Opening this year’s Doha Tribeca Film Festival is the Middle East premiere of historical epic “Outside the Law,” which caused a sensation at Cannes earlier this year for its depiction of Algeria’s struggle against French colonialism.
Director Rachid Bouchareb has made a half-dozen features over the past 15 years, gaining a loyal following among international cinephiles and winning awards at major festivals around the world. Indeed, “Outside the Law” has already been chosen as Algeria’s Best Foreign Language Film entry for next Academy Awards, and its DTFF showing should only add to its luster.
Writer-editor Jeffrey Ressner of DTFF spoke with Bouchareb shortly before he arrived in Doha to learn the story behind the making of the film, the confrontations in France, and his overall thoughts about the Middle East film business.
DTFF: What films influenced “Outside the Law”?
RACHID: It was a mix. A lot of political movies, like “Z” by Costra-Garvas and Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers.” Also, “The Grapes of Wrath,” the John Ford movie of Steinbeck’s novel that starred Henry Fonda. Other epics too, like “Dr. Zhivago” and “Once Upon a Time in America,” as well as various films from Italy, Greece, France and America. One very important movie was Jean-Pierre Melville’s “L’armée des ombres” (“Army of Shadows”), about the French Resistance in World War II.
DTFF: “Outside the Law” features the French attack on Setif and covers the struggle for Algerian independence. What do you think history will make of this conflict, and why did you choose to make the film?
RACHID: A lot of people don’t know the story or the details of the Algerian War. After my last movie about the subject, “Indigènes” (“Days of Glory”), finished in 1945, I always wanted to continue the history from 1945 to 1962. After WWII a lot of soldiers from the African colonies like Algeria came back home and wanted to see changes, and at this time the Algerian War started. While I was working on the first film, I knew I had to have a second part. I have a third part as well, showing 50 years of immigration, which I hope to make in four or five years.
DTFF: What exactly happened when the film was first shown at Cannes? There were varying reports – some described massive demonstrations, others said there just a few dozen rabble-rousers. Did you see the protest, and what did you make of it?
RACHID: It was only a few people for whom the Algerian War is not finished. It was like they were looking for revenge. In some French theaters in Marseilles and Bordeaux, they made trouble when the movie was shown. But it was just a few people, not the majority. The situation is still sensitive, yes, yes, yes, and some people don’t know what to think about the past. As a filmmaker, when you decide to open that door, it can be difficult.
DTFF: You filmed “Outside the Law” around the world, from Brussels and Paris to New York, as well as in North Africa. How would you compare shooting in Algeria and Tunisia to the rest of the locations?
RACHID: It was important to shoot at the exact site where the Algerians were killed by the French colonialists. And you know Tunisia is close to Algeria and has wonderful studios with a lot of artists and many French technicians. I made some of the movie in New York, but it’s much more difficult to film there. Tunisia is far more comfortable, and the studio makes it very easy.
DTFF: What’s your advice to aspiring young filmmakers who want to make provocative, political pictures?
RACHID: First of all, do not approach things politically. You must have a story to tell. My film has a political background but, for me, it’s the story of three brothers, an emotional story about a family. Certainly, the characters in my story travel within a bigger story. But I didn’t start with that. Instead, I chose to tell the smaller story about people’s lives and then I traveled with them inside the larger story between France and Algeria and the Algerian War.
DTFF: What do you make of the film scene in the Middle East — not just the movies themselves, but the overall industry?
RACHID: I don’t know of many movies that come out of the region, maybe four or five a year. We need more production. I know some directors from the area, and they all have difficulties finding budgets and distribution. In North Africa it’s been very difficult to produce movies because there’s no possibility it will get released in lots of theaters – most major cities only have three or four screens. France makes around 200 movies a year, but that’s because there are thousands of theaters and hundreds of television channels. Africa needs the same.
DTFF: Do you think the Internet might help?
RACHID: No. When you produce a movie, it’s meant to be shown in a theater. The Internet is another way, but it’s very different. Do you think if movies were only shown on the Internet that Hollywood could exist today? Hollywood works because there are lots of theaters across America and Europe. Once we build more theatres in the Middle East and Africa, local productions will have an easier time to recoup their investments.
DTFF: This is your first time attending the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, where your film is among many Arab-related entries, both in the feature selection and the shorts programs. Any thoughts about the region’s burgeoning festival scene?
RACHID: Festivals offer important support for the cinema. But they also need to do more local programming. I’ve never seen a movie made in Dubai, I’ve never seen a movie from Abu Dhabi. When these places have festivals, they should have at least two or three movies made in their own country. When Cannes holds its festival, there are French movies shown there every year. In Berlin, they always have some German movies. The same at Sundance in the U.S. and in Italy. So, at Middle East festivals, I believe there needs to be more Middle East movies.