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. “France didn’t recognize us or talk about us; the countries which we came from didn’t talk about us and knew nothing about us; and our parents were silent, told us nothing. If I were asked in school to draw a family tree, I would find it hard to go back even as far as my grandparents. I realized that in France we had this first generation, this first wave of immigrants, who were slowly dying out and vanishing, and it was important for me to stop and capture them, to transcribe their experiences. I am certain that a male director would never have made a film like Inch’Alla Dimanche and wouldn’t have been interested in this work. So as the daughter of immigrants, it was important for me that even before moving into fiction, I wanted to capture this memory, and to work with memory.”

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 Algeria a woman like this wouldn’t have been so isolated. She would have come from a social structure; she would have been surrounded by friends and family in her town. In France, she’s in prison. It’s at the end that we see Zouina’s true face, her true identity. What the film depicts is her first tottering steps towards her own liberation.

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 Algeria. They wouldn’t have known the problems that the film represents, the problems that were those of our mothers in France, and even the problems that I experienced myself. These women who remained in Algeria remained in the structure that was there. They led their own struggles; they evolved in a different rhythm, and achieved different things. But in the story of immigration, these women were not able to take their place in French society and at the same time, they were also cut off from their homeland. So they didn’t advance as fast as the Algerian women did. Algerian women were very combative. They gained access to schooling—in Algeria today there are huge universities—but still, today, women in Algeria have problems, even if they are not the same ones.

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 Algeria. So children weren’t supposed to integrate; they were supposed to leave, but in fact they never did.

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 France isn’t necessarily willing to acknowledge. It’s a constant struggle, and you’re constantly juggling several different hats: the hat of a woman, a director, the daughter of immigration. It’s not easy.

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 Algeria—and he was willing to sacrifice everything to meet his goal. He was living underground; he spent three years as a political prisoner in France; two of his brothers were assassinated… there’s this incredibly heavy family history.

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 Algeria publicly. Six months ago I established contact with my father again, and I saw that he had all the press clippings about my films, that he was proud of me—but only because Algeria was proud of me.

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 info@frif.com.

Livia Alexander holds a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern and Cinema Studies and currently teaches at SUNY Binghamton. She lives in Brooklyn.