By Yamina Bachir-Chouikh
Global Film Initiative, 2002
Quite by chance, I found myself watching Yamina Bachir’s wonderful film “Rachida” just days after a trip to Algeria where I had helped cover the presidential elections. The film was the visual narrative of what people had been constantly alluding to, namely the 10 years of incredible terror that Algeria fell into after the victory of the Islamists and the subsequent cancellation of the presidential elections by the army in 1992. Throughout the '90s, an unnamed civil war terrorized the nation, leaving the country exhausted, as well as cynical about the post colonial political legacy that had created the ferment and led to such violence.
“Rachida” is set in the mid 1990s. The eponymous main character, a beautiful girl in her early twenties, is a school teacher in Algiers. On her way to work, she is stopped by one of her former students who tries to force her to carry a bomb into the school. Rachida refuses and is shot in the stomach. Miraculously, Rachida survives the attack, yet she is obliged to flee to a remote village in the countryside. For fear of terrorist vengeance, she cuts off almost all contact with her boyfriend and her former life. For some weeks, she stays inside the house, too shocked and frightened to go outside. She has become “a stranger in her own country.”
When she goes back to Algiers for a medical check-up, on the journey narrowly escaping a fake check point put up by a band of terrorists – a frequent occurrence in those days – she explains to the doctor that although she is recovering physically, she is not well mentally. “I am always scared.” To which the doctor replies, “I am also scared, the whole country is scared…”
Rachida slowly realizes that she has no choice but to try to live a normal life again. With the support of her mother, she starts to teach, this time in the village school. Even in the countryside, terrorism is omnipresent. People are routinely killed in the village. One girl who was kidnapped and raped manages to escape and return to the village, only to be repudiated by her father. When the army comes to interrogate her, she weeps and pleads, explaining that those who had taken her before were wearing the same uniforms. Violence, the director hints, did not come only from the Islamist side; the army also had its role, yet to talk about this is very explosive, even today.
The film ends with a wedding in the village. While all the villagers seem eager to celebrate and forget their daily fear, the wedding is brutally interrupted by the arrival of terrorists, a loose band of six or seven who actually come from the village but are determined to raise havoc. Rachida hears the terrorists planning to round up of the pretty girls, including the bride and herself. She manages to hide in the bushes with a newborn baby, once again narrowly escaping. The next day, the village is like a nightmare – corpses tossed all over and houses looted.
Amid the chaos Rachida seems determined to overcome fear. While her mother laments, she picks up her bag and goes to school. We see the surviving children who have the same reflex as Rachida gradually filling up the classroom. An incredible overture is made in this last sequence when Rachida picks up the chalk and looks defiantly towards the camera. As one French film critic has put it, this last scene opens the film to a sequel: perhaps Rachida Bachir’s next film, perhaps Algeria’s next story, on condition that the story be one of hope.
Bachir wrote the script for “Rachida” in 1996 as a sort of “therapy” to the climate of terror, and took five years to produce it. Algerian films are rare, and such important testimonies must be seen by the greatest number of viewers possible. Nothing has escaped Bachir’s eye, whether it be the archaisms of certain traditions, the setbacks to women’s conditions, the rise of unemployment, the difficult youth situation, and the incredible level of violence reached by her countrymen. Her film suggests, through the main character but also through her mother, the raped village girl, and one of the young students whose father is a terrorist, that the main victim of these black years was the Algerian woman.
“Rachida” won critical acclaim at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival in the category “Un Certain Regard” as well as at several other European film festivals.
Talking of sequels, a new Algerian movie has recently been released in France “Viva Laldgérie” by Nadir Mokneche, which is the perfect continuation to Bachir’s film. Set in Algiers in 2003, it follows the life of Goucem, a 20-something girl who tries to escape the omnipresent traces of the '90s as well as the archaic traditions that plague Algerian society. Like Rachida, Goucem embodies Algeria’s will to survive.
This review will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 10, no. 46.
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