& Alain Bonnamy’s
From Friday 10th December
Programmed by Daniella Shreir
Translations and subtitles by Daniella Shreir
Texts edited by Missouri Williams
With major gratitude to Léa Morin / Talitha who facilitated the restoration of this essential film
This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees aren't. We receive no funding so please consider donating to us so we can keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.
SUBTITLES IN ENGLISH SOUS-TITRÉS EN FRANÇAIS
AN ESSAY BY FEDERICO ROSSIN
A translation of Rossin's essay which appeared in Cahiers du cinéma n°781 (pp. 58-9), November 2021 and which was translated from Italian to French by Fernando Ganzo
Federico Rossin is a film historian and curator in the fields of experimental, documentary, and animation cinema, and an independent programmer for festivals and cinematheques worldwide.
There are films one dreams of seeing for years and years after reading about them. Djouhra Abouda and Alain Bonnamy’s Ali au pays des Merveilles, which I first came across in Nicole Brenez and Christian Lebrat’s Jeune, pure et dure! Une histoire du cinéma d’avant-garde et expérimental en France , is a film I’ve been waiting over two decades to see. An experimental essay film about the condition of Algerian migrants in mid-seventies France, when Giscard d'Estaing was President and general Marcel Bigeard was Secretary of State for the Ministry of Defence, Ali au pays des Merveilles opens with a rolling sequence of names in green lettering against a black background: those of Algerians killed in France in 1975. The second sequence sets the film’s tone: the front cover of an issue of Minute covered in racist insults against Algerians is superimposed over a moving image of the French flag, accompanied by an acoustic rendition of the ‘Marseillaise’ from an out-of-tune saxophone. Over images of immigrant workers in the streets, an Algerian worker in voiceover gives a detailed account of his 40 years of immigration: humiliation, suffering, racism, and nostalgia for the native land he never forgot.
In her latest book, Manifestations (2020), Brenez calls Ali au pays des Merveilles a chef-d’œuvre, and she’s right. Yet the film all but disappeared after it was screened at the Cinémathèque française on the 4th of June 2000. Until now, the only copy in circulation was a single 16mm print in terrible condition, covered in scratches with a heavy magenta hue. Thanks to researcher and programmer Léa Morin and the non-for-profit cinema project Talitha, who worked closely with the two filmmakers, the film can now be seen in a wonderful 4k digital restoration, made at the L'Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologne from the original negatives and a 16mm copy.
Shaky and stirring, Ali au pays des Merveilles shows an increasingly devastating conflict between the actions of workers and those of the society that employs them without ever seeing or considering them. Luxury shops and boutiques selling haute couture contrast brutally with the living conditions and work undertaken by the Algerians. Images of narrow walkways between tower blocks, slums, substandard apartments, respond figuratively to society’s repressive order of police violence and racism, as well as France’s colonial legacy (the filmmakers include archival images of the Algerian War of Independence, the Sétif massacre, and photographs taken by journalist Élie Kagan on the night of the Paris Massacre of 1961). Abouda and Bonnamy make use of the full audio-visual arsenal of experimental cinema at the time: superimposition and flicker; mosaic images and split screen; fast and slow motion; the integration of still images and animation; jump cuts and shots where the cut is almost imperceptible; and glitching and distortion, either done in-camera or in the edit. Each aesthetic choice is justified by a politics that is precise and easy to decipher – following in the footsteps of the soviet tradition of “ciné-poing” / “cine-fist” (Eisenstein) and even the “ciné-œil” / “cine-eye” (after Esther Choub and Dziga Vertov) and avant-garde documentary of the twenties and thirties (Alberto Cavalcanti, Hans Richter, Jean Vigo). The montage brings together musical and vocal refrains with visual motifs and the repetition of certain sounds and images takes the viewer into an almost “fantastical” dimension (as noted by the writer Tahar Ben Jelloun in Le Monde in 1978), making the city feel even more oppressive, presented like a great biopolitical and disciplinary laboratory. This ensemble of themes (work, city, lodging, women, children, men, sex work) is contained within a circular construct that echoes the “City Symphonies” genre of the twenties, beginning and ending at night with a shot of the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Élysées, having taken the viewer through all the stages in a day in the life of an Algerian worker.
