Interview with "The Man of Oran" director Lyes Salem

Lyes Salem

The Man from Oran, the city of Oran...what is the connection between Oran and the film?


In war, when a regular army is confronted with a clandestine resistance group, the members adopt pseudonyms. "L'Oranais," is is the nom de guerre of the main character, DJAFFAR, has chosen for himself. The story is told from his point of view. The Man from Oran is also the story of a man whose hometown is Oran, a city with a multifaceted, cosmopolitan identity. Throughout history, people from various origins have coexisted in Oran: Maltese, Greeks, Italians, Arabs, Berbers, Jews and the Spanish. By just crossing the street, you go from the Arab quarter “Sidi el Houari” to the Jewish quarter “Derb el Lihoud”. Downtown, the Art Deco architecture from the beginning of the 20th century is a constant reminder of the French presence in the country. And although today the Spanish quarter no longer exists, the trumpet and the guitar are essential to a music that is very much present in the city's festive personality and represents another dimension of the film. The Santa Cruz chapel and its Virgin Mary that dominates Oran bay perfectly illustrate the paradox of this city whose inhabitants are, by a wide margin, mainly Muslim. The Man from Oran encompasses all of this diversity, at once.

You are an actor, a director, and have a bicultural identity.

I belong to two cultures; I know and love them deeply. I direct because from a political standpoint I’m angry and concerned. Although my approach as an actor is artistic, my approach as a director is entirely political. I believe it is my duty to bear witness to the duality I carry within me.

As a child, one day in Algiers where my family lived at the time, I asked my parents which side I would have to choose if one day Algeria and France went to war again. They were surprised and there was a slight moment of hesitation. Then my French mother turned to my Algerian father, probably to make sure they gave the same answer, but my father, who must have been quite upset, kept looking straight ahead. They ended up saying that the war between the two countries was over and it would never happen again. That if they loved one another, there couldn't be another war between the two countries, so I didn’t have anything to worry about. Since then, my parents have divorced, and even if the countries haven't gone back to war, neither country has really come to terms with it. While the story takes place in the 1960s the only anachronistic liberty I took with the film one of the characters says the following: “The Mediterranean is but a small separation between the French and the Algerian people; what unites us is much more important than what divides us. The sooner we speak together, the better off we will be.” This quote was an answer to a journalist given by Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 1975, when he was the Foreign Affairs Minister. He had been asked his opinion on what the relations between Algeria and France ought to be like. That was 40 years ago.

The story takes place from the 1950s to the 1980s

The story begins at some point in the 1950s when two young men, Djaffar and HAMID, go to war. Hamid has already been assigned a mission; he has enlisted in the resistance and has already participated in combat. Djaffar is more naïve and doesn’t relish having to take up arms. This is the starting point for the story. It seemed important to me that the members of the resistance be presented as ordinary men and women. There is nothing “exceptional” about them to start with, but their refusal to accept an intolerable situation is going to make them all exceptionalpeople. Djaffar doesn’t choose to join in the fight; he is pushed into it by a combination of circumstances. War is undoubtedly a product of courage and determination, but it can happen sometimes that chance and unhappy accidents have their hand in it. Yet that doesn’t take away from the value of the combat that is being lead.

Then comes the 1960s and victory.

That must have been an unbelievable period. The French had been settled in Algeria for ages, their entire families, wives, children, grandparents and great grandparents were all there. France was the world’s fifth military power, its army was well- organized and trained, and yet... As FEODOR KOULIGUINE, one of the characters, says: “You managed to throw them out after all!” He says it in a somewhat trivial and simplistic manner from a historical standpoint, but this was probably the way it was experienced by the people living there. A country, colonized by one of the greatest European powers of the 19th century, successfully liberates itself after one and half centuries!

The sixties were a celebration; it was enthusiasm, the discovery of liberty and freedom - everything was possible! Djaffar dreams of a spaceship and TV sets built in Algerian factories... I read somewhere the answer an old woman gave her grandson when he asked her what her family did during the three months following Algeria’s independence: “We danced!” she apparently replied.

At the time, Djaffar and Hamid also took over whatever the French had left behind: the houses and famous "vacant properties.” When Djaffar returns from the war, he resides in a fishing village. He’s a carpenter who lives modestly and owns little. The 1960s and victory allow him to rapidly move up in society.

