the discovery of another world, and experiencing a different ways of life, being able to choose where to live and how.

CF: The proliferation of satellite dishes in Algerian households from the 80s, helped provide a glimpse of what the outside world had to offer, a world of opportunities and hope for the young Algerians. Do you think it was a contributing factor to the immigration in the pull-push effect?

DM: Absolutely, the Algerian is very open and curious about the world; you just have to see the number of satellite dishes that seem to grow on the balconies of the city to understand that the Algerian is very interested in everything that is happening on the other side. Algeria has its eye fixed on the horizon.

CF: Your old neighbourhood of Kouba was always considered a fundamentalist hub and a thriving centre for recruiting young men to fight for the Islamists during the civil war. What effects did this have on your childhood and your life?

DM: I think every Algerian family somehow has been affected by these ten years, in Kouba, the popular neighbourhood was one of the hotspots, I was a child then, I was lucky not to lose a member of my family. But I still have memories of feelings of dread, of seeing a dead body for the first time, hearing the detonation of a bomb, or hearing about the murder of someone we know…. And, of course, this feeling of void that we carry after this period, the feeling that we missed an important phase of our lives, that we didn’t live fully.

CF: Do you draw a parallel when you think of Algeria’s 90s and Egypt in 2013?

DM: There are similarities, yet I think every country has its own history and path, looking at the strategic position Egypt and Algeria hold in the region, I think that any change at the end is the result of a consensus of internal and external factors.

CF: Your story is told beautifully, though it leaves a melancholic taste and a sense of hopelessness in that it doesn’t attempt to offer any solutions or give any hope…tell us about Sofiane? What has become of him?

DM: I don’t think it fails to give any hope! Showing the angry father who wants his son back, the mother longing for her son to come back home and for whom she is preparing the bread, the brother who is hoping for the second republic and a better future, and also showing images of a beautiful country with all the youth and energy it holds, I think of all that holds hope.

To show the beauty of a country through its people is to give hope. For me, to criticise the situation is a way to say “I love Algeria”, that Algeria deserves to be the country we all crave to live in, and that I want to live in. For me, making this film helps to raise questions, about ourselves, our memory and our present.

Today, Sofiane is back, he decided to have his life back here, after 20 years in el Ghorba (aboard), he believes now more than ever that there are so many possibilities to build a future here amongst his family.

Drifa Mezznner

Drifa – Feb 2011

CF: what were your intrinsic reasons for making this film?

DM: It was an attempt to fill a void, to try to build a memory and make images of our times.

CF: what difficulties did you encounter in making the film, if any?

DM: I had the chance to make it (the film) within Bejaia Doc, a documentary workshop during which we were supervised by Habiba Djahnine through the different phases of the project, so we had support and guidance the whole time. The difficulty may have been in shooting images in the streets and the need to have an authorisation from the police to be able to move freely.

CF: How was the movie received by your family, by sofiane and the neighbourhood of Kouba?

DM: Everyone was happy to see the film; a lot of people identified themselves with the story and felt a strong connection to the story.

Sofiane thinks it’s an angle amongst others, and that such a complex subject needs to be treated in a much longer and deeper way. I tend to agree with him, I told the story from the perspective of the impact of absence, but we need more images on ourselves to build a look from the inside.

CF: What’s next for Drifa?

DM: Lots of projects!!! All in the development stage at the moment. We will see what happens. ☺

CF: Many thanks for talking to Ceasefire.

Drifa lives in Algiers, where she continues to look for stories from her daily life and experiences and to share her inner-thoughts with the viewer, who quickly feels an emotional connection with her and her story. The first day I met Drifa I half expected her to bring me “Kessra” – the bread her mother is seen making in the film. Sadly, Drifa doesn’t have telepathic powers, though she did promise me some Kessra on our next encounter.

J’ai Habité ST-ENG vimeo from Drifa MZNR on Vimeo.

Rachida Lamri

Rachida Lamri is a writer, musician and an activist. Founder of the Cultural Organisation Culturama and a member of the Algeria Solidarity Campaign. She takes great interest in Arab and African Culture and civil society movements.

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