Joëlle Vitiello, a professor of French and Francophone Studies at Macalester College, reviews Karim Moussaoui’s first feature, Until the Birds Return (2017), in context with contemporary Algeria in the wake of its civil war.
Karim Moussaoui’s Until the Birds Return takes us to an Algeria where the past does not pass. Moussaoui’s characters are led to confront difficult ethical choices, some of which lead to interrogations about the ability of Algerian society to face the nation’s ghosts in order to move forward. The film is composed of three stories that are linked as a character from one narrative enters the next one. Each story focuses on characters from different generations and is set in a different part of the country, a decision that makes clear that the failure of coming to terms with the violent conflicts that tore the country apart during the long ’90s has left no one untouched.
The shadow of the civil war (1991–2002) between the Algerian state and army on one side and the Islamic Salvation Front on the other, with its long-lasting effects on national consciousness, is subtly evoked in the first piece through the fear that still haunts the main protagonist. What is one to do when witnessing a violent scene? What are the potential consequences of intervening and of remaining silent? What part of his past comes back to haunt Mourad through his current fear? He is torn between two stories, two roles, and even two marriages, really (with his son’s mother, played by Sonie Mekkiou, and his current French bride, played by Aure Atika), unable to confront the daily corruption that surrounds him.
The stories explore the angst felt by several male characters, but in each piece, women play a crucial role. Fully developed characters, they are much more than mirrors to their male counterparts; they point to serious national issues regarding the rights and situations of women in Algerian society and provide strength and insights in how to find resilience and courage in the face of daily realities.
The second story explores the difficult choices of a young woman torn between security and love. Class, gender, freedom and social expectations play a role in defining the choices of the two main characters, Djalil and Aïcha (superbly played by Mehdi Ramdani and Hania Amar). The story is filmed in the countryside, against the breathtaking landscape of the Aurès, with scenes filmed in a hotel that provides the characters a place outside of time, with a raï musical group that allows them to express the temporary lightness of their being through music and dance.
The third story goes to the heart of the issue of national memory, survival, guilt, and healing. It questions the possibility of innocence in the midst of systemic violence, and the consequences of amnesia, individual and collective. In the background of the story, with strong performances from Hassan Kachach and the versatile Nadia Kaci, there is a child born of extreme violence, whose terrified, haunting wails embody the trauma endured by victims abandoned by a forgetful nation. The scenes between a mysterious woman and Dahman, a doctor who happened to be caught in the civil war, are superbly filmed in grey tones, in in-between, indeterminate, and disenfranchised spaces.
Yet, Moussaoui is not hopeless. People don’t have to remain stuck in a fragile status quo, on the threshold of possible change. They can act, show empathy, open a hand, sing, dance, stand up, reach the dream. The last scene in the film, with the unforgettable Samir El Hakim, takes us to a new start, towards the unknown, another link to another story we don’t see.
With Until the Birds Return, Karim Moussaoui has garnered international attention and several awards since the film’s premiere in the category Un Certain Regard at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. His precise shots, filters, contrasts, musical choices, and the sustained strong performances of the cast, make him a leading filmmaker in his generation, able to translate aesthetically the anxieties of Algerian society. Even though this film is his first long feature, Moussaoui is no newcomer on the cinema scene of Algeria. In a medium-length feature, The Days Before (2013)—winner of several awards in France—he translated the daily experience of living through the civil war and how it affected the youth of his generation through the failed love story of two young people, Djaber (played by Mehdi Ramdani) and Yamina. Already at stake in this film is the question of individual and collective responsibility. Moussaoui made his first short, Breakfast, in 2003, his second, Black on White in 2005, and his third, What We Must Do, in 2006. He acted in a small role in Délice Paloma by Nadir Moknèche (2007), a director who also relentlessly portrayed the civil war in his movies, especially from the perspectives of women.
