French-Algerian: A Story of
Immigrants and Identity
By Livia Alexander
Born in France to Algerian parents, film director Yamina Benguigui is renown for her penetrating cinematic treatises on gender issues related to the North African immigrant community in France, including the documentaries Women of Islam (1994), Immigrant Memories—The North African Inheritance (1997) and The Perfumed Garden (2000).
Livia Alexander interviewed Yamina during her recent trip to New York to present her debut feature film Inch’Alla Dimanche (2001) as part of Lincoln Center’s annual festival “Rendezvous with French Cinema.” The film compellingly, though sometimes heavy-handedly, tells the story of Zouina who arrives in France following the 1974 family reunion law allowing Algerian women to rejoin their husbands working in the country. Her husband, Ahmed, fearful for his wife’s honor in a new and foreign society, grants her only limited liberties at leaving the house. At the mercy of her ill-spirited mother-in-law, Zouina quietly but forcefully stakes out her own independence.
As Benguigui testifies, she herself came from this same background, which she knew absolutely nothing about. “
Are Muslim women involved in their own oppression? In your film Inch’Alla Dimanche Zouina’s character seems complacent, while her mother-in-law imposes the patriarchal order.
In the first image of the film you see Zouina as she is, you see that she’s from the countryside. This isn’t a feminist; the women who went to France at this time, these weren’t the intellectuals, but women who were joining husbands who came from rural societies (shepherd families), women who obeyed tradition and who were forced to follow and obey their mothers and mothers-in-law. That’s really the rural tradition. To me it’s very important when [Zouina’s] mother-in-law tells her to go bring the vegetables and she throws them down in anger; that was symbolic of her first rejection of the order. But something that you have to realize is that she’s from this traditional society, and in
What makes Zouina’s story unique?
This is the story of immigrants, of immigration; obviously the situation is completely different for a woman who stayed behind in
These immigrants never saw themselves as becoming a permanent part of French society; they were always there for a finite period of time and would go back to
One finds only a few women in the Arab film industry. Was becoming a filmmaker a difficult or unusual choice for you?
Yes, it was extremely difficult for me. One price I had to pay was that I had to be willing to cut myself off from my father. My father was not willing for me to follow this career, and it’s only recently that I’ve been able to reestablish contact with him.
Because you’re cut off to some extent from French society, you have to really impose yourself, you have to really fight to be able to work on subjects like this, subjects and realities that
Why did your father object?
You have to understand that my father was one of the important political leaders of the MNA—the first nationalist movement out of
And so you have this hard-line nationalist who was willing to die for the nation, and everything had to be for his country. And then you have me who comes along saying, as an individual, “No, my needs are different, I’m going to leave the group for that,” and that involves banishment. There’s no common ground; you can’t talk about it, you can’t discuss things, no—it means banishment for life and you need three lifetimes to make up for this fault. But I hope that he’s proud of me today. I think he is, and one of the reasons is that I’m one of the few directors that
For more information about The Perfumed Garden (France, 2000), contact First Run Icarus Films, 32 Court St., 21 Fl., Brooklyn, NY 11201, (718) 488-8900, or email@example.com.
Livia Alexander holds a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern and Cinema Studies and currently teaches at SUNY