For migrants of Maghrebi (North African) origin, the internal barriers of popular prejudices among the “host” population are often as difficult to surmount as the external frontiers of fortress Europe. Dominated by majority ethnic groups, the media have played a powerful role in disseminating largely negative images of immigrant minorities. In France, which has the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe, filmmakers of Maghrebi origin are attempting to counter these negative images with movies offering alternative perspectives gleaned from their own personal experiences. Yet even when challenging majority ethnic prejudices, Maghrebi-made movies often run the risk of allowing the dominant Other to set the agenda for their scenarios. A recurrent criticism of many of these movies is that they are too concerned with creating “positive” images for majority ethnic consumption, failing to allow minority voices to speak on their own terms.

From Bidonvilles to Banlieues

The prime movers in this new wave of films are second-generation Maghrebis raised in France by immigrant parents. Most of the second generation was born in France, while the rest settled there at an early age when their families migrated from the Maghreb. The earliest movie to emerge from this milieu was Mehdi Charef’s Le Thé au Harem d’Archimède (1985). Charef’s origins typify those of the Maghrebi minority in France. His father left Algeria during the 1950s (significant waves of migration from neighboring Morocco and Tunisia were to come later) and worked as an unskilled laborer on construction sites in and around Paris. The family lived for many years in bidonvilles (shantytowns) and other substandard housing in peripheral areas of the capital. Today, these outlying urban areas, popularly known as the banlieues (literally, “suburbs”), are synonymous with poor quality housing projects, high unemployment and heavy concentrations of minority ethnic groups. It is in this milieu that Le Thé au Harem d’Archimède is set.

The two principal characters — Madjid, the son of an Algerian immigrant worker, and his friend Pat, of majority ethnic origin — share the same dead-end world of poor schooling, joblessness and petty crime. One of the central points that the film makes is that, contrary to popular myths, the problems of the banlieues have very little to do with the ethnic identity of their inhabitants. Despite their ethnic differences, Pat and Madjid share the same social disadvantages and the same essentially French (tinged with American) street culture; Algerian or Islamic influences are marginal. An important message for majority ethnic audiences is that the fabric of French society is threatened less by ethnic alterity than by social exclusion rooted in class divisions.

Big Brother

Another second-generation Algerian, Farida Belghoul, criticized Charef’s film on the grounds that it glossed over the specificities of the Maghrebi minority in order to gain the sympathy of mainstream audiences. Belghoul compared Charef’s camera to the eye of “Big Brother,” for whom the minority ethnic experience was neatly arranged and displayed. [1] Similar criticisms have been leveled at more recent films by second-generation Maghrebis such as Malik Chibane’s Hexagone (1994) and Karim Dridi’s Bye-Bye (1995). Hexagone opens with a long shot of a bleak banlieue accompanied by a voiceover in which a locally-born Maghrebi youth presents himself and his friends, who in a series of rather mechanical scenes debunk popular stereotypes of immigrant minorities. Bye-Bye is a far more subtle and complex film. Yet it too is effectively framed by the eye of an outside observer, albeit through the interposed gaze of the Paris-born protagonist, Ismail, a second-generation Tunisian who “discovers” the Maghrebi community in Marseilles while visiting family members there.

Conflict and Conciliation

Bye-Bye was overshadowed on its release by Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995), which quickly established a critical reputation as “one of the major films of the 1990s.” [2] In contrast with the movies of Charef and Chibane, La Haine presents a far more violent vision of banlieue life. Instead of reassuring the public with soothing or humorous images, the multi-ethnic trio at the center of the film exudes frustration and hatred, staring aggressively and pointing real or imagined guns directly into the camera. Although it features Maghrebi and other Third World minorities, La Haine was conceived and directed by a young Frenchman of East European Jewish origin. Maghrebi filmmakers have criticized Kassovitz’s film for reinforcing negative stereotypes of the banlieues. Recent films by Algerian-born directors now working in France, such as Merzak Alouache’s Salut cousin! (1996), Mahmoud Zemouri’s 100% Arabica (1997), and Abdel Krim Bahloul’s La Nuit du Destin (1998), work in the more conciliatory spirit characteristic of Chibane and Dridi. Salut cousin! exemplifies many of the best features of this approach. The film is fast-moving and witty, deftly overturning popular stereotypes of immigrant minorities and gently but effectively challenging the logic of exclusionary attitudes and policies.

100% Arabica and La Nuit du Destin are, alas, altogether more pedestrian. Zemouri’s film is little more than a publicity vehicle for the rai singer Khaled, cloaked in a crude denunciation of militant Islamism as fundamentally alien to the Maghrebi minority in France. La Nuit du Destin starts off with a brilliant piece of image reversal, with a gang of French criminals shattering at gunpoint the tranquility of an Islamic prayer meeting. After that, however, it is all downhill, with a long sequence of worthy but heavily didactic scenes turning the film into what must rank as one of the least suspenseful thrillers screened recently.

From Mud to Gold

The film adaptation of Azouz Begag’s autobiographical novel, Le Gone du Chaaba, [3] directed by Christophe Ruggia and released to a generally enthusiastic reception in 1998, makes far better cinema. It remains essentially faithful to the original text, recounting with affection and humor the childhood days of a second-generation Algerian raised amid the muddy wasteland of a bidonville in Lyons. The poet Charles Baudelaire said he had taken the mud of the nineteenth century city and turned it into gold. In a more modest and playful way, Le Gone du Chaaba achieves a similar feat for today’s Third World minorities. While their voices have yet to penetrate fully into mainstream French culture, through films such as this the process of incorporation is clearly underway.

Endnotes

[1] Farida Belghoul, “‘Le Thé an Harem d’Archimède;rsquo; de Mehdi Charef,” Cinématogaphe (May 1985), pp. 32-33.
[2] Phil Powrie, “Heritage, History and ‘New Realism’: French Cinema in the 1990s,” Modern and Contemporary France (November 1998), p. 488.
[3] Azouz Begag, Le Gone du Chaaba (Paris: Seuil, 1986).

How to cite this article:

Alec C. Hargreaves "Boys in the Mud," Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999).
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