Denying parts of history is a well-known part of establishing a national identity. The degree of denial reveals how the democracy and cultural tolerance of society really are. In todays France the Algerian liberation war (1954–1962) is still one of the black holes in the country's self-narrative. With that backdrop, any contribution to bringing the theme to orbit has an intrinsic value. Film Festival Vision of the Reel in Nyon – which annually strengthens its position in the international festival landscape – deserves to be shown films that just deal with these black holes.
filmmaker Dorothee Myriam Kellou grew up in Nancy, with an Algerian father (Malek) who would never talk about the past. Malek becomes a representative of the many who help cement the official line, silence, even when directly confronted with the brutal facts of history. But one day he finds some old documents from Algeria – and shows them to his daughter.
The Algerian war of liberation is still one of the black holes in France
One of the driving forces in In Mansourah You Separated Us is to find the root causes of the resounding silence with which even eyewitnesses meet the theme. The first explanation we get is fear: The father admits that the statue erected in memory of the French war hero in Algeria, Jean Pierre Hippolyte Blandan # (in the Sergent Blandan Park in Lyon), scares the wits off of him every morning as he passes it on his way to work.
Kellou convinces his father to join him on a journey back in time to visit the ruins of his childhood home, as well as the remaining inhabitants of the village of Mansourah, south of the Kabylia mountain range, and surrounding villages – places he never returned to after the liberation war.
During the war, more than 3,5 million Algerians were displaced from their homes, which at the time accounted for more than half of the rural population. Of these, 2 were forcibly relocated to "concentration centers" set up by the French army, while 350 were located in already existing villages, near French military outposts. Mansourah was one of the villages that was turned into an internment camp. Relocation was one of many tools used by the colonial power to, among other things, destroy traditional social structures and pacify the population, and through it try to prevent the national liberation front in Algeria, Front de libération nationale (FLN), from gaining influence. Without warning, the French army forced people out of their homes and on board trucks – and drove them away in just a few hours.
Relocation was one of many tools the colonial power used to pacify
However, the FLN had a number of members among the inhabitants of the detention camps and experimentally took control of the camps' internal affairs. Residents were expected to comply with conservative traditional rules, which resulted in, among other things, crowded housing, with up to seven families under the same roof. And if some of the forcibly displaced farmers ventured out of the camps to continue cultivating the land – which had now been transformed into a banned military zone – they were killed by the French army.
Algeria is still struggling with the problems that followed the relocation policy. Those who returned to their original villages after the war was over, returned home to ruins and disintegration. Algerians are still struggling with the traumas inflicted on them by the French army, but they are also tormented by their own conscience over their own actions during the war. Today, the trust between the villagers is at a bottom level. "Death became a part of everyday life," says one of the former resistance fighters. He regrets, among other things, that he killed a young man simply because he was strolling around the village – in public – with a girl. The feeling of guilt diminishes around the clock, and nightmarish images of planned or executed killings constantly appear in the dreams.
Similar images also emerge in Malek's memory, as he finally acknowledges his own guilt towards his daughter. The filmmaker captures several private moments with the camera, which when the father leaves a photograph of his mother in what is left of the room where he was born. And when he remembers the day the French army brutally scoured the village, looking for FLN members. That was as far as he survived.
A ruined culture is undoubtedly the result of French policy of relocation. "A culture that does not defend itself is a lost culture," says one of the Algerian citizens. And this is where we find the source of the potent silence and (self-elected) ignorance – not only in France, but also in Algeria. Even justice becomes defenseless without free souls willing to defend it. At the same time, injustice is good in such times and remains a dominant force in the culture.
Kellou uses the film camera in a simple way, completely stripped of effects or high-tech magic. She obviously relies on the weight of the factual information she gives her audience, as well as the sincerity of those portrayed. In Mansourah You Separated Us has been made with modest means. Some night scenes are blurred, and in certain sequences a narrative voice is placed over images of a woman saying nothing. The footage, which is mostly done indoors and shows interviews with individuals, is supplemented with archival material or swept across a magnificent, yet inhospitable and barren landscape, where survival seems to be a daily struggle in itself.
The Algerian people live in a "no momentum, no future" society – mutilated and at times melancholy, in every way mentally abused. And quite often, the film's protagonists interrupt themselves in the middle of a sentence to ask for forgiveness.
Translated by Vibeke Harper