Algeria is a complex society which remains little known or understood in the UK. This lack of knowledge was highlighted recently when Nick Robinson, the BBC’s lead political reporter, remarked half seriously that neither he nor his viewers knew very much about the country--or could even find it on the map! But Algeria is of increasing global geo-political significance, as recent events have indicated. That BBC report and David Cameron’s visit in the spring to Algiers—the first British prime minster ever to visit Algeria—were sparked by the hostage crisis in the Algerian desert which saw dozens of foreign nationals kidnapped by Al Qaida In The Islamic Maghreb. Algeria—like Mali—can be construed to some degree as an ideological battleground. But Algeria’s significance is not limited to its position with regard to security and its alliance with the West in the so-called war on terror. It is a country with major energy resources, great linguistic diversity, and numerous cultural treasures whether literary (renowned writers such as Assia Djebar), musical (Algeria gave the world raï) or cinematic (see below).
Algeria ‘s history is informed by a wave of invasions, occupations and settlements—by Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Turks, and French. As one commentator has put it, “Algeria has the most complicated history of citizenship in the world” (Ranjana Khanna). Or as one its presidents, Mohamed Boudiaf, declared in 1992, Algeria is “between East and West, between Arab and Berber, between tradition and modernity”. Algeria still seems like a country at a crossroads. For good or ill, Algeria failed to join its neighbours Tunisia and Libya in the ‘Arab Spring’, and the state has an uneasy relationship with the populace. Connections with France in particular are close but can be sensitive, with French influence viewed by some as neo-colonial. The French fought a long and bloody war between 1954 and 1962 to try and retain a colony which they had occupied by force since 1830. Although the memory of the liberation struggle is of little relevance to Algeria’s vast youth population, the current head of state, President Bouteflika, is like all Algerian presidents before him a veteran of that war.
To celebrate fifty years of Algerian independence, 2012 saw the release of Algerian National Cinema, the first book length study of filmmaking in Algeria to be published in English since the seventies. Embracing key themes such as the war against France, gender relations, the place of the Berbers in Algerian society, and the representation of memory, it introduces and analyses films from the sixties to the 2000s, from The Battle of Algiers to Mascarades, and provides a window on this neglected but fascinating society.
Guy Austin is author of Algerian National Cinema, Professor of French Studies and Director of the Research Centre in Film and Digital Media at Newcastle University