HOLD BACK RENGAINE by Rachid Djaïdani.The question of freedom and gender in traditional Algerian and African societies within a secular context
What is important today? What is a pressing concern? What brings people from every corner of this planet to gather under one roof, and to listen so attentively? We are desperate to hear what the noises of the city constantly drown, desperate to hear some sense out of the cacophony of the mundane. This festival was admittedly about Algeria, it celebrated the 50th anniversary of the liberation of…the country?…the people?…and this is exactly what came to be questioned. Who was liberated? It became clear that some people are indeed more equal than others. Who? It appears that under the protective and self justifying yoke of most religions, the male will be the more equal part of the human equation, and that this weighs in the balance with such imponderable mass that our civilization has lost the meaning of humanity itself. In ancient traditions linked to alchemy and some of the gnostic gospels, the original principle of our existence was hermaphroditic. Jesus also hinted at this principle when he said that our spirit is neither male nor female, which cancels out the first premise. It makes sense. What is a mind? Has it got sexual attributes? Does it look sexually tempting to either sex when we reveal portions of it? Yet, this continuing erroneous idea of gender separation and gender discrimination persists as if we had forgotten the simplest axioms of logic and common sense. We let a faceless mind dictate our life for peace of mind. We let two equal halves of the population rage against one another, torture each other, blame each other, destroy the possibility of true love, abort our dreams of friendship, repress our most profound aspirations, twist our instincts to match the general consensus, itself the artificial product of an institution directed and dictated by a cast we know nothing of other than its absence from ordinary life. And what ever this cast, this refined elite, this barbaric aristocracy, this mythical sociopathic race has decided to inflict and to impress on the populace, we believe blindly, we submit to its debilitating dogma, we follow like miserable loyal dogs who will not even trust their own senses when confronted with new directives commanding us to cause devastation, suffering, misery, because one woman has supposedly seduced one man, long ago, under the hungry gaze of a god who no doubt had coveted this being…that is had he/it existed. In matriarchal mythology, the stories are of course significantly biased to the female, and the roles are partially reversed. Eve lives in all of us, Adam is not a man, god is a failure, humanity has lost its soul and the universe is a black hole, because we have denied the most essential aspect of our being, freedom. We are ruled by an inane idea, and our liberation will escape us so long as we perpetuate this myth for the benefit of our pitiful survival. Why pitiful?…because it comes at a greater price, a price greater than physical comfort, greater than law and order, greater even than superficial health, greater than moral values…this price is self-knowledge. And if we continue this line of thought, we will find that, as a result of our search for self knowledge, we will gain all the necessary tools to understand others, the world around us, right and wrong, the purpose and consequences of our actions, without prejudice, self righteousness, or preconceptions; we will comprehend the true meaning of compassion. Of all the speakers, one marked me most, Zahia Salhi
whose subject of discussion was Women in today’s Algeria: towards less gender inequality and the ideas emulated rejoined those exposed in a movie that was screened earlier although not as part of the festival: Hold Back by Director Rachid Djaïdani.
The film is shot in reality hand held style, grainy, raw, with much natural lighting, it includes scenes of actors on a set, a la Francois Truffaut, and the cinematic organic quality is close to Dogma, “the bare essential” brought about by Lars van Triers and Thomas Vinterberg in the 1990s with “Festen” (“The Celebration”), but also close to Éric Rohmer’s , Le Rayon Vert, 1986, and from an added social commentary and philosophical perspective, to Robert Guédiguian, as in Marius and Jeannette, 1997, and La ville est Tranquille 2000.
