La Guardia Community College hosted its 2nd Amazigh/Berber film festival a few days ago, where brilliant shorts and feature films were shown. The goal of the festival was to ‘break borders’. The discussions were lively and border breaking, all expect for the Daughter of Keltoum [Mehdi Charef, Algeria, 2001], a film I had already seen, and which didn’t trouble me, as I have seen many like those. But on the last day of the film festival, its impact on some left me troubled, both during and after the Q&A.
Daughter of Keltoum is the story of 19-year-old Rallia, a Swiss-bred, Algerian-born girl who comes back to trace her roots, but who really is in search of her mother, Keltoum, and not father. She wants to ask her mother why she abandoned her. Her mother’s family lives in a desert of high mountains: a punishment for those whom God doesn’t love according to Nedjma, her aunt. Nedjma tells Rallia that God loves her, because she doesn’t have to climb the hard mountains for food, water, or to catch the bus to go elsewhere. The trek for water is in fact relentless and often overwhelming with the threat of a drought always looming near. Rallia participates in family life while waiting for Keltoum to visit the family, which she does on Fridays. Keltoum works in a luxury hotel in El Kantara, a town with a luxurious hotel. But after weeks of waiting, Rallia decides to go look for Keltoum, and Nedjma follows her along to protect her. But during her journey to El Kantara, we are privy to the many injustices that exist in Algeria, against women. This includes a woman who’s repudiated by her husband: he is on horseback and she on foot, tied with rope like a donkey walking behind him in the hot desert roads. This woman is killed because she recognizes a revolutionary who wanted to [further] silence her so he would not be caught. Rallia meets another westernized girl like herself, who is looking for her father and who is battered for not wearing a veil. Rallia must wear a veil otherwise she, too would meet that fate. Then they hitch a ride from a truck driver who wants to rape Rallia, but Nedjma offers herself instead. After this treacherous journey to get to El Kantara, they finally meet Keltoum, but Rallia discovers she was not abandoned, but sold to buy a donkey to fetch water for the family. The donkey was the only means of survival for the family. She also discovers that it is Nedjma who is her mother, the “Mad Woman” of the village as she’s [not] affectionately known, and who lost it when they took away her child – Rallia – from her. The family made Nedjma sleep with a white soldier and she had Rallia, who looks mostly white. In fact, Rallia is an international model, but incomplete because she has no roots.
At the Q & A, an American man, shocked at what he saw against women, asked if what we see is true. Two Algerian women and one Algerian answered this question saying that what we see in the movie doesn’t exist, that women aren’t treated like that because they’ve never seen that.
Does that mean the abuse of women, poverty, the rage of a young woman “abandoned” by her birth mother, rape of Berber women by men, women repudiation do not exist because they haven’t seen it where they come from? Is it possible that they come from a place in Algeria like the luxury hotel in El Kantara where that may not be seen, since it caters to a western crowd? Maybe they don’t know about research done on inhumanity against women? Maybe they deny that what we see in the film exists because to exoticize Algeria now that they live in the US, à la “Algerias of the mind” [like Rushdie’s ‘Indias of the minds’]? Or do they see from the “male gaze” that doesn’t acknowledge women’s inhumane treatment? Maybe they’ve been conditioned to not see it or find anything wrong with it? But even if someone is blind, does that mean their reflection doesn’t exist in a mirror?
My Algerian friend says that mistreatment against women exists, and in fact her family calls the hijab “cache misère” as it covers up many injustices against women. Her family migrated to USA to end future misery for their daughter. Film studies also believe such injustices against women exist. The lack of women directors – compared to their neighbors Tunisia and Morocco – would certainly point to some problem and lack of freedom for women to make movies on women when Morocco and Tunisian female directors are doing it. Mehdi Charef made the film because he wanted to highlight the injustices against women in Algeria, as few filmmakers were doing it.
The reasons why Algerian women aren’t following up or making films like we see in Tunisian and Morocco need to be opened up. We need to explore the unanswered questions some had at the close of the film with regard to the freedom of women and the freedom to make films on women, to allow them to tell their stories, to bring them to center screen, like Charef did in Daughter of Keltoum, and like other women filmmakers form the Maghreb are doing since the late 1970s, and which Algerian author and filmmaker Assia Djebar was doing from the USA and France, as an academic; it is possible she couldn’t do it in Algeria.
There is a reason why borders remain unbreakable for Algerian women in a country that was ruled for more than 170 years by the french and which left it in political, economic, psychological and gender shambles. When we hear women and men in the audience who represent “all Algerian women” telling us that women are not mistreated, raped, spat upon, repudiated etc. and when others are writing and speaking in other countries about this, including America, we need to ask more questions. Denying eyes and ears that look at border-breaking films which we present in american auditoriums and theaters to start a conversation and awareness on human rights may be a hindrance to that very conversation and awareness, as well as a hindrance to women of Algerian descent to come forward and make [more] films on women.