How did this searing and modern piece of work come to be, and why did it remain semi-invisible for so long? At the time the film was made, Djouhra Abouda (who arrived in France aged three) and Alain Bonnamy were both students in the Department of Cinematographic and Audiovisual Studies at the Université Paris VIII–Vincennes where, from 1970 onwards, Guy Fihman and Claudine Eizykman – both of whom had been part of Jean-François Lyotard’s seminar in Nanterre – set up workshops for experimental filmmaking. In January 1974 around a dozen students including Pierre Rovere, Giovanni Martedì, Jean-Michel Bouhours, Patrick Delabre, Bonnamy and Abouda, helped to found the Paris Films Coop, which operated from Fihman and Eiykman’s apartment and took Jonas Mekas’s cooperative in New York as its model. Abouda and Bonnamy’s two preceding shorts ‘Algérie couleurs’ (1970-1972) and ‘Cinécité’ (1973-1974) were included by Peter Kubelka as part of his two-month programme at the Centre Pompidou entitled “Une histoire du cinema”, which soon became canonical: a historic milestone in experimental cinema. Yet, despite Kubelka’s seal of approval for their prior work, and the wide distribution of their feature through alternative networks and screenings at the Cinémathèque Algérienne in 1976, Ali was never shown at the Pompidou. Twenty years later, Jean-Michel Bouhours gave the most likely reason for its rejection: “During those years of strict filmic orthodoxy, in which Gestalt and revolution (experimental cinema vs. political cinema) were placed in extreme opposition to each other, [Ali au pays des Merveilles] was perceived to be the perverse manifestation of an aesthetic form of dissent”.
The hard-line gatekeepers of experimental film couldn’t accept the devastating political force of the film, while political groups found the film’s artistry impossible to digest. This seems to have been understood by Igancio Ramonet, who wrote in Le Monde in 1976 that Ali represented “a dismantling of the political documentary”. In making visible and audible a figure completely absent from the experimental cinema of the time – the migrant worker – Ali sits bravely on the margins of political cinema, bearing no resemblance to the films of Marcel Trillat or Annie Tregot (filmmakers of “direct cinema” with a political objective) which came later, nor to the work of activist collectives like Cinélutte or Cinéthique or filmmakers like Sidney Sokhona, Med Hondo and Moumen Smihi. If anything, the film seems to prefigure key works of the eighties like those of the Black Audio Film Collective (Handsworth Songs, 1987; Twilight City, 1989). It is clear, however, that Abouda and Bonnamy are the children of the migrants we see in the film and not just allies of the cause. The film's experimental gestures are loaded with emotion and at times Ali au pays des Merveilles feels like an exhibition of the filmmakers’ wounds, as though they are throwing their gaze back into the faces of their audiences and forcing us to acknowledge the insatiable anger in their eyes.
 Djohra Abouda appears twice in Claudine Eizykman’s (1972–1974) V W Vitesse Women, one of the most important films of the Vincennes group.
 Jean-Michel Bouhours, L’Art du mouvement. Le Cinéma d’artiste dans les collections du Musée, Musée national d’art moderne, 1916-1996, 1997.
 Fihman and Eizykman wrote that, “Feelings of guilt mixed with a troubled conscience were the motivating factors of political cinema at the time.”
 With the exception of Guy Hennebelle who dedicated four pages to the film in his extremely well-informed and indispensable CinémAction (n°8 “Cinémas de l’émigration”, 1979)
 To our knowledge, the only two exceptions are Berwick Street Collective’s Nightcleaners (Part 1) (1972–1975) and, later, Michel Nedjar’s Monsieur Loulou (1980)
ALI AUX PAYS DES MERVEILLES/
ALI IN WONDERLAND
DUE TO FINANCIAL AND TIME-BASED CONSTRAINTS, THIS PROGRAMME IS ONLY SUBTITLED IN ENGLISH. FUTURE PROGRAMMES WILL CONTINUE TO INCLUDE MULTILINGUAL OPTIONS
Extrait from Djura's Le Voile du Silence (Michel Lafon, 1990) :
1976: Was “Ali” in Wonderland, or was I, Djura? I was over the moon. Algeria had invited me to present my film as part of a Pan-African film festival that brought together filmmakers from all over the continent. There was to be a Q&A following the screening at the Cinémathèque Algerienne. I was proud to be able to do what Godard, Robbe-Grillet and Fassbinder had done before me, in the same location. The Cinémathèque Algerienne, known for its uncompromising public! Algeria was relying on me, at a time I thought I was a complete unknown!
Applause spread across the theatre. I looked back into it, determined. My head held high, I braced myself for the feedback. I found myself focusing on where I thought I’d spotted my brother. Had he got up and left? Was I wrong about where he’d been sitting? I breathed a sigh of relief when the Q&A finally started.
Suddenly an old man wearing a turban stood up. I recognised him immediately – Momo, one of the pillars of the Cinémathèque whose cutting critique was particularly feared. An odd and idiosyncratic character, Momo was nevertheless respected by every one. He was a poet and often took to the stage to read his works, which he carried around in the straw basket he used for shopping, his poems jumbled up with his oranges! But his oddness didn’t stop him from making filmmakers tremble because he was always the first to pass judgment and he rarely minced his words. In general, Momo said what he had to say, quickly and precisely, then left the cinema. The fate of these works often lay in his pronouncements because the public generally adopted his opinion. You can imagine the state I was in when he began to speak.