And there was also this huge machine called “French Algeria,” that now needed someone to operate it. The French had built everything in Algeria, and left the country with the “engine running," but the French had never let the Algerians sit behind the wheel. When independence came, those who knew how to work the machine were few and far between. This is the allegory proposed by the scene in front of the factory's fuse box. The other aspect of the 1960s is the way in which the party slowly instated its own propaganda, and especially how they rewrote history, their official History.

The 1970s are the good years.

All the characters are living well, yet rifts begin to appear.
The character BACHIR starts having doubts, he no longer believes the
stories he’s been told. He doesn’t know what to do with this white-skinned, blue-eyed body of his. Finally corruption settles into place, first to help Feodor, a friend who had helped the cause in the past. Friendships crumble because people's lives have taken different paths. The group which was so solid ends up shattered.

And then the 1980s hint at failure.

Not necessarily of the revolution itself, or of the country’s independence, but of what they have done with it. It’s disillusion. Solitude for Djaffar, paranoia and illness for Hamid, an almost suicidal anger for Bachir, resignation for Saïd, and isolation for Halima who has turned to religion. The end of the 1980s was the end of the first post- independence era for Algeria. That is why the film ends then. It’s also the end of an era for the whole world. While in Algeria in 1988 a popular uprising changed the rules and overturned the political playing field, in France the 1988 presidential elections saw the first breakthrough for the National Front (FN) party, and less than a year later the Berlin Wall came down, leaving the United States as the sole worldwide power. So they were going to have to find a new enemy...

Tell us about Djaffar.

Djaffar has two problems, Yasmin, the woman he lost and without whom he is unable to live, and Bachir, whose memory he partially obliterated. Bachir doesn’t know that his mother had been raped and that his biological father is a French man; nor that he is the grandson of the first man Djaffar ever killed.

Djaffar fought to get rid of the colonizer, but the evening he joined the fight, the colonizer sealed their fate forever. France stepped again into his life to stay for good. It is on a face, a child's, and in the future of this liberated country. The irony of this fate is unbearable to Djaffar. Djaffar’s dilemma cannot be separated from Bachir’s. If you speak of one, the other has to be evoked. They are like France and Algeria who

lived together in conditions that forced them into a violent separation, but actual separation is impossible because the destinies of their people are too intricately intertwined and, therefore, the contemporary history of one inevitably refers to the other. In Algeria, France is omnipresent in the architecture of its cities, while in France the Fifth Republic's political structure was designed by De Gaulle in order to solve the “Algerian question.”

Pantomime

Djaffar is forced to endure the war he volunteered for, despite himself; he is also forced to endure his wife’s death. During the pantomime scene, he silently witnesses the reinterpretation of history, and of his own story. He could stand up and yell: It's a lie," but faced with the Party who are surrounding him, it is too intimidating. He bites his tongue because he himself rewrote the past by deliberating denying Bachir his own memory. This pantomime sequence serves to make the audience a partner in Djaffar’s silence. It may remind you of the scene in Hamlet where the prince has the actors interpret his father's death before the King and the Queen, but with the aim of watching their reaction and confirming the truth of the ghost's words. This scene was designed on a bare stage, with a decrepit wall as the background, like Peter Brook’s empty space, where anything can happen. Peter Brook and his notion of “empty space” influenced and framed my thinking during my theatrical life. Pantomime and the actors’ exaggerated play is less a parody than the will to be true with regard to the era and the "socialist art” of the time period that was omnipresent in Algeria. I remember the massive partisan murals that could be seen on certain walls in Algiers, depicting a group of farmers with their fists raised in the same direction while watching a glorious sunrise, which recall the “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” from 1937. Makeup design was borrowed from Mnouchkine’s universe or certain Kurosawa films. I also asked the musician Mathias Duplessy, who composed the film’s original music, to compose for this sequence a music that recalls the most partisan movements of Prokofiev’s work. The scene ends with a child approaching the stage. The child is Bachir, who understands that the mimed character is his mother! He who doesn’t know her. He approaches the stage to discover his origins. It’s the Party and the nation who will take it upon themselves to lie to him. The worst is that once it is out in the open, it is hidden. Djaffar is applauded and in the background, Halima leaves with Bachir. They both escape into a black hole: falsehood is applauded while the truth is obliterated. The child is sacrificed.