The first scene opens on a couple, young, innocent, exchanging soft words and gestures, but this idyllic vision is soon inter-cut with the aggressive walk of a man, hard stubble, squinting eyes, like a bird of prey. We follow him, reluctantly, he is looking for someone; he is looking for his sister. The two worlds that seemed so far apart are slowly but terrifyingly drawing closer, to end in the final collision, yet, in this journey, we are taken into the intricate syntax of the family circle, a circle that, as it tightens around the novitiate, drains the living day light out of him or her alike. On one side, Christian bigotry, on the other, Muslim arrogance; both portrayed as equally parochial, insensitive, reactionary, immutable, and catastrophic. Sabrina, the sister, loves Dorcy, who loves her. This seems simple, and should flow towards a natural conclusion. Their dreams are full of sweetness. But the world around them is made of a different material. It is angular, intransigent… inhuman. Dorcy comes from Christianized Africa, she is from North Africa, but Islam is the religion of her family. Dorcy’s mother rejects her on the basis of the color of her skin. She is adamant and will not change her mind, prepared to disown her son who in her eyes commits a crime against his ancestors and his race. She has no intention of harming the girl who in her eyes does not really exist, since her maternal and more so moral judgment prevails over her son’s. Sabrina has forty brothers. And one by one, they are informed of her plan. Some are outraged, the younger one in particular is incensed. The horde grows in numbers, and the hunt begins. We are gripped by the violence of their reaction, by their dreadful commitment to a brutal interference, by the will to divide two lives from one another, and each life from themselves. They feel absolute in their righteousness, the sentence is passed without doubt. The family will be the laughing stock, the blood will be soiled, allah forbids it. Who knows the mind of god as well as the ignorant? In the streets of Paris, the long laborious chase is on. Slimane, the self appointed eldest who ponders heavily on his sense of justice, moral duty and fatherly responsibility, is involved with a white Jewish woman. He promised to marry her, but does not have the courage to bring her into the family fold…he knows he is committing an aberration, and that the 39 other brothers would prevent such a sacrilege. One of the brothers refuses to help him in locating the address of the “negro” lover, his outlook is different, but his life is filled with other issues, with a purpose too. Slimane has not much of a life. He is lost. He must find a mission…and to rescue his sister from evil is a supreme guaranty of worthiness. There ensue three horrifying moments. Those moments are revelations. Dorcy is kidnapped, Sabrina is cornered by the brothers, but always manages to banalize their attempt at straitening her. Their language becomes saturated with divine retribution, with the militant obsession of the believer’s avenger. Anger is displaced by emotionless calculation. The audience is therefor led to expect a determinant action. The audience stops breathing; under excruciating torture, the almost naked body of Dorcy expires. We are stunned, appalled, puzzled. The lights suddenly flood the room, Dorcy can get up. This was an act, and what an act. The director had urged him to deploy pure unadulterated emotion, but here, we are at the end of our tether, the injustice and the psychopathic savagery of the execution having suddenly added a new realism to the story, a layer of visceral truth. We know Dorcy’s fate is pending and we hope for his escape. But since he is ignorant of his new status, that is, the status of victim, or rather, of the sentenced man, fusing his existence to the terrifying world of religious extremism in some morbid dance, his path draws nearer to that of his assassin as the film progresses towards a dark yet illuminating denouement that will transpire to leave the last question unanswered. Slimane is a coward, abused by his own subjugation to the debilitating mechanisms of an institution that runs in his blood. He confronts a man we had been introduced to in a scene where Sabrina is involved in a deep and emotional conversation with him, They embraced and this alerted us to the undeniable fact of their deep closeness. This man is the eldest brother, shunned by the family for 30 years…because of his homosexuality. Slimane despises him as much as he despises himself. He has bought a gun and points this gun at his brother who simply tells him, not afraid, as Slimane always is, “shoot me, I am already dead”. Slimane carries this fear inside him, calling it faith, calling it his raison d’ être. He and the brother, the true eldest, stare at one another, one with love, lost love…the other with hatred. Slimane leaves. We know whom he will meet next. Around a street corner, young Dorcy feels his piercing gaze scratch the side of his face. He stops and turns towards the self appointed executioner. Everything stops here in this slow motion mortal coil, two gazes once more, entranced, desperate, ascertaining the destiny of each man. The tragedy rises silently, and the eyes glisten in the deem light. Both characters are caught in a web, and at the centre the gigantic spider watches on, assured of her victory. Slimane cries, his tears are filled with the immense pain of humanity imprisoned in its own irrevocable stratagems, atrophied by centuries, millenniae of soul-destroying politics. Finally, Slimane speaks…”forgive me” he simply whispers. As Dorcy walks away, his back exposed to us, we are not sure whether, it is his spirit or his body…if Slimane has already shot him, or if he will before Dorcy reaches the next corner. But we know all of these people are ensnared inexorably, and will soon or later perish for the sake of an indestructible lie. We know, that the audience is made of victims and perpetrators, sisters and brothers, lovers and haters…that it is up to us to make this film a relic, to turn this condition of ours into a thing of the past.
Copyright © Pascal Ancel Bartholdi 2012