“Sister Djura’s film,” he said, “is a wonderfully rendered description of emigration. The images you chose to put at the end, in which we see the class of people who eat oysters, together with those who who prepare them and present them on a platter and those who sort them into bins, are incredibly well-chosen, incredibly symbolic. I really loved the film.” He turned on his heels and I never saw him again. I could have kissed him. Through his words, he had rolled out the red carpet of success for me. The rest of the Q&A was very animated, though it degenerated for a few minutes into a discussion between opposing groups used to riling each other up.
“MIGRATION IS BLUE AS AN ORANGE”:
DJOUHRA ABOUDA INTERVIEWED BY GUY HENNEBELLE
Translation of an interview with Guy Hennebelle, initially published in CinémAction (n°8 “Cinémas de l’émigration”, 1979)
Guy Hennebelle: How did you come to filmmaking?
Djouhra Abouda: It’s become fashionable to say something like: “It was my calling”. Though actually, in my case, that is true. I went to stage school very young. I was born in Algeria and arrived in France when I was three. So I attended secondary school here. And after that? I was interested in art, painting, music, literature, journalism… I signed up to journalism school on the Rue du Louvre but I still took an active interest in cinema, which seemed to me in some ways to be the synthesis of the other arts. After 1968, I enrolled at the Université de Vincennes where I had a series of very competent professors. I’m thinking of Roger Dadoun, for example. At the same time, I was taking classes on the Rue de Vaugirard in order to get a good quality technical education. I was going in every direction, really. As an Algerian I wanted to work with film to create a kind of cinema that wasn’t French. It’s very difficult not being able to fall back on a cultural past if, like me, you don’t have any real roots, and then at the same time are confronted by living conditions in France. In terms of cinema, I felt that, compared to the Soviet cinema of Vertov or Eisenstein, the cinema of France and America was a step backwards, with Hollywood cinema too interested in imposing constraints. I’ll give an example: in literature you can say simultaneously “The window is open” and “The earth is blue as an orange”. In film, you can only say “The window is open”. At Vincennes I made a few heavily research-based shorts. In terms of the teaching there, there was some things I took on and some things I rejected – but overall it was interesting. I don’t regret it. I was also attracted to experimental cinema and all the innovations you can make on a film strip or with a camera. Images have always fascinated me. I also went to the cinema a lot, all the while trying not to let myself be too influenced by traditional cinema.
GH: And so you directed ‘Algérie couleurs’
DA: Before that I made very formalist films in which the idea was neither to circulate information nor to transform information into fiction. But after a few years at Vincennes, I thought it was time to move on to something else, to go out into the world, because Vincennes was also a bit of a ghetto too, you know. That’s the title of the Jean-Michel Carré film: Le ghetto expérimental [editor’s note: a documentary about the Université de Vincennes where, after May 1968, anyone could study, regardless of their qualifications]. I didn’t want to shut myself away in the ghetto, either because, in spite of everything, [experimental film] is a very “western” medium. There are other more worrying questions. I’m sometimes alarmed when I realise to what extent you can get bogged down in the supposed constraints of a medium. That’s why I came to the idea of making a film that would be both “militant” in its subject and “experimental” in form. Because in Vincennes we sometimes made images for images’ sake. On the other hand, there were people who were only interested in subjects and didn’t take form into consideration at all and I didn’t like that either. A commitment to making political films doesn’t mean you have to work with narrative or fiction.
GH: Can you tell us a little more about ‘Algérie couleurs’?
DA: Alain Bonnamy and I filmed ‘Algérie couleurs’ in 1970. The film is made up of slides taken to illustrate a book about the use of colour in Maghrebi architecture. At the time there was a lot of talk about colouring the facades of buildings in Paris and elsewhere in France. Western architects had obviously borrowed the idea from North Africa. We wanted to draw attention to the fact that the arrangement of these colours in Maghrebi architecture isn’t decided at random but corresponds to rhythms found in our music. But we wanted at all costs to avoid making a documentary with didactic commentary. So the idea came about to film the slides with a rostrum camera and to create a fairly formalist montage. For that to happen, each image had to be composed like a tableau.
GH: What about ‘Cinécité’?
DA: The film is about the city, about cities in general: Venice, Rome, Paris… It’s a film about the atmosphere cities have: movement, trains, metros, architecture, houses thrown into relief against the sky, a musical atmosphere, too. It’s almost like a little 15-minute musical comedy.
GH: Now let’s turn to Ali au pays des Merveilles.
DA: As I said earlier, I wanted to get out of the cycle of certain, slightly gratuitous formal research. What could be more of a preoccupation for an Algerian woman living in France than migration? But how to go about making a film about it? Then Alain Bonnamy and I decided to do some fairly traditional reporting: interviews of migrants in conversation. We thought that their speech would be strengthened if the film simultaneously showed migrants at work, for example, or brushing up against the lives of others.
