The foreign Son, Director's note
1 would like to be a Frenchman born abroad, in a country like any other, but in France Algeria is not a country like any other. 1 was born there, in the same house as my father and grand-father - a cluster of clay dwellings at the foot of a hill overlooked by a military fort at its top. From that position, the French army could watch the slightest motion around wadi Kiss, which marked the border with Morocco. 1 was born there in the times when Algeria was France. My parents returned permanently a long time ago. Their bodies are there, "abroad", and 1 am left with the idea that there is something to be mended, that there is a "here-over there" story to be told, not to give any lesson but to enlighten. Film is ail about light.
Today, France is going through a phase of amnesia and denial which prevents it from facing the consequences of losing its imperial grandeur. We, "French of Algerian stock" are the sons of an Empire long chanted by France. We are, as Gramsci wrote, the outcome of a historical process which left a myriad of unaccounted for marks on us. My first feature film, The Black Path ( Le Chemin noir), was already an effort at accounting for those marks.
With The Foreign Son (Le Fils Etranger), 1 will probe again the depths of what makes me Algerian and French, plough the same path as in my earlier film - along a cinematographic way at the edge of the political field. 1 would like to have the cinema take hold of historical facts, and mix them with documentary reality and elements of fiction in order to tell a story which speaks to us today.
Travelling to one's native country is not the easiest of trips; it is not tourism, you have to tear yourself from home to cross over. Many friends of mine - Moroccan, Greek, Turkish, Portuguese, Syrian, etc. - feel likewise. This is why Algeria, in The Foreign Son, will be haunted by France, being in a way the other side of the looking-glass, like an echo of how France was haunted by Algeria in my first feature. 1 was then travelling around familiar territories, the places of my childhood in the steel valleys of Lorraine. The film now in the making will leave more space for the unknown, for discovery, with the bewilderment but also the overwhelming emotion that it entails. It will associate today's Aigerian reality to an inner dialogue with the past as weil as irruptions of Algerian history as revealed by archive footage. Intimate reminiscences will coll ide with reality as it happens. The quest of The Foreign Son will bring up some questions, those which haunt me now that my children are grown up and 1 realize that they have almost never known their Aigerian grandparents and seen so little of Algeria itself.
For years, 1 kept putting off the time of visiting my native country, my mother, my father, my brothers and sisters over there. Of course with the best reasons, because can you always find some. Why? 1 couldn't say. In 1987, 1 retumed to visit my parents in Algeria after a 15-year lapse of time without seeing them. They weren't advised of my joumey. Mokhtar, one of my brothers in Algeria lent me his car to drive from Oran to their place. When my mother saw the Peugeot 204 stop in front of the house, she thought it was her son Mokhtar coming to visit. When 1 got out of the car, she didn't recognize me and before uttering my first name - fifteen years of absence is a long time! - she said the names of my four other brothers. Then, when she uttered my name, something happened between her and me which only the cinema can express: that second lasting for ever and ever. .. for an etemity.
1 was expected, though, because my sisters and my mother revealed to me that the day before, a young girl had come to ask about me. While 1 was in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, someone 1 didn't know knew that 1 was arriving. This young girl is called "the orphan" in the M' Sirda area. Nobody really know where she cornes from; she is given food when she knocks on doors, people listen to the little she says and when she suddenly vanishes, no-one knows where she goes. They also say that you can recognize her to her right hand, which has six fingers. My short stay in Algeria at the time unfolded entirely under the sign of the marvellous, in a hypersensitive state. 1 was in the light of the native island where you say: "May God watch over your shadow."
What do 1 know of Algeria? What does an Algerian from France know of his parents? French-Algerian, but also Algerians from Algeria, we ail seem lost in a maze. But what is being Algerian? Where do we come from? Our history has been trampled, lacerated. Then it has been expurgated by authorities in Algerian Algeria and slipped under a big rock. Like Theseus, who had to lift the rock under which were the gold sandals and sword which allowed him to be recognized, we must bring our legacy to light in order to be able to think a future for ourselves.
What we know is a large fabric full of holes. It is this tom veil which The Foreign Son would like to mend, these great empty spaces, these memory holes between France and Algeria, that the film wants to visit.
1 found some photos of a camp of Military Govemor Lyautey's soldiers, located at a stone's throw from where 1 was bom. Among this population whom the future Marshal gathered and addressed in 1902, there may have been sorne of my ancestors. It may be them as weil, on another photo taken at the tum of the 20th century, dressed like the horsemen of Emir Abdelkader, who are filing along the banks of Wadi Kiss. Unlike a scripted movie, The Foreign Son is a movie of sensations; it mixes the intimate, the social, the historical and the poetic in an impressionistic way. It will clinch together the real, archives and the phantasmagorical along a single narrative line. Words will be rare and the rhythm peaceful. The film will be in colour.
