Tuesday 21 July 2020

Streaming on YouTube - Peter Hourigan discovers another film by Youssef Chahine JAMILA, THE ALGERIAN/DJAMILAH (Egypt, 1958)

The Netflix upload of a bundle of films by Egyptian director Youssef Chahine has created a lot of interest.  But the Netflix offering is only about one third of Chahine's feature output. A fascinating early film has been discovered on YouTube, with English subtitles. Jamila The Algerian (on the credits of the film, Djamilah) was made in 1958, the same year as Cairo Station, and only months after the events it covers.  In fact, it appears the film was designed to be an element influencing world opinion about those events and about its heroine, then under sentence of death in an Algerian prison.
Djamilah Bouhired is an Algerian militant, involved in resistance to French colonial rule and a heroine of that resistance and of the struggle of Algerian women. The film was not a personal project initiated by Chahine. The leading script credit goes to Nobel prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz.  Chahine took to it with commitment when he was brought into the project after he was recommended to the producers (including the film’s star) as someone who would bring a unique quality to it.
The film tells Djamilah’s story from her university days, and her growing commitment to the nationalist cause, and involvement in the anti-French actions. These included involvement in the bombing of a café/milk bar in Algiers on September 30, 1956. This is also a crucial scene in Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966). Djamilah was subsequently captured and imprisoned.  There are interesting similarities in how the events are presented in both films, a confirmation of the veracity of both? Chahine’s film also covers Djamilah’s time after her arrest. In prison she was brutally tortured by the French, but never gave up any information.  
The Battle of Algiers. The actress on the right represents Djamilah Bouhired
To make an example of her, a show trial was arranged. However, this move backfired on the French in part due to the lawyer who took after her case.  A passionate young lawyer, Jacques Vergès, almost muscled his way into defending her. He adopted the tactic of disruption, highlighting loudly and publicly the torture Djamilah had endured.  The film, following on so soon from these events, ends with her ultimate fate not settled.
Chahine makes this recent history into an entertaining (in one sense of the word) film. With his acute awareness of cinema, especially Hollywood’s major films (see his Alexandra trilogy for more on this background), one of the films he saw as a model was Gone With the Wind. In fact, several times in Jamila the lush theme of GWTW wells up unmistakably on the soundtrack.  Both, after all, are stories of women ready to go to great lengths to defend their land! (Though of course, especially in these days of a re-evaluation of GWTW perhaps we better not take that discussion too much further.)
Magda as Djamilah in Chahine's film
You will also have no difficulty in noticing the quotes from Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). I wonder if his quotes were prescient. Certainly, there were many references comparing Djamilah and Joan of Arc in the world press of the day, and Djamilah to this day holds a similar revered position in Algeria. 
Following her story after the film ends is fascinating.  When she was inevitably sentenced to death, instead of relying on appeals through legal channels, Vergès became involved in moves to publicise the case internationally.  Demonstrations erupted around the world, first of course in the Arab world. The French government was bombarded with pleas for clemency from major world leaders. 
What I haven’t mentioned is that her lawyer Vergès would achieve fame (or notoriety) not only through his defence of Djamilah, and their subsequent marriage (it lasted 5 years), but his role as defence attorney in the trials of Pol Pot, Klaus Barbie, and Carlos the Jackal among others. His story is told by Barbet Schroeder in his documentary feature Terror’s Advocate (2007). The first part of Schroeder’s film covers the Djamilah case and can certainly be taken as confirmation of the historical accuracy with which Chahine has presented the story. 
Not surprisingly, Jamila the Algerian was banned in France for many years.  The copy on YouTube is not great but is more than watchable.
Djamilah Bouhired in Egypt in 2018

A resource to add to your appreciation of Chahine is a podcast if you click on this site. José Arroyo and Richard Layne are two knowledgeable enthusiasts discovering Chahine through the Netflix presentations.   They led me to discover Jamila¸for which I am grateful.  They are working through the films chronologically and there will be subsequent podcasts on the site. 
On a personal note, my involvement with one the many women who had fought for Algerian independence.  In 1979 in the days of travellers’ cheques, I travelled to Algeria to catch up with a Slovak friend. I arrived on a Friday not realising back then this day’s significance in the Arab world. So when no one recognised the brand of Travellers’ Cheques I was carrying, I was in trouble. One bank changed a small amount for me, but I had to get from Algiers to Setif over 250 kms away. 
So, throwing caution to the wind I bought a first-class train ticket to Setif trusting that that I would my friend. In the train I was talking to the people in my compartment. Hearing of my predicament, one woman said she could take me to my friends when we reached Setif. But first, we went by way of her apartment for a coffee first. 
And on her mantelpiece in pride of place was the photo of her – probably about twenty years earlier – in her uniform as a fighter in the resistance forces.  How I wish I’d had more time (or background then) to ask her about her experiences in that period.  Also I didn’t know then about the fateful demonstrations for independence in Setif on May 8, 1945 that turned into a massacre of over 100 people by the French colonial forces.  This event was a powerful driver of the Algerian independence movement. After all, it is almost impossible to ignore the central irony.  That was the day the French in Paris were celebrating their release from occupation by the Germans, a struggle in which many Algerians had taken part and died. 

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