When we first heard about l’Oranais (The Man From Oran) last year, I spent hours with my friends trying to find somewhere that would screen it in London. Houssem Tefiani and I even took to Twitter to ask actors and actresses from the film if they knew when it would be showing.
I was especially excited to see this film because my father is from Oran. As a child of the diaspora it is through films, books and music that I can come to understand the steps in history that were taken to form the culture that I identify with as an Algerian, and as my father’s daughter.
Luckily, I spotted it in the programme for the RAS’s Film Africa festival which was on this week. We went along to the screening yesterday evening at Ciné Lumière in South Kensington.
L’Oranais did not disappoint. There were so many layers to the narrative and the political context of the film. Moments of dry irony touched Algerians in the audience as the protagonist, Djaffer fantasized about Algeria’s future, post-independence. He talked about Algeria joining the space race, producing her own goods and showing the rest of the world what she was capable of.
Some of the most memorable scenes mingled humour with serious questions about society. What does it mean to be Algerian? What language should Algerians speak? Classical Arabic? Are Algerians even really Arabs? As Djaffer and his comrades grappled with these ideas, the audience couldn't help but consider how relevant these questions remain for Algerians in contemporary Algeria.
The themes of truth and trust and were addressed through the main characters as the dynamics of their relationships changed following the independence of Algeria. Even the concepts of love and marriage were addressed, although unlike Ce que le jour doit à la nuit (another recent film also set in Oran), l'Oranais is so much more than a romantic film.
Lyès Salem wrote, directed and starred in l’Oranais as Djaffer, a young Algerian from Oran who is hailed as a war hero after Algeria gained independence from France. The film explores the lives and relationships of Djaffer and his friends after the euphoria of the victory. Given his range of talents, I was impressed to find Salem very humble, and I caught up with him after the film to ask him a few questions.
What sort of books or references did you have to do your research for the context for the film? Where there any particular books or films that informed your vision of Algeria during the revolution or post-independence?
There were several books, that I read but this was three years ago now. Two in particular do stand out, however.
One is by a man named Slimane Hadjadj, which tells the story of a family over the course of a whole century. It passed from the time of colonisation and passes into the lives of his children, telling the story of the whole family. It was an important family who owned land. This book gave me an enormous amount information regarding how things like relationships worked during the war.
The second book, is written by a man named Hamou Amirouche, not the FLN colonel but his secretary, known as Akradou. This book was the inspiration for the character of Farid - I mean this guy really was Farid. Amirouche was part of the efforts in the war, and those in charge quickly picked up on his brightness and decided to send him abroad to better his education. He passed through Switzerland then went to USA where he studied. When he finished his studies then came back to Algeria with a significant intellectual baggage. Eventually he went back to the US where he still lives and works a professor, because there was nothing for him to do in Algeria.
I also spoke a lot to people who were around at the time, like my family.
Was there anyone in particular who really helped you in forming this vision?
My my uncle was still alive when I was writing the movie and we talked a lot, especially about how things were after independence, the atmosphere and the environment and how things worked during the time.
I also have my own childhood memories. The picnic scene is something straight out of my childhood, I remember hearing my parents have those kind of conversations with their friends on a Friday afternoon.
Oran is known for it’s music, but how did you choose the soundtrack for l’Oranais and what significance did it have for you?
It’s a similar thing here, I knew a few things, but during my research for the film I got to listen to a lot of new things that I hadn’t heard before. From that I chose three or four songs that were of the right era. Wahran el Bahia fits in right into the time immediately after independence and was sung by the Jewish pied-noir singer, Blond Blond. I wanted to pay homage to the whole Jewish pied-noir culture which is itself an important part of Algerian heritage and culture. It’s important to honour this because despite our differences and the given the context in which we were often opposed to one another it’s still an undeniable part of history and therefore part of the fabric of our culture as Algerians and must be cherished.
Then we have Ahmed Sader, El Khedma, which I used for the 1970s, because it tells the story of a guy who is trying to find a job but corruption is already widespread and he’s struggling. These are songs that I chose because they resonated well with the eras that the film covered.
As well as this, I asked Amazigh Kateb to write the song that he sang at the start and the end.
Why is it that we never really see much of the Algerian population or the wider context in the country around the time when it was set?
That was because the movie follows these characters who at first are part of “the people” (chaab). You see this in the beginning for example when Djaffer returns to his small village with his comrades, but he suddenly finds himself in a massive house, thus entering a new social milieu and ends up abandoning his old one.
Characters such as Said and the Auntie give some perspective on “the people”, but really it’s not about that. In contrast to my first movie ‘Mascarades’ that was more about the chaab, the Man from Oran presents a different world through a completely different class.
Why did you choose to stop at the ‘80s? Is it something to do with the nostalgia of 70s that many Algerians have?
I’m not nostalgic about it at all, just because the movie is set in the 1970s doesn’t mean that I necessarily feel nostalgic about it.
In a way I guess I am doing a bit of a historian’s work, trying to illuminate the future. By shining a light on the past we may better explore the future.
Thanks to Houssem Tefiani for his help on this piece.