Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 12, 2016

A Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche retrospective

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:49 pm

Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche

In this article I want to call your attention to the Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche retrospective that began on November 1 at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) in New York that runs until December 13. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to view the screeners before now so the November 1 feature is only included to give you a sense of the breadth of this Algerian director’s body of work. Totally unknown to me before this week, I would now include him as among the more important filmmakers on the scene today—an equal to the Dardenne brothers, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Jafar Panahi. If you are familiar with these directors, you would know that this is high praise. Born fifty years ago in Beni Zid, Algeria, he grew up in France. But like other Algerian immigrant filmmakers, his focus is very much on the Algerian experience.

The FIAF publicist sent out a notice on the retrospective that described him in terms that recommended him immediately to me:

Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche tells powerful stories of oppression, resistance, and rebellion. The Franco-Algerian filmmaker’s trans-national perspective enriches his cinema profoundly. A truly independent filmmaker, Ameur-Zaïmeche writes, directs, produces, and stars in all his films. This low-budget, guerrilla style of production allows him to depict realities often misrepresented or ignored in mainstream film. The result is a deceptively simple cinema that descends from the likes of Pier Paulo Pasolini and Jean Renoir, equal parts poetic and political.

As is the case with the Belgian, Turkish and Iranian directors I grouped him with above, Ameur-Zaïmeche’s films are not simple agitprop even though all of them deal with political questions. In many ways, his work reminds me of the Dardenne brothers films in which the main character is always wrestling with the difficulties of making moral choices in capitalist society. Furthermore, his work has a unique aesthetic that combines both the most prosaic elements of everyday life as well as transcendental images that suggest training as a still photographer or an artist. He also disdains film scores, an unusual choice nowadays, and only includes music made by the characters themselves. Rather than describe his approach to filmmaking any further, let me proceed now to a discussion of the five films that are part of the retrospective that will help flesh out this most remarkable filmmaker.

November 1: Adhen (2008)

Ameur-Zaïmeche plays the grubby, double-dealing owner of a small trucking company and pallet repair shop in the industrial backwaters of Paris. Known as “Mao” to his workers, he has little in common with Communism even though the name suggests a long ago connection to the left. Mostly he is a cockroach capitalist chiseling workers out of overtime pay owed to them. In one scene, we see him hanging out at the timeclock as workers clock out in the evening to reprimand them about coming in 10 minutes late. Since all of them are from Africa and the Middle East, they are desperate to hold on to their jobs even at minimum wage.

To offer them a sop that will make lost wages more tolerable, he builds a mosque on the grounds of his business that workers flock to on Friday even though a couple of the more class-conscious workers see through his ploy, especially imposing his choice of an Imam on them that they regard as an abuse of his powers.

In one perfect scene, he meets with an African worker who pleads for a raise for the dozen or so workers there. Mao tries to explain the situation to him: “I make a bit of money. That’s what they call surplus value. I can reduce the surplus value but only a little bit.”

I wish I had gotten to this review earlier so you would have had a chance to see this remarkable film. In its way, it is the symbol of everything wrong about the Muslim Brotherhood, the AKP and every other political project in the Middle East and North Africa that blurs over class distinctions in the name of Allah.

Watch trailer here

November 15, Wesh Wesh (2001)

This time Ameur-Zaïmeche appears as Kamel, a resident of one of the banlieues surrounding Paris who has just returned from a two-year deportation to Algeria that followed a five-year prison term. Anxious to start a new life, he soon discovers that without working papers, he is unemployable. Living with his parents and trying as best as he can to stay out of trouble, it is almost impossible to stay out of it with his hashish-dealing brother living under the same roof.

Unlike other films I have seen about the banlieues, the emphasis is less on solidarity against the occupying cops and more on the kind of hustling a lumpen proletariat carries out in order to survive. The influence as such is more Martin Scorsese than Gillo Pontecorvo.

November 29, Back Home (2006)

This is a prequel to Wesh Wesh that shows Kamel back in Algeria during his deportation. It is a telling commentary on the social crisis in Algeria that would finally erupt into a civil war between Islamists and the military dictatorship. As is the case with Adhen, Ameur-Zaïmeche has a no-holds barred stance on Muslim paternalism this time being directed against a woman rather than vulnerable workers. Kamel befriends a woman in the village who has been ostracized by trying to make a career as a cabaret singer. When her husband becomes abusive, she tries to stay at her mother’s house only to be told that it would be shameful for her to be away from the man who would prefer that she never leave the house.

December 6, Smuggler’s Songs (2006)

Although I can recommend all of the films mentioned here, I regard this one as an unqualified masterpiece. This is a historical drama in which Ameur-Zaïmeche plays Bélissard, the leader of a band of smugglers in mid-18th century France who are disciples of Louis Mandrin, who was called the Robin Hood of France and who was executed on May 6, 1755 with 6,000 spectators watching on. The film includes armed confrontations between Bélissard’s band and the royal constabulary but it is much more about the joie de vivre of outlaw life. If you’ve seen “Bonnie and Clyde”, you’ll detect a possible influence.

The title of the film refers to Bélissard’s efforts to publish the poems of Louis Mandrin that were passed on to him after his death. I don’t know if the historical Mandrin ever wrote such poems but we do know that Voltaire held him in high regard. If you’ve read E.J. Hobsbawm’s “Bandits”, you’ll have a good idea of how these smugglers were part of an inchoate resistance to the aristocracy that would culminate in the revolution of 1789.

December 13, Story of Judas (2015)

Cast as Judas in a revisionist account of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Ameur-Zaïmeche is among a cast of characters who share his Algerian ethnicity. Seeing Muslims play Jews persecuted by the Romans in the Roman ruins of Algeria is an exercise in irony in and of itself but accentuated by its portrayal of Judas as nothing more than a devoted disciple of the Messiah whose main concern is getting the Roman occupation to end. No Palestinian or supporter of the Palestinian struggle will fail to make the connection.

1 Comment »

  1. […] November I wrote about the Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche retrospective at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) in New York that was among my most memorable […]

    Pingback by The Candidate | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 30, 2017 @ 7:15 pm


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