French Filmmakers From North African Origins: ‘Apatrid’ or ‘Bi-patrid’ Cinematography

April 6, 2008

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, new-comers from North Africa brought with them to France their diverse cultural heritage. These local forms of cultural expression were used for the entertainment of foreign workers. During colonization, North African militants used many forms of arts and expression to resist and condemn the French rule in their countries.

The original forms of cultural expression focused on values of the motherland, Nationalism as well as working-class suffering, which is hard for the second generation to identify themselves with, as they were born and raised in France and were facing different realities and problems during the 1970s and 1980s. The clash between the first generation and second generation values and perception of the space gave birth to a new form of cultural expression during this period. “Caught between the “Myth of Repatriation” and the growing intolerance toward North Africans, some immigrants children turned to collective forms of cultural expression to address intergenerational tensions and to assert their right to inclusion in French society” (Derderian 2004).

The immigrants developed a new Genre of arts in theater, literature, Medias, music and cinema of course. Cinema, as a way of expression which can convey scenes of every day’s life with sound and picture, is one of the most important and efficient way to communicate about immigration issues. Since the 1970s on, a generation of French filmmakers, from different backgrounds from North African origins, appeared in the French cultural scene to tell the stories of their communities, to seek social integration or simply to achieve an esthetic work.

In this paper we will examine the rise and development of French filmmakers from North African origins, and try to understand the aim behind this fever to share emotions through sound and picture. We will also study their cinematographic production with regards to their being at the center of interculturality between the “departure country”s vision and the “host country”s vision of the universe. Yet, cinema is not only a form of artistic manifestation. It can be also understood in the social context as a mean of struggle for a certain community or a tool of social integration in the host country after achieving fame and wealth. Once totally integrated in the “host country”, the “departure country” shows interest on these movie makers who succeeded in becoming famous, and it even claim that they belong to it, which is very problematic for the psychological and artistic identity of there filmmakers.

At first Cinema was expensive and not very accessible for immigrants, so they turned toward its older form: Theater. Theater was an easy and less demanding form of cultural expression. It serves as a medium for the second generation of immigrants to challenge the stereotypes about their communities. Consequently, many theater companies raised in the name of migrant communities during the 1970s and the 1980s such as; “Kahina (1976-1982), Week-end à Nanterre (1977-1980) and Ibn Kaldoun (1978-1980)” (Derderian 2004). Most of these companies performed in Verlan slang, as a mixture of Arabo-Berber accent and regular French. The themes developed by the companies were mainly about immigration and the daily problems of foreign workers as well as the situation of migrant families. These themes were often presented in a humoristic way to reach the mind of the audience. The plays relayed more on improvisation than on a specific script (Derderian 2004, pp: 50-51).

According to Derderian “After the early 1980s, North African cultural expression moved from militant collective initiatives by amateur artists rooted in working-class suburban communities to professional forms of creative expression that targeted mainstream French audiences and relied more heavily on mainstream sources of diffusion and instrumental support.” (Derderian 2004, pp: 52). This phenomenon can be understood if we analyze the transformation that acquired at this historical moment, as communitarian forms of art weren’t enough to make a living for the artists, who wanted to turn into cinema and reach a wider audience, and the immigration theater has reached a certain maturity in its means and teams which enabled it to go to the next step.

France was a good place to study cinema and to do cinema compared to the destination countries, even if many stereotypes persisted about French filmmakers from non-European origins. France soon became thanks to its rich cultural atmosphere, the center of most of first Arab and North African filmmakers like Tewfik Saleh from Egypt and Mai Masri from Labanon… an important fact while dealing with these filmmakers, is to precise that most of them are immigrants before they become filmmakers. Maybe filmmaking was for them a dream from the time they were in their country of destination or maybe the desire to express a certain cultural esthetic came after the clash with the European society or maybe the second generation born there wanted to produce a cinema that resembles more to the color Beur.

