A forgotten hero and a forgotten cinema

Published by the Alternate Dream

Algeria’s “Fadhma n’Soumer” is a delightful watch

That region of the world somewhat arbitrarily defined as the “Near East” is full of stories. On this, there is pretty much a consensus. But what so much irks the veteran story-tellers of this vast and diverse region is that, despite all the interest, only a certain type of these stories seem to come out.

Fadhma n’Soumer is not one of them. It is not every day that you see a biopic about a female hero, set in mid-nineteenth century Algeria – a hero who doesn’t speak Arabic and a story line and cinematic method that defies most of what you have seen.

Form matters at least as much as the content in Belkacem Hadjadj’s latest film which recently premiered in Royal African Society’s Annual Film Festival in London. The viewer has to be ready not only for an extraordinary story but for a cinematic story-telling that one might not be immediately comfortable with.

Long before Albert Camus was born; long before “the Algerian revolution” was a popular cause in the cafes of Paris and New York; there was Kabylie: A cultural and historical region on the Mediterranean shore, whose people butted head with the French colonialists throughout the 19th century. Since there was no Frantz Fannon to chronicle them, resurrecting the anti-colonial struggles of these people has never been an easy historiographical task. Historians can deduce what they want from the French colonial accounts of their “pacification” campaigns but the spirit of these struggles has always been better captured in legends and folk stories. Only fools believe these to be “mere fairy tales”, unconnected to reality.

Enter Lalla Fadhma n’Soumer, a legendary Berber woman who is the title character of the film. The author of these lines is no expert on historicity of Fadhma but that’s beyond the point. For all we know, her legend might be an embodiment of many Fadhmas who bugged the French in the rolling hills of Kabylie.  Hadjadi tells a story based on the disarming greatness of one woman – but she is a tree, even more beautiful because of the broader jungle.

The first half of the film is more about a different character: Boubaghla, a cunning sword-man and fighter, played by the Morrocan actor, Assaad Bouab, who we know from his internationally-acclaimed “Days of Glory” (2006). Boubaghla is so central to the story and his character so moving that one begins to wonder why is the film named after somebody else.

But Fadhma, played by the stunning French-born Laetitia Eido, works herself up through the story; like a traveller spiraling up to a mountain peak. Before you know it, her shadow casts over the entire film and she captures your full attention.

We soon find out that it is indeed possible, even in a desert war setting where the swords seem to rule, for a quiet woman on the top of a horse to dominate the story above all generals and swordsmen.

For those of us used to the action-packed blockbusters of today, Fadhma n’Soumer is a different type of action. Cinematic techniques used here have a precedence but they have been sadly forgotten in much of the Western cinema. They are unashamedly epic and don’t make apologies for it. The scenes full of fire and close-up of the fighters’ faces might pass as “cheesy” by some audiences – but they find their place in the broader narrative of the film.

But what pierces the film together, undoubtedly, emanates from the Eido and her gaze. How else to capture the majestic presence of a forgotten hero like Fadhma?

Eido had just played Cleopatra in Greek and Latin before shooting Fadhma n’Soumer in Tamazigh (a language that she learnt exclusively for the film). She seems to have brought some of that Alexandrine majesty with her to this other North African setting. And it works, many thousands of years and kilometers of distance notwithstanding.

The pictures of Eido, elegantly perched up on a saddle, looking up to her interlocutors, now a French general, now a fiery Berber swordsman, are simply unforgettable. She tells a story with a mere gaze.

Dialogue, too, plays its role in Fadhma n’Soumer. Dozens of lines of folk tales and poems, spontaneously coming out of the characters’ mouths, gives a color to the narrative. If you are patient enough, it will start marching in front of you.

But the two together are the mightiest combination: Eido majestically glancing toward the enemy that is soon to crush her people, while a poet sings in the background. Only thus, can, Fadhma be, perhaps, captured.

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