Moussaoui is a co-founder of the cine-club The Chrysalide, which opened in 2000. It served as an informal film school where young filmmakers could educate themselves through screening the classic and avant-garde films. This group of filmmakers constitutes a kind of new wave in Algeria that loosely includes the following directors: Moussaoui, Hassen Ferhani (Roundabout in My Head, 2015), Lyes Salem (Mascarades, 2008, The Man from Oran, 2014), Sofia Djama (The Blessed, 2017), Damien Ounouri (Fidaï, 2012), and Tariq Teguia (Inland, 2008; Revolution Zendj, 2013), among others. They often work with each other, acting, assisting, or producing. Moussaoui for instance worked on Inland, while Hassen Ferhani served as second assistant director for Until the Birds Return. Their films generally portray the preoccupations of the generations born after independence. Their cinema shares the same preoccupations as that of Malek Bensmaïl (Alienations, 2004; Checks and Balances, 2015), Djamila Sahraoui (Barakat! 2006), and Rabah Ameur-Zaïmèche (Bled Number One, 2006). Cinema is a means of artistic expression as well as a cultural and political weapon.
If cinema accompanied the development of colonial expansion as Cameroonian writer and critic Patrice Nganang wrote in “Of Cameras, Trains and Roads: French Colonial Conquest and Cinematographic Practice,” it was also a formidable anticolonial weapon. After decades during which people did not enjoy the right to represent themselves in the French colonies, as prescribed by the 1934 Decree Laval, the Algerian Liberation Front made sure it had a cinema unit to record the war from its perspective (1954–1962). The first generation of filmmakers, sponsored by the Algerian State, created a national narrative anchored in the resistance to the colonial power, chronicling the heroism of exceptional as well as ordinary men and women who sacrificed youth, family and much more. It took several decades to have an archive of films about the Algerian war of Liberation that represented multiple perspectives: that of the Algerian nationalists, but also the stories of the Algerians who fought on the French side, of the French who fought on the Algerian side, of the French colonials, of the Algerians nationalists in France, of those who were tortured and disappeared on both sides of the Mediterranean, of the French drafted soldiers, of the French army, the stories that pitted Algerian nationalists of different views against each other, and the French against each other, and of those who survived on all sides and had to build or rebuild their lives after Independence.
While the most famous film about the Algerian war is the crisp dramatic Battle of Algiers by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo, Algerian filmmakers established the national narrative about the war in films such as The Chronicle of the Years of Embers by Mohamed Lakhdar-Hamina who won the 1975 Cannes Golden Palm. The ’60s and ’70s saw more nationalist tales, while the ’80s saw films that subtly contested a monolithic representation of history to focus on women, the rural areas, the workers, the miners, or the Imazhigen population. There were innovative films such as Assia Djebar’s, La Nouba du Mont Chenoua (1977) and Merzak Allouache’s first film, Omar Gatlato (1976), a story about a young man too shy to connect with his love interest. Allouache has continued exploring the tribulations of Algerian society, especially in his Bab-El-Oued City, which records the beginning of the social changes, just before the Islamic Salvation Front candidates win the 1990 local elections, in a popular neighborhood of Algiers, with a young Nadia Kaci, who plays the unnamed woman in Until the Birds Return.
Until the Birds Return, with Moussaoui’s poetic way of making every shot meaningful—whether the camera rests on the thoughtful faces of his characters as they brood over their situations, or the interlude featuring a Gnawa musical band in the Aures, followed by a West Side Story kind of ballet in the stunning Algerian landscape—takes its rightful place in the list of significant films gazing back on the civil war or tackling social issues through cinema: Rachida (Yamina Bachir, 2002), El Menara (Belkacem Hadjadj, 2004), Le thé d’Ania (Saïd Ould-Khelifa, 2005), and the 2007 social melodrama by Nadia Cherabi, The Other Side of the Mirror (2007), which addresses the neglect of the most vulnerable citizens after decades of national corruption.