Mehdi Charef went to france at first at the age of 12 to join his working father there. Charef spent his childhood around Nanterre and Gennevilliers Banlieux, where he shot many scenes of his filst and most known film Le Thé Au Harem d’Archimède on 1985. Ali Ghanem, went to France during the middle of the 1960s, and learned cinema by himself by reading specialized books and watching movies and other filmmakers on set. Ghanem shot his fist movie in 1970 Mektoub, which were considered as the first full length movie dealing with immigration by an immigrant filmmaker from North African origins (Rosen 1989, pp: 36). From the part of women, Assia Djebor represented the voice of women. Assia Djebor, who was a famous Algerian writer, thought it would be easier for her to communicate with the Algerian illiterate women through films. Thus, she made two highly original films, La Nouba Des Femmes Du Mont Chenoua in 1978 and La Zerda et Les Chants De L’oubli in 1982, before quitting cinema. In 1994, Malik Chibane released his film Hexagone, which was seen as a cinematographic success. The film Hexagone was a new stage in the development of Cinema made by French filmmakers from North African origins, since in terms of professional cinema Hexagone was a success in its plot, its audience rates and its money incomes. In spite of having “no formal training and no connections in the entertainment business” (Derderian 2004, pp: 64), Chibane was inspired by Week-end à Nanterre, and tells through his film the story of five days in the life of five North African Beur friends in the director’s neighborhood at Goussainville. Unlike Mehdi Charef or Rachid Bouchareb, Chiban’s film, which drew more than 60 000 viewers, was at first rejected by many production companies because of the ethnic composition of its actors. In addition, “Chibane received no financial support from the National Cinematography commission” (Derderian 2004, pp: 65), which is the main financial supporter of young artists in France, so the filmmaker was forced to relay on his own and work with a restrained small budget. According to Chibane, the ministries who supported the project like Bernard Tapie tend to see it as “a social initiative, not as a cultural one”. These facts show how much the French Republican model of secularism lucks in strategy while dealing with the promotion of minorities’ art production. If we compare the situation of French filmmaker from non-European origins to filmmakers from minority groups in Britain or the United States, we will notice that in these countries Art expression is very strong, because it is reinforced by minority positive laws and institutions, which help artists from minority groups to fund and share their work openly. Whereas, in France this kind of community based work is condemned because it is seen against the values of the republic, which favors cultural assimilation rather than communitarian originality. Under the rule of the socialist party, thing got worse for filmmakers and artists from North African backgrounds, after the paralyzation of the Cultural development Direction and the weakening of the Cultural Intervention fund (Marques 2002).

Other filmmakers like Farouk Beloufa, Taieb Louhici, Nacer Khemir, Ibrahim Tsaki and Merzak Allouche came from Tunisia and Algeria, because they luck of professional schools and cinematographic practices in their motherlands. Others simply came to France as students and became permanent residents, in a France seen as a paradise for cultural practice from the outside a hell for new-comers from the inside.

Cultural duality is a main feature of the cinematographic art of filmmakers from North African origins. Mehdi Charef and Mahmoud Zemmouri for instance, had to work to gain money to subsist and shot films to fulfill their artistic needs, they were inspired from their first home and second home, and lived all the push and pull situation at a sensitive time in French characterized by ethnic racism and social stereotypes. The battle to find a place in the second home and the bitter nostalgia about the first home, gave a special spontaneous esthetic to their work and something of a cultural duality (Odin 2002, pp32).

Many artists from North African origins tempted to focus on their artistic identity instead of their ethnic one, claiming that they should be seen as French artists like any other ones. However, some artists indirectly benefited from being an “Immigrant” or a “Beur”. These artists came to the scene to fill the roles of negatively represented North Africans, so they became famous out of that. The case of the actor Smain can illustrate this fact, as he had access to cinema by doing small role of the “negative Arab”. This can be applied to filmmakers as well; many became famous because government authorities wanted to give them the chance to produce their works out of political maneuvers or to fulfill the curiousity of French people from European origins about what happens in the “exotic” Banlieux. Smain and other actors and filmmakers never wanted to stand up as spokesmen of their community, even if they were in fact directly inspired from the situation of French people from North African origins in their artistic works. Apart from special cases like Jamal Debouz, who maintain good relationships with the country of origins of his parents, most artists prefer forgetting their ethnic specificity and melting in the French Republic colors, but stereotypes about their community always chasse them.

Filmmaking by French directors from North African origins is closely associated with what they call “immigration literature”. Both “immigration cinema” and “immigration literature” share the same themes and the same an “Apatrid” art strained between two countries, cultures and visions of the universe, as explained by Lassi. These forms of cultural expression, deal with “the socio-cultural context of production situated in a foreign land and victim of it’s non-integration in the art of the host country, same as their producers can’t be integrated easily” (Lassi 200’, pp 42-45). Christophe Ruggia did a cinematographic version of the novel Le Gone Du Chabâa 11 years after its publication. The novel by Azouz Beggag, describes the issues of cohabitation between the North African Arab minority culture and the dominant “French culture”, at the same time it explores the different strategies to overcome these cultural barriers between the two communities. Le Gone Du Chabâa and other literary productions by French novelists from North African origins are a major source of inspiration for filmmakers from the same background, which shows that different forms of expression can join and complement each other when dealing with the same theme. The cultural expressions by French artists from North African origins are today a real entity in the French arts, expressing the living and esthetic of a double culture carried by the North African communities in the French Republic.

