Bab el Oued City: A 20th anniversary reappraisal

February 2nd, 2014 - Graham Eley

Just as today’s local filmmakers are providing an essential birds eye view of the Arab Spring’s complex aftermath, often focusing on details that seemingly lie beyond traditional journalism,  Merzak Allouache’s sixth feature, ‘Bab el Oued City’, gave us an invaluable insight into Islamic fundamentalism within Algeria when it challenged an old order rather than being one under attack.

 

The film made an immediate impression, screening in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes, where it won the FIPRESCI Award.  But, inevitably, it has slipped beneath the radar during the intervening twenty years and the film is now ripe for a revival; particularly as Allouache’s latest feature, ‘Rooftops’, competed for the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice.

 

And rooftops played their part in ‘Bab el Oued City’, where loudspeakers boom out fundamentalist propaganda/extreme edicts, seemingly all night long.  These have the feel of a totalitarian regime imposing/exercising an arbitrary authority – a Big Brother command – but, in reality, this is a transitional period; the ideological battle still under way.

 

We sense that the fundamentalists have a foothold but there is no likelihood of sweeping change.  This is a war of attrition at a local level – political substitution by coercion – where nothing is quite what it first seems.  Local thugs target individuals rather than an official body, trying to bully them into submission but a mysterious sinister presence – unseen occupiers of a car circling the city – could be co-ordinating the apparent random acts.  We never do find out who is pulling the strings and the film is far more effective for it.

 

The fundamentalists demand ‘cleanliness’, an euphemism for a familiar religious purity that silences women and restricts men to a single worldview.  Various story-lines – some interconnected – explore the community’s reaction to the fundamentalists’ gradual but discernible tightening of their metaphorical net.  Inevitably, though, the net not only catches opponents but many supporters, who apply the new rules more liberally when it suites them; leading to hypocrisy and a qualified morality upon their own terms.

 

And it paints a very different picture of women’s submission than that emerging from more recent films dealing with contemporary tyrannous regimes.  One of the more shocking aspects of ‘Wadjda’ and ‘B for Boy’, for example, was the portrayal of women colluding in their own suppression, acting as gender police for an extreme patriarchal society.  The women in ‘Bab el Oued City’ are far less accepting of their position, establishing rules within rules, looking for ways that they can subvert the new doctrine and get away with it.

 

Hassan Abdou plays a young butcher, Boualem, who has a complex relationship with an alcoholic woman living in solitude and a much simpler one with the virginal younger sister of an extremist, Said.  Boualem removes a roof loudspeaker in an act of impotent deviance that has wider consequences than he anticipated.

 

Mohamed Ourdache plays Said.  He leads a personal crusade against Boualem and seems to rule the roost in these parts until an ambiguous encounter with a man from the ominous car.

 

And from these straight-forward set-pieces emerge an elaborate network of fluctuating and unstable social interactions, one that Allouache somehow shapes into a coherent structure without losing the majority ‘s political and cultural equivocation.

 

This is a film that extends beyond its immediate historical moment – fundamentalism establishing a power basis – and has much to say about the nature of extremism and power in general and how key moments remain undetected, which distorts subsequent thinking and understanding.  It’s a film that deserves and demands wider attention.generic cialis online mastercard cheap cialis uk cialis online mastercard generic cialis tadalafil rxmeds hub order cialis online buy cialis online in usa cialis 5mg online usa

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