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Experimentation In Arab Cinema From The 1960s To Now: Intimate, Inquisitive, Informative 'Fidai' (Algeria)

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by Tambay A. Obenson
November 13, 2012 11:07 AM
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Currently running at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) here in NYC is a three-part film exhibition titled Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s to Now, which aims to highlight a largely unknown heritage of experimental cinema from the Arab world.

The works selected for this 3rd edition of Mapping Subjectivity hail from Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and more, reflecting a diversity and richness of voices.

I've been giving access to all the films in the series, and I'll be giving you a brief look at each of them in individual posts.

The series funs through the 25th of this month.

In Arabic, a fidaï means a fighter who has sworn his life to a cause.

And that's exactly what Mohamed El Hadi Benadouda considers himself, once one of countless anonymous veterans of the Algerian War of Independence against France, some 50 years ago; a successful 8-year rebellion against the French - a period that's realistically and rivetingly documented in Gillo Pontecorvo's landmark 1966 film, Battle Of Algiers; a film we've mentioned a number of times previously on this site, and highly recommend.

Joining the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in secret while living in France, El Hadi was a loyal soldier who carried out assassinations, lived underground and did time in prison; when Algeria won its independence in 1962, he was expelled from France and returned to his home country. Now seventy years old, on the fiftieth anniversary of Algeria's independence, El Hadi recounts his years of struggle and hardship to his great-nephew Damien Ounouri in the documentary Fidaï, which is both a tribute to the anonymous heroes of a war that galvanized the imaginations of colonized people worldwide, and a critical reflection on the legacy that the war imprinted on the "new" Algerian society.

I'd call it a first-hand account of Algeria's struggle for liberation from under French colonial rule, told by a man who was on the frontlines.

Initially seemingly not keen on revisiting those tumultous years of his life, first as an assassin for the FLN, before enduring torture courtesy of the French, he eventually does begin to relive crucial moments during those particular years of his life, coaxed by his great-nephew (the filmmaker), who discovers an old newspaper article that includes a mention of his uncle's past imprisonment, forcing him to have to now, finally tell his story, after hiding it from his children for many years; although one could also argue that he was simply protecting them.

And once he starts to talk, he doesn't stop talking; understandable, since he certainly has a lot to say, given the life he's lived, and this is a part of that life he's essentially been supressing. You sense that it's probably freeing for him, telling his story (on camera, for the world to see), very matter-of-factly, without any of what I'd call extreme emotional displays, nor self-censoring.

What may be perceived initially as ambivalence eventually becomes conviction.

It serves as a wonderful education of a significant historical resistance, not only to his children and great-newphew, but to the audience as well - a time capsule you could say.

It's a intimate, poetic, minimalist work that doesn't rely on gimmicks, or even music to create emotion, since the filmmaker knows well that the material on its own is compelling enough, and the storyteller, even though he lived the gruesome tales he tells, seems relatively unaffected - almost like a news reporter, reporting on a historical event, although with an authenticity (re-staging key moments at the actual locations they took place) that only someone who was actually there would give off.

El Hadi belongs to a generation that is gradually leaving us, and whose largely undocumented experiences make up a history that has, sadly, yet to be thoroughly recorded and widely distributed.

It's a lyrical, informative, engaging testimony about one of the 20th century's most influencial revolutions.

Consider it a companion piece to Battle Of Algiers.

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