The Algerian director and writer Merzak Allouache consistently explores the displacement of exile and marginality of North Africans living in France and its former colony, Algeria. After studying at France's renowned film school, Ecole Nationale Superieure des Métiers de L'image et du Son, as well as graduating from Algeria's short-lived film school, Allouache worked in French television. His first feature film, Omar Gatlato (1976), presents in documentary style an exposeé of Algerian males who fear intimacy with women as much as alienation from male peers. The title is derived from the phrase gatlato al-rujula, roughly ''a machismo that kills,'' and refers to the social practices that exacerbate male insecurity. The focus on a dynamic urban milieu and its youth—its street slang, rituals, and passion for popular culture—is a theme that runs through many of Allouache's films.
Bab El-Oued City (1994) earned him international acclaim and put him in peril in Algeria. Its title refers to a working-class district of Algiers where Allouache grew up and which is a site ofintense unrest. Allouache updates his focus on urban youth who, once struggling with a nation in the making, are now experiencing an increasing spiral of violence. It tells the story of an ordinary baker who flees for his life after impulsively ripping out a rooftop loudspeaker that incessantly broadcasts propaganda by religious activists. A warning about the dangers of replacing colonial despotism with theocratic authoritarianism, the film won the International Film Critics prize in the Un Certain Regard category at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and that year's grand prize at the Arab Film Festival. In Algeria, Allouache faced enough political pressure to prompt his departure.
Once in exile, Allouache used a comedic frame for Salut cousin! (1996), a diasporic and exilic film that features the related ordeals of two cousins from Algeria who navigate French society in different ways. Allouache laces the cousins' stories with enough empathy and sense of whimsy to temper what some call his customary fatalism. Allouache expanded his take on gender and diaspora in L'Autre Monde (The Other World, 2001), which traces the arduous journey of a woman and her fianceé, both born in France to Algerian immigrants, who travel to Algeria to experience a country they only previously ''imagined.'' After her fiancé—torn between his birthplace and his ancestral homeland—leaves for Algeria to join the military, the young woman dons a veil and follows, facing danger and further disorientation related to her own conflicting loyalties.
This film, by a director who humanizes characters ordinarily understood through the lens of prejudice, highlights the contradictory sources of their vulnerability and survivability. Allouache has repeated this message in films that span nearly two decades, and which similarly forced him to straddle two nations with a shared, violent history as the colonizer and the colonized. His commitment to give voice to the disempowered is what gives his films their greatest weight.
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