Horria Saïhi 

Interview conducted during FESPACO,  Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 1997 for the African Women in Cinema Project.

In view of the current conditions in Algeria, one could say that you have a particularly courageous task as a filmmaker working in Algeria today.  Your latest film is actually a testimony of the role that you are taking on.  Could you talk about yourself and your latest film?

My name is Horria Saïhi.  Horria means liberty.  I am Algerian.  I am attending the festival for the first time as a filmmaker, but I am also here as a journalist because I want to bring back the images of this festival.  The images were filmed by the Burkina television and graciously offered to the Algerian television; it is also a form of solidarity, thus, to contribute with images.

I am also participating with a film, because I am a filmmaker.  It is a documentary titled
Algérie en femmes.  It speaks about the present situation in Algeria.  As you know, it is a very dramatic situation, very dramatic.  Because each day has its lot of assassinations, of destruction, of massacres.

I speak about the women's role in this struggle.  There are women of different social categories; peasant women who are illiterate, intellectuals and artists, and women who take up arms to defend their own lives and those in the village.  There are women in arms and those who fight peacefully, so that life continues, so that Algeria continues to stand on its feet.

Could you talk a bit about cinema in Algeria?

Algeria cinema is a young cinema.  Why, because we acquired our independence only in 1962.  However, there was a cinema that existed before.  The founding father of this cinema was a Frenchman of French origin, René Vautier.  To speak a bit about him, he was a filmmaker in his country, but he came to Algeria.  He wanted to put on film the actual images of the struggle against French colonialism.  There was footage that was filmed, not to make a film, but to archive, in order to later write the history; so one could find traces, the images of the fighters, the attacks, how the families lived, the bombings that took place during this war.  We did not have filmmakers nor did we have technicians or actors, but there were a few who worked at the French television, which at the time was called ORTF.

Algerians did not attend the great schools, they were trained on location.  But there were many countries that assisted us, they offered us scholarships for study.  These filmmakers began to really work, under good conditions--good conditions meaning after independence in 1962--where the first audiovisual companies were created, before there were neither industries nor the means.  It was established by René Vautier, the man who we call "silver hair", and who is rather well-known in Algeria.  And there were others as well, notably the Germans and the French who assisted us in jump-starting this cinema.

In the context of African cinema where is Algerian cinema, Maghrebian cinema, situated?

I would say, though it is a mistake on our part, that we have our orientation turned towards the west.  It is perhaps normal because we did not invent the technology nor the representation.  It must be remembered that Algeria is in North Africa.  Completely at the top of Africa, but it is in Africa.  We have our place in the context of Arab cinema but also African cinema.

Several films from Algeria are in competition here at FESPACO...

Yes, we are participating here with several films, which proves that  we do have our place in African cinema.  We have one documentary and two feature films which have the chance to be awarded prizes; Salut Cousin by Merzak Allouache, Machaho by Belkacem Hadjadj, and another documentary, La moitié du ciel d'Allah by Djamila Sahraoui another filmmaker living outside of Algeria in the Diaspora, and who has perhaps made the most films.  Why?  Because our cinema is not very strong at the moment.

When we live in a situation of almost perpetual war, you can understand what the difficulties are like for us to go on location and try to make a film, because of the insecurity.  The armed Islamists and fundamentalists groups are there to prevent life and cultural development, and so, cinema is prohibited, painting and music are forbidden.  Even if we are able to make films, the exhibition of these films is impossible.  We cannot have people come to see a film with this insecurity.

What is it like making films under these conditions?

If I take my experience for example, it was very difficult to make these documentaries.  Why?  Because people do not easily accept being filmed with their faces revealed.  And even if they do accept, you think twice yourself, "do I have the right to put other peoples' lives in danger?"  And when they do accept, the filmmaker must put a mosaic in front of their faces so they are not recognizable.  It is really terrible.  When we show the truth we are, nonetheless, obliged to mask faces and change the names of people, to camouflage the clothing, to dress their heads with wigs.  They are both actors and witnesses of what is happening.

In my case, I do films on the creative elements in our society, on art, archeology, cinema, and so on.  In so doing, I find myself making films about the reality of this situation.  In Algeria it is omnipresent, each person experiences it in her or his own way.  For us to make films and to participate in the cinema--because the international media are discovering Algeria at this time--is to show them that Algeria is not only destruction and death.  Algeria has traditions, Algeria has a history.  It has always existed, perhaps attention has not been focused on these things.  Perhaps at the moment we look for the "scoop" [said in English].  But Algeria has beautiful things.  It has worthy men and women.  We participate with our films, also as a way of sensitizing people to organize in solidarity.  Because we need support from people such as yourself.

In what way?

Well, I was invited to the United States in 1995, I never imagined that on the other side of the ocean there existed, Americans, whites as well as blacks, who had their eyes on Algeria, they were listening and watching, I was very touched.  In 1995, I was invited by the International Women’s Media Foundation to received the Courage Award.  It was heartwarming, really, to find myself in the middle of New York, it was a dream.  I actually had tears in my eyes, it was very powerful.  I received the prize in the name of the Algerian people.  I dedicated the award to all the women.  It was an eagle with widespread wings which represented force, but also fragility, because it was made of crystal.