Lots of films have been made about the question of migration and that’s great. There should be endless films made about such an important subject. We should be talking about it until we can no longer bear to! There’s no such thing as saturation when it comes to films that deal with real problems. But we didn’t think it necessary to fictionalise such a pertinent issue. You have only to take a camera with you when you go for a walk to be hit in the face by this reality. But we didn’t want the film to be party propaganda either. This type of filmmaking can be useful, I don’t deny it, but that wasn’t what we weren’t interested in doing. No, we believed that in order to change the reality of migrants, you have first to be aware of it. What was important was to bring migrants’ words to the fore, even if they’re difficult to hear. I met Algerians who were really keen to talk.
Sometimes I felt a little embarrassed because they allowed me to access their innermost selves. So, M.’s speech – those were things he wouldn’t have been able to say in French because there are things people keep quiet about through a sense of decency. I can still hear him: “My daughter, I’ll pour out the contents of my bag for you. I’ve spent 40 of my 57 years in France, I’ve lived through the war against the Germans and then, in 1945, we learned of the massacre in Guelma. I’m a qualified and honest worker but I don’t have a specific profession: when you’re Algerian, you’re given only a pickaxe, a shovel or a hammer. Over the course of my life, I’ve tried a bit of everything but I’ve never been happy.”
This is the reality I wanted to attest to in Ali. I don’t want people to think that your average migrant walks around carrying a copy of Marx under his arm. Though many of them have class consciousness, it should also be made clear that they are all exploited and none of them participate in political struggles – far from it. I didn’t want to fall into the utopic myth of “French workers and migrant workers unite!” A migrant in the film says to me: “Not all French people are racist but 95% are.” People reproached us for not showing “your average Frenchman” but there are plenty of other films that do this and not ever film should convey the same thing, especially as ours is only an hour long. We wanted to insist on the fact that migrants aren’t just instruments for work but men with feelings, problems, hearts and souls. In the end, we conceived of this film more as a battle cry rather than a coherent form of discourse.
GH: Was it difficult to convince people to participate?
DA: Not really. We were clear with every one about what we wanted to do. Some participants were disappointed that the film was going to be distributed in France. They would have liked us to shatter the myth of migration in Algeria itself. Over there, there’s a tendency to forget that migrants in France pick up litter or are confined to arduous work. Instead, they see only a fraction of the results: the nice Peugeot 404 he returns to Algeria with, along with a ton of other consumer goods.
GH: Could you talk a little about the film’s structure? Did you have it in mind when shooting or did it come to you in the edit? It’s the first time the question of migration has been evoked in a film that might be described as experimental.
DA: All of the images were filmed like punches. That’s why the migrants sometimes appear in close-up. We ended up using some special effects to emphasise this impression. The film cost 50,000 francs but the real cost, with everything included, was more. It’s true that we made an effort to create a state of mind that was different to the one often found in this type of film. We played with fast motion and slow motion, so that an act like rubbish collection appeared as a sort of ballet.
GH: But had you thought a lot about how you’d cut it before you got into the edit?
DA: Not especially. The film demanded heavy editing. The music was carefully considered, too. We took our lead from the speech of the man who ended up becoming something like the lead actor. We also looked in the appropriate archives because migration is also about memories of the Algerian War and even the 1914-18 war (since that’s when Algerian migration started). Yet the situation is still almost as insecure today: there are raids, arbitrary arrests, etc. There’s also bribery now when it comes to nationality: those who participated in the Algerian War in order to protect their national identity are now pressured into taking French nationality if they want to stay in the country.
GH: Did you try several versions of the edit?
DA: No, it came to us naturally, like threading beads onto a necklace. The shoot lasted six months, in Nanterre, in La Courneuve and various banlieues, as well as in Marseille. The edit took two months, and then there was the archival research.
GH: Experimental cinema is prevalent in industrialised countries. Why do you think that is? And if experimental films start to be produced in developing countries, might we be concerned about them alienating audiences?
DA: In France, experimental cinema is cut off from the public but paradoxically I think it could, in my opinion, be received better in developing countries because cinema-going there is a relatively new phenomenon.
GH: Oh I don’t think so. Look at Algeria. A political thriller, Ahmed Rachedi’s L’opium et le baton, is the film that has had the greatest commercial success over the past few years.
DA: It’s a question of public conditioning. I was struck to see that, at the Algerian Cinémathèque, the public accepted things that would have been rejected in France. I know there might be a slight complex around experimental films: if they are being made in France or in the West, why aren’t we seeing them here? But I wouldn’t be surprised if a certain type of experimental cinema starts to develop in the developing world. Especially as commercial cinema is now assimilating and borrowing innovations from experimental cinema, as is the case with Werner Herzog, for example. If other types of films were shown on Algerian television, I’m convinced they’d be well received.