And Hamid?

Hamid represents the allegory of power. His status is never clearly defined, however his power is obvious. He embodies a power that constantly wavers between political and military. And the sense of power he is given goes straight to his head.

One evening during the war, for a split second, he is confronted with a dilemma. That of whether to tell Djaffar what has just happened to his wife. He chooses not to. Then, at the end of the war, the situation has festered. He feels trapped, and can neither find the right moment, nor the courage to tell the truth to Djaffar whose life is already destroyed. So he puts all of his energy into building him a new life.

In the pantomime scene, he respects Djaffar’s wish to not reveal the truth to Bachir under any circumstances. Here, when Hamid stays by Djaffar’s side, he is guided by friendship.

Hamid isn't calculating to begin with, he is a victorious revolutionary whose ambition is to lead his country towards a brighter future. But later, when he engages in lies and manipulation, he becomes a real bastard!

In the scene where Djaffar, who is shattered because an elementary school teacher called his son “French”, goes to find Hamid, and Hamid picks up his phone and asks a ‘"little favor” from someone on the other end of the line, it is because someone committed an indiscretion towards El Wahrani the Man from Oran. And it’s not Djaffar who is perceived as being sacred, it’s “the Man from Oran,” this revolutionary hero who has been the Party’s trademark for fifty years!

And later, once again it’s Hamid who doesn’t know what to say to Bachir when he asks why is he the only member of the family with fair skin.

Bachir...

Bachir is a child born anywhere who asks himself the question: where do I come from? He is blond-haired and blue-eyed. He grew up in Oran and his features are a constant reminder of a tragic past. Thus, faced with Hamid's silence, Halima’s silence, and his father’s, his development as a person is shaky, filled with anger and arrogance. Bachir is Karim, Mustapha or Moussa who are born and raised in France. The issues are the same.

One’s identity isn’t defined by their skin color. Skin color can give clues as to someone’s origin, but not their identity. Identity is what you carry inside. One’s skin color or the sound of one’s name doesn’t change anything.

And Farid?

Farid is the person who should have been able to embody and inspire a promise for the future. But Farid’s intrepidity is also his Achilles' heel: he doesn’t make any compromises and rejects the new power’s games. He ends up getting himself killed. Every revolution has murdered the men that once led them, that’s even how we recognize them. There remains Saïd and Halima, who represent the “legitimateones. They are the silent majority. Those for whom things were changed, but who ended up being forgotten because their voices weren’t heard. They live by grassroots common sense and let themselves be guided. A man like Saïd doesn’t want power and doesn’t have broad enough shoulders to lead. In the 1970s he quickly understands this and resigns himself. He’s been colonized, he will always be colonized and he knows it. He fought so that others would be free. Yet, he took part in the worst, when, sitting in a corner of this basement, he was witness to the torture of the journalist MEHDI LALOUI. He doesn’t like it. He despises BENAÏSSA, the man from General Intelligence. He despises his methods and values. Saïd is visibly indebted to Djaffar; certainly something sealed their friendship during the war. But even so, he didn’t fight to end up sitting in a basement watching an Algerian torture another Algerian.

It’s the journey of a generation, from enthusiasm to disillusion to compromising one’s conscience.
It’s about reclaiming a memory. I don’t think that cultural difference – religion conditions the difficulty that French of Algerian or North African origin have with integrating into French society. The core of the problem is historical. It lies in the nonrecognition of historical relevance, whether positive or negative. This memory is missing. It is not acknowledged, nor is it spoken about. From either side. As a result, memories are falsified, and easily covered up. In Algeria, an official history has been established; in France, it’s just not spoken about. It’s taboo or deliberately shunned. To reclaim this memory we have to tell ourselves: “I don’t care if our past is wonderful or horrendous, I just need to know the way it really was.” In any case, collective memory is inevitably composed of diverse and varied elements - some are to our advantage, but other aspects would make us lower our eyes in shame. Yet, it’s collective memory and by definition, we aren’t responsible for it, we just have to be the ones who maintain it and pass it down. So you have to take a step back, and consider it in hindsight.

July 2014