The thread of the film follows a fiction character, Omar, who is the foreign son, the traveller without luggage. Along his erratic joumey, Omar's voice over comments, in counterpoint to his sister's Fatima, bring out reminiscences and unvoiced details which will be as many keys to understanding the family history of this son, of what he may find in Algeria. 1 will play the part of Omar, and my physical appearance explains that 1 can be viewed as a "foreigner" in Algeria; if s what a character in my previous film, The Black Path, pointed to: "If l had met you in another place, l would have mistaken you for a European ", and he added: "Have you lost your Algeria or what?".
With the Foreign Son, 1 hope to go towards what 1 may have lost, but also what 1 may have gained.
To this end, 1 am interested in finding another way of telling through pictures, sounds and editing - in finding a singular form, neither totally fiction nor documentary. 1 chose not to dress Omar, "the go-between," in the trappings of a classic narrative character, not to tum him into a construction - with a detailed past, social ties and clear motives - because, just like the character I played in The Black Path, 1 find it necessary to reveal of him just what is necessary to this Algerian enquiry, since the main protagonist of the film is Algeria itself. Omar wanders through Algeria as through in a waking dream. He is a sensitive analyst steeped in opaque circumstances. Just like the eye of the camera, he captures, immersed like a scuba diver in Algerian history and present times. His inner feelings are not relevant, they will not matter much until the time when, suddenly, Omar finds himself in his own world, in his miraculously recovered family. Until then, he will be on screen the first viewer of what happens under his own eyes, and the film viewer will be able to project his own experience and views into him.
This character whom the film viewer will move around, follow and question will embody what we are trying to grasp. And my wish is that, through him, the viewer will take hold of everything else.
We'll leam that Omar has not come back to his native country in two decades; that he even doubts he can still speak Algerian Arabic; that he received the news of his mother's death by phone in France, and even that could not bring him to extend himself, to break the invisible wall separating him from Algeria. Omar has no idea whether his father will recognize him, no idea whether he will even recognize himself. He remembers what the old man had told him upon a visit to France, a long time ago:
"Seeing you like that in the street, people might think that you are tao French ta be my son. But your mother and me know that you 're not a gaouri. you 're an Arab, of course ... You 're our son ... and yet ... "
It is probably this "and yet," like a "you are but you are not," which sits on Omar' s mind while he travels in search of - but what is he searching for exactly? For his native hou se, of course, everything seems to lead to it. But is that really it? Is it his tlesh-and-blood father that Omar has come to see?
When Omar eats, it is with calm and poised gestures; when he takes water in his palm to drink it, when he bares a foot to refresh it in the water of a wadi, it will each time be simple, primal, like a ritual. And if sometimes the viewer sees things that he could liken to apparitions, it will be a sign that we slipped into Omar's mind, in order to guess what his face does not register, the disturbance of walking on the land where he was bom and dipping into the language whispered into his ear as a child. His sister Fatima is the one who evoked him to Algeria, as if by magic. But in order to find her, Omar will have to lose himself, to let himself go and be carried, let himself be released of the curse which ail exiles carry within them. Amina, the young girl who seems to come "out of a fairytale," will be there to accompany him in his joumey. She will be like Fatima' s "eyes" until we meet the sister herself, only at the very end of the film. But is this sister alive herself?
Algeria is a place of tales. Its space is "haunted." Magician Circe lived in one of these landscapes, Herodotus described them, Ulysses walked through them, and Giant Atlas tumed into a mountain there. It is a land of signs, and visual choices will be paramount. The image will be more important than words. Rhythmic, visual and sound correspondences - ail that work which will be done in editing - will express Omar's hesitation, the sense of loss then, later, the deep joy of reuniting with his relatives.
For Omar, it is dizzying to be there. He has almost no memory. He is on a land which, until then, only existed in his head, a territory that absence and distance tumed mythical and a little scary. He will have to match up the imaginary and real countries in order to embrace the language, colours, rhythms, rituals, and ail those things he is familiar with without knowing them at ail, those old things of weil before him which inhabit him. It is only after twists and tums that he will truly get in touch with his fellow humans and the warmth of his kin. All of them will be gathered in the little cemetery of Sidi Amar, on the bank of Wadi Kiss, for a celebration of the reunion of the dead and the living.
Could it be that this strange joumey is the only way for Omar to regain his Algerian side, to become a "native son" again?
In unfolding this story, whose stake is the very issue of "territory," 1 am trying to embrace the complexity of the ties between France and Algeria with ail the means of filmmaking, and as much sensibility as is possible. The screenwriting still requires much looking for locations and meetings as weil as searching for archive footage which will infuse sorne past into the present.
At ail times 1 am animated by the thought that there much more in The Foreign Son than a private adventure. And if 1 feel impelled by this immersion into the land where 1 was bom, it is less to treat a subject than to try and capture what the search for the "foreign" inside us can reveal of ourselves.