On the pursuit of normalcy: The New Arab Meets Sofia Djama

Sofia Djama
6 min read
17 August, 2021
The New Arab Meets: Esteemed Algerian film director Sofia Djama. In an interview that spans across time, place, and belonging, Sofia Djama talks about her creative desire to find beauty out of trauma.

Les bienheureux [The Blessed] (2017) is an Algerian film directed by Sofia Djama. Centring a day in the life of two different Algerian generations, the film juxtaposes the ideologies and aspirations of a middle-class couple with those of their son and his friends.

The film was recently screened at the Safar Film Festival, which focused on generational encounters in Arab cinema. The profundity of Djama’s film lies in the impassioned dialogue between two generations.

The film slowly exposes the afterlives of the 'Black Decade' (the 1990s), often called a civil war, which left a deep fissure on the Algerian psyche. The decade of terror and counterterror left bleeding wounds that touch the very core of national belonging, and enduring pain which the film does not fail to capture.

The Hyper-realism of the film lends itself to honestly reflect the day-to-day struggles that continue to face Algerians after the Black Decade.  A multi-layered trauma is brought to the fore by the careful representation of diverse ideologies that are failing to co-exist in Algeria

The film also subtly explores the clash of ideological narratives after the war. Director, Sofia Djama, elucidated to The New Arab: “I did not want to speak about the Black Decade, I wanted to focus more on its aftermath and the enduring trauma that it has left us with.”

Born and raised in Algeria, Djama spent her teenage years during the peak of violence. Djama reflected on her personal experience of the cycle of terror in Algeria: “During the Black Decade, when security was extremely scarce in Algeria, my life in Béjaïa was very beautiful, free and calm. After I went to the university in Algiers, I realised that girls my own age who lived only one hour away from me lived the Black Decade very differently.”

The Hyper-realism of the film lends itself to honestly reflect the day-to-day struggles that continue to face Algerians after the Black Decade. A multi-layered trauma is brought to the fore by the careful representation of diverse ideologies that are failing to co-exist in Algeria.

“The middle class is not represented enough in the Algerian cinema, I wanted the film to represent them in order to debunk the several stereotypes of these people who lived the Black decade differently” comments Djama to The New Arab.

Indeed, the film shows a facet that is scarcely represented in Algerian cultural productions, the middle class and upper-middle-class, whose financial privileges permit a certain level of freedom, are often spoken of, but rarely represented.

Seemingly simple in scope, the film fortuitously encapsulates a transitional moment that would alter the history of Algeria, a moment of growth, openness and lack of fear of the “other”. The balance between the boring daily lives of older generations and the boiling energy of youth foreshadows the moment of unity during the Algerian Hirak in 2019, despite their differences, all people wanted a better future for and in Algeria.

The film’s focus on the generational conflict goes in tandem with its attempt to capture the challenges that face Algerians in their quest for a sense of normalcy after ten years of terrorism.

Djama comments on her characterisation of two different generations with two very different lifestyles: “The parents [Amal and Samir played by Nadia Kaci and Sami Bouajila] lived dictatorship during the One Party system, they lived the dream of democracy and they also watched it go downhill.

"The parents are always inside, the kids are the ones who are mingling, they are the ones who are more open to change and to the diversity that allows liberation. I wanted to show this generation that does not have the same ideological issues as their parents, they do not care about the different ideologies or different classes, they are free in their perception because they do not have the same psychological complexes that their parents have.”

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To leave is to betray

Immigration is also the main issue tackled in the film; “You’re only legitimate in this country if you’ve suffered for it. Or better if you died as a martyr” is a powerful line from the film that carries the frustration of Algerians who chose to leave the country.

The film criticises the over romanticisation of suffering collectively and enduring injustice at home instead of seeking a better life abroad. Hence, it is also a story of a country that exploits its own citizens to rejuvenate itself.

In a country where all kinds of sentimental national belonging turn to a failing currency when compared to sacrifice, the latter is the only proof of patriotism. “We must all stay in Algeria, suffer in Algeria and bear the heavyweight of several national traumas. We, and the country itself, don’t need people to die, we need people to live and to live happily,” Djama told The New Arab.

"The Algerian public displayed a readiness and an eagerness to watch something new, something daring. Some of the young people who came to watch the film in Algeria had never been to a cinema theatre before. They are used to commercial films, but they showed a great interest in the film"

The characters of Feriel (Lyna Khoudri), Reda (Adam Bessa) and Mehdi (Amine Lansari) represent the generation that grew up during the years of terrorism in Algeria, and who also were some of the people who zealously participated in the Hirak.

The film is set in 2008 and therefore provides an excellent narrative to examine the frustration that led to Hirak. Young people who wanted to dream, to live, and to achieve without necessarily having to leave.  

The ideological clashes in the film are deeply honest and reflect a sense of moral vacuum that haunts the country. It is easy to hate the other, dismiss them, attack them, and wish they never existed. Djama explains to The New Arab: “The educational system in Algeria does not allow us to learn how to accept the cultural ‘other’.”

Djama also reflected on the reception of the film in Algeria, which has very few cinema theatres: “The Algerian public displayed a readiness and an eagerness to watch something new, something daring. Some of the young people who came to watch the film in Algeria had never been to a cinema theatre before. They are used to commercial films, but they showed a great interest in the film.”

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With an unmissable deep scar on her neck, the character of Feriel bears the biggest physical mark from the civil war. With a mother who was a victim of terrorism and a father who is living in constant grief, Feriel’s dysfunctional family is symbolical of Algeria after ten years of bloodshed. Yet, the character of Feriel also radiates with the energy of hope.

In a country that has undergone several cycles of violence and radical change, the simple joys of life become extraordinarily out of reach.

Djama generously discussed her opinion regarding the functionality of happiness as a form of activism and militancy in Algeria: “I never understood why we must hide our joy – happiness should never be hidden, it should shine bright because it is contagious, it gives hope and it encourages others to actively choose happiness. Choosing a happy life takes courage too, especially in a country that gave us nothing to be happy about, nothing to look forward to. Happiness is an act of resistance.”

The film is not just about surviving the civil war, it is also about trying to move on. The final scene berates Algeria for turning its back on its own people who inevitably return the favour, simply by leaving.

Ouissal Harize is a UK based researcher, cultural essayist, and freelance journalist.

Follow her on Twitter: @OuissalHarize