Another important side of the filmmaking process when the French movie makers from North African origins turned professional is the issue of funding. Nowadays, most big productions made by these kinds of directors are funded by French film companies or government funds for cinema. Funding deals sometimes impose modifications on the original scenarios, or impose a psychological auto-censorship by the directors who make concessions about the reality of things to be produced. Further more, becoming professional means also addressing a much larger public, as “the western viewer becomes a major factor in the film equation” (Rosen 1989, pp: 36). The French viewer has many stereotyped expectations about the production of filmmakers from different backgrounds, which pushes as to question seriously the themes and the images presented by these directors. Do these filmmakers fulfill “the stereotyped expectations of the western audience” to sell their works? Is the reality so ugly to tell, that it is necessary to hide it by humor and stigmas?

“Not necessary!” the answer comes from the recent film Indigènes by Rachid Bouchareb. Indigènes was projected on May 2006 during the official competition of the Cannes festival. The film tells the story of more than 600 000 North African soldiers, who came to fight for France during the Second Great War in 1943 in the Italian front, and who died to liberate southern France from Toulon to Alsace. Indigènes stars four artists from North African origins: Jamel Debbouze, Samy Naceri, Rodchdy Zem, Sami Bouajila. The filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb was born in Paris in 1959 in an immigrant working large family. Bouchareb joined a cinema school after finishing his technical studies, and shot many films since then: Baton Rouge (1985), Cheb (1991), Little Senegal (2001)… The young man even founded a production company with some friends (Le Monde 2006). The ambitious director had the idea of making Indigènes many years before, but it was only made possible after several years of documentary research about the subject, 14.6 million euros of budget and the personal investment of the actor Jamel Debbouze, who convinced Morocco to help the production with military logistics. The importance of Indigènes is not only in its financial budget or the prizes it collected, it is in its symbolic importance as it tells the large audience a reality about their constructed past they weren’t ready to hear before. The main goal of Bouchareb’s was to tell the hidden story of the North African soldiers who died for France and who nobody remembers anymore in order to highlight a part of the French memory, which gives a positive shock to the negative stereotypes about North Africans. Yet, the film transcended its initial goals. After the tears of Bernadette Chirac and the emotions shared between the formal president of France Jacques Chirac and Jamel Debbouze, the government took measures the following day during the council of ministers to install an amendment about the fair payment of the 80 000 soldiers who fought for France during the great wars. The example of Indigenes and the work of its director Rachid Bouchareb, can illustrate the power of art and cultural forms of expressions sometimes on political decisions. However, according to the French news paper Le Canard Enchaîné, “the reaction of Jacques Chirac in the Cinema was nothing but presidential cinema” (Le Canard Enchainé 2006), as it explains that the measure taken by the Chirac government to help formal soldiers wasn’t out of the influence of the emotional film, but out of the sanctions imposed on France by the European Court of Justice since 2001. Indigènes makes us question the real influence of the artists and especially filmmakers in political decisions concerning their communities. As, we proved the power of art is only symbolic, but the real decisions are purely political.

Immigrants from North African origins started since their arrival to France to perform multiple forms of cultural expression to express their fears and expectations as well as their nostalgia towards their first home. Second generation artists and artists who newly came to France during the 1970s and 1970s, and who experienced the racist reality of the French society of that time, developed a working-class minority collective form of arts starting with theater and evolving towards cinema.

French filmmakers from North African origins have different stories but all tell the same story. They are Beur, working immigrants, cinema students, artist migrants but all relates in the same spontaneous bi-cultural way the daily life of their communities through simple stories. The goals behind the cinematographic productions are very different and problematic. Some used their situation to reach celebrity by playing the typical role or the stereotyped immigrant to benefit from support, others, produce art to show what happens in their communities as a sort of auto-biographical work, whereas many use cinema as a card of integration of the self and of the community in the French society. We noticed also that many artists prefer being seen as French rather than stigmatized as Arabs. From the government side, we notice a luck of minorities oriented political institutions in the French republic, which favors a more assimilations cultural strategy. Even when the government seems to react to new forms of memory art –like what happened with indigene- it is nothing but political maneuvers under the pressure of the international powers, which proves that art has only the power to provide symbols and challenge stereotypes but can’t effectively change politics.

A last point to think about is the image destination countries have about filmmakers in France from North African origins. Names like: Kassari Yassmine from Belgium, Nourdine Lakhmari from Norway, Daoud Oulad Syad from france and others became famous in Morocco for their works. Morocco even practices a sort of new pull factor towards these “Beurs who made it”, as the country sees them as Moroccans above all. There is even a festival dedicated to “immigration cinema” which takes places every year in Agadir: Agadir Ciné Festival. Here it is legitimate to ask: is the work of French filmmakers from North African origins is really an “Apatrid” art, having no real or deep cultural belonging to none of the first or second home? Or is it in the contrary a “Bi-patrid” art, enriching both identities with a synthetic form of expression?


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  1. How do i find out who authored this blog entry/article? I am citing it in a paper I am writing and would like to credit the correct author!

  2. […] Words For change […]

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