I dedicated the award to two women, the women who have marked my life.  One was a very good friend, a colleague and journalist,
Rachida Hammadi who was assassinated by terrorist fundamentalists.  She was of such fragility.  She was not tall, only 4m75 |4’9, and frail, but of a courageous and implacable will.  She was always busy and constantly in the field.  You could always hear her saying "I was told that such and such a thing has just happened, we must go there."  She never said that she was tired.  This woman symbolized this courage for me.  It is not me who was awarded this prize, it was Algeria, it was these women who continued to remain standing, who carried Algeria in their two arms.

I dedicated it to another woman who I met in a region that has suffered tremendously, Jijel.  It is a zone that has a reputation for being the stronghold of fundamentalists terrorists.  There I met a marvelous woman.  I say marvelous because, having come from a big city, we only meet intellectual women who are well-read, articulate, who are able to say what they think.  But these women, we do not meet outside in the streets.  Moreover, the press, the television, the cinema are interested in women who are very present before the camera, who are mediatized by the national and international press.

However, this woman was in the countryside, she cultivated the land, she participated in the national liberation war in the capacity of a fighter.  During the last nine months of the war she was pregnant.  Thus, she was at the same time fighter and mother.  And this woman brought into the world, the day of independence 5 July 1962, a child who she called Abdullah.  Abdullah means the child of God, the creation of God.  She could have died with the child in her womb, and yet she carried him right up until independence and brought him into the world.

This child's mother, who was not literate, wanted to give him a good education--a sort of payback for her--so that he could be intelligent and go to the best schools and universities.  And her son was assassinated by the terrorists.  This woman took up arms again, not to avenge her son in a feudal manner, but to avenge him by continuing the fight, so that there will never be blood in our country again.

I have talked to you about this Algeria in its suffering, but we also love to live.  If I could just tell you this also, we laugh at ourselves, at our fears.  We also joke a lot, though we live in a situation that is very dramatic.  We are connected to life, to all that is beautiful.  We come here to Ouaga, to exhale, to see people and to act like any other human being.  Which means to feel not only pain when we feel bad, but also to feel the strong emotions that come from seeing beautiful films.  I was very happy, it has given me so much pleasure to exhale and relax.

Your film Algérie en femmes portrays a diversity of women as witnesses of history.  As a filmmaker, do you feel that you have a certain role to tell women's stories, to put images of women on the screen?

Yes, yes.  Practically my last few scenarios, are portraits of women.  I don't work only for television.  I also do radio programs.  I will complete a portrait of women when I return after the festival, but not only of Algerian women.  There is a beautiful story that I will also tell one day, using actors, of a Vietnamese woman who lives in Algeria.  I tell about her grief, she also lost a child.  This shows that a mother remains a mother.  Whether she is American or Italian or French or Algerian, a mother is still a mother, and I wanted to tell this story.  The portraits of these women complement each other.  They give an image of women, of this Algeria, of the struggles of women.

The film that I am presenting at FESPACO,
Algérie en femmes, resembles the title of a film that was made by René Vautier, I already spoke to you about him, which is called Algérie en flammes (1958), it was about the war of liberation.  In Algerie en femmes, I speak of the struggle of women.  It is an intersecting perspective of a woman filmmaker and a woman photographer. The latter makes an imprint of the moment, the former gives her the opportunity to speak about her profession.  There is also another realm of women: an artist-painter who continues to paint although it is prohibited; a peasant woman who takes up arms; and the wife of a director of fine arts whose husband was assassinated at the same time as his son.  I speak both of life and death simultaneously.  It is this combat of which we are in the midst at the moment.

What are some of your future projects?

Future projects!  I would like to do my first feature film.  It is a bit difficult for me, but I will put forth an effort.  Because the documentary is the poor parent in cinema.  During the festivals, feature films are the main focus.  And when we want to do a documentary we don't have the assistance that we need.  Because it does not bring in much money, producers are not fighting among themselves to produce or distribute it.  However, a feature film, or even a short film brings in money, that is the industry.  We sell in the hopes of making money.

A short encounter with Horria Saïhi after the awards ceremony at FESPACO.

You attended the awards ceremony and actually received a prize for one of your compatriots.  You appeared very touched and pleased with Algeria's place during the awards ceremony.

I attended the awards ceremony and it was very moving because the ceremony started by announcing the prize for the documentary awarded to my compatriot, Djamila Sahraoui, the UNICEF Promotion de la Femme, for her film La moitié du ciel d'Allah.  Djamila Sahraoui had to leave and so I received the award in her place.  It was very touching because Algeria was represented so beautifully.

The difficulties are not only on the financial level, we are not always ready to make films because of all the perturbation and the dramatic situation in the country.  In any case, Algeria won the jackpot, it collected three prizes: the award for the best documentary by Djamila Sahraoui for
La moitié du ciel d'Allah, the award for the best screenplay, Salut Cousin by Merzak Allouache and the award for the best male actor, Belkacem Hadjadj in Machaho.

This warms our heart and I feel that it is a very beautiful prize list.  And we hope that in the years to come, in other words, in two years, we will return even stronger in number, and also with beautiful films in order to contribute to the enrichment of African film production.