DIASPORIC FORMATIONS IN CINEMA
The dislocating effects of globalization, migrating cultures, and postcoloniality form the subtext of diasporic cinema. Thus this category of film is neither linguistically nor culturally monolithic. A number of scholars have discussed diasporic and exilic films as an international genre or movement consistent with the world today. Hamid Naficy outlines vital and nuanced distinctions between "diasporic," "exilic," and "postcolonial ethnic and identity" filmmakers, who collectively comprise "accented cinema" and, as he suggests, are in conversation with dominant and alternative cinemas.
However differentiated, though, diasporic films and other types of "accented" films share similar concerns, characteristics, and production practices. In culturally diverse and often compelling narratives and styles, they address the paradoxes of exile and the negotiation of difference and belonging in indifferent and frequently xenophobic communities and nation-states. Moreover, diasporic films, such as Vivre au paradis ( Living in Paradise , 1998), set in France during the last years of the Algerian war of independence (1954–62), and Hop (2002), in which an innocent boy finds himself in trouble and separated from his father, foreground the struggle for recognition, community, and citizenship. As is evident in Salut cousin! ( Hey Cousin! , 1996), about two
b. Algiers, Algeria, 6 October 1944
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, École Nationale Supérieure 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 exposé of Algerian males who fear intimacy with women as much as alienation from male peers. The title is derived from the phrase gatlato alrujula , 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 of intense 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 fiancé, 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.
Omar Gatlato (1976), Un amour à Paris (A love in Paris, 1987), L'Après-Octobre (Following October, 1989), Bab El-Oued City (1994), Salut cousin! ( Hey Cousin! , 1996), L'Amour est à Réinventer ( Love Reinvented , segment "Dans la décapotable," 1996), Alger-Beyrouth: Pour mémoire ( Algiers-Beirut: A Souvenir , 1998), L'Autre Monde ( The Other World , 2001), Chouchou (2003)
Allouache, Merzak. Bab El-Oued: A Novel . Boulder, CO: L. Rienner, 1997.
Malkmus, Lizbeth, and Roy Armes. Arab and African Film Making . London: Zed Books, 1991.
Shafik, Viola. Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity . Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998.
Michael T. Martin
Algerian cousins in racially tense Paris, and Gegen die Wand ( Head-On , 2004), which centers on a marriage of convenience between two German Turks, they also explore the ambivalence and contingency of diasporic identities. These films, and others such as Heremakono ( Waiting for Happiness , 2002) and Le Grand voyage (2004), suggest a counterpoint to the dislocating experience of global migrations, using journey narratives to interrogate the "homeless subject."
Since the 1980s, alongside the emergence of postcolonial diasporic filmmaking, new and more complex accounts of the "national" and "national cinema" have evolved largely in response to the ascendance of transnational media and other supranational entities (multinational corporations) under global capitalism. As a critical category, national cinema presents problems: one can no longer define national cinema in terms of where films are produced and by whom, or by a comparative approach that differentiates between national cinemas. Diasporic cinema, like diasporas, problematizes national identity and the nation as an imagined and bounded territorial space. For example, in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), the characters' identities are framed by London's cosmopolitanism, whereas in Pièces d'identités ( Pieces of Identity , 1998), they are informed by a monolithic African (or continental) affiliation along with tribal distinctions.
Diaspora cinema, paradoxically, comprises the global as a distinctive transnational style, as well as the local to reflect some manner of specificity. Diasporic cinema's political project expresses a transcendent realism, in which "home truths" about the social experience of postcoloniality are rendered transparent. An apt example is Drachenfutter ( Dragon Chow , 1987), in which two displaced refugees—one Pakistani, the other Chinese—start a restaurant, whose viability is eventually thwarted by the insensitive immigration policies of their host country of West Germany. This feature also corresponds to and resonates with a growing corpus of films that address the fracture sociale , especially in First World societies, in which the gendered and marginalized lives of the underclass and growing economic disparities between social classes are explored. Examples include La Vie rêvée des anges ( The Dreamlife of Angels , 1998) and Rosetta (1999). Diasporic cinema, however, is less schematic, theorized, and committed to being oppositional as a collective project than its precursor, the 1960s cinema of political engagement. Nevertheless, it heralds a renewed preoccupation with the global and historical affairs of the contemporary period.