by Abiba Coulibaly
Shasha Movies, an independent streaming service for South-West Asian and North African cinema, presents the first complete retrospective of French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira, whose filmography spans three decades and the breadth of the Mediterranean. Unearthed is a body of work ranging from Sedira’s student projects made as a recent transplant to London, to contemporary films developed in the lead up to Les rêves n’ont pas de titres (Dreams Have No Titles), the exhibition she conceived when representing France at Venice’s 2022 Art Biennale. This online retrospective, titled Forms of Desire, takes its name from the first of three journals released to accompany the landmark show, each dedicated to a different city—in this case, Algiers. Like the eponymous publication, the programme gathers a plurality of artist-activist voices from the Mediterranean—also included in Shasha’s curation is the radical, allegorical, and hard-to-come-by work of fellow Maghrebin filmmakers such as Ali Essafi and Farida Benlyazid.
Sedira’s work begins with short films made in the ’90s, featuring repetitive and ritualistic motifs in the form of regionally-specific modes of expression (signposting the landscapes that would feature in later work): ululation in A Scream for Liberation (1995) and calligraphy in Autobiographical Patterns (1996). Later came more layered interrogations of matrilineal trauma and intergenerational dialogue; Don’t Do to Her What You Did to Me (1998) sees a potion frantically made from a family photo album before being imbibed, and Retelling Histories (2003) listens in on a captivating oral history recounting how colonial rule, patriarchy, and the photographic device intersect. And the road goes on… (2005) documents Sedira’s ‘re-discovery’ of her parents’ native Algeria, and marks a departure towards more restless pieces dealing with the expansive geographies—imagined or digitalised when not directly tangible—of the Mediterranean. Middle Sea (2008) embarks upon the highly symbolic crossing of the body of water where Africa bleeds into Europe, but in these more mobile works the Mediterranean is evoked not just by the sea; also traversed are its parched flaxen fields, blurred, poorly-maintained motorways, and GPS satellite immortalisations, the latter dragged, dropped, and rotated across a screen in Inconsistent Mapping (2017). Where early work saw Sedira concentrate on a singular body part—a hand or a mouth—and its accompanying, evocative gesture, later work places these appendages within an unrestricted body and ambivalent landscape, allowing space for recurring subjects, both individual—often family members—and thematic—predominantly mobility, memory, and transmission—to roam.
Perhaps two works best encapsulate the overarching threads of Sedira’s oeuvre, with Retelling Histories (2003) and Mise-en-Scène (2019) interrogating the power dynamics inherent within image (or absence thereof) at the familial and national levels, respectively.
Retelling Histories (2003) is a recording of a conversation between Sedira and her mother, which, at surface level appears to address gender—the latter tells her daughter of colonial soldiers photographing women for ID cards in the Bir Snab region of Algeria’s interior, which were then confiscated by mujahideens. Her anecdote demonstrates both metaphorical and literal ways in which womens’ images were ‘captured’, their consent and agency overridden, as well as photography’s role in rigidly enforcing the types of standardisation and identity categories that underpinned colonial projects, also referenced through ordonnance mapping and satellite imagery in Inconsistent Mapping (2017).
Added to these gendered dynamics is a racialised element—Sedira’s mother evokes the complicity of ‘Harkis’ (a vitriolic term denoting the complex phenomenon of Algerians who fought on the side of France) as mediators between the French soldiers, and the Algerian women being photographed.
The entanglement of both race and gender plays out when Zineb’s mother addresses the sexual violence inflicted by the colonial army; Sedira’s mother would darken her skin to become less attractive and thereby minimise the likelihood of being ‘picked’ to endure assault. ‘Tu te faisait noire ou sale?’ (‘You made yourself black/dark or dirty?’) asks Sedira, the apparent interchangeability of blacken, darken, and uglify, telling of the murky racial politics of the Maghreb—Sedira’s work often focuses on the radical, vocally Pan-African moment in Algeria’s history (see also Bouchra Khalili’s Foreign Office ), but this has since disintegrated to be replaced by a misguided binary between North and Sub-Saharan territories.
In just four minutes of conversation (exemplifying receptive bilingualism with daughter posing questions in French, and mother responding in Darija and Berber, both understanding each others’ idioms, but avoiding enunciating them) Sedira employs the specific narrative of tales still present within the living memory of the Algerian diaspora, to unravel universal, superimposed hierarchies that resonate far beyond the ‘gold, blue and lilac of the landscape’ (Guiding Light ) of Sedira’s native Mediterranean.
Of comparable paradigmatic importance is Mise-en-Scène (2019), the most recent of the films featured in the retrospective. Following a fruitless visit to the Cinématheque d’Alger, Sedira chanced upon two film canisters in a second hand shop. She collaged together their contents—worn 16mm and 35mm film reels from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s—resulting in a gnarled montage which fuzzily seeps from teal, to violet, to rust, framed by juddering film perforations. The footage is so badly damaged, that the viewer spends more time attempting to discern familiar silhouettes rather than recognising them, as they jerk below a flickering scorched earth pattina.
The clips date from the period during, and immediately after, Algeria’s hard-won independence which saw a corresponding peak in national cinematic output, when both revolutionary thought and visual art flourished, the two seen as connected and part of the same decolonial mission. One such example, just-perceptible in Mise-en-Scène, is Ghaouti Bendedouche’s syndicalist Chebka (1976), yet from the rushes other socio-political developments reveal themselves: the proliferation of affordable camera technology via home cinema, and the post-independence nation-building project via FLN propaganda for instance.
The film (and its state) are suggestive of a wider national condition; possessing a history fractured and tainted yet undeniably magnetic and worth observing. The rushes’ retrieval in a flea market rather than the national archives are indicative of the neglect and potential disappearance of a national—though staunchly internationalist—history and craft that Sedira’s work has continually sought to catalogue, or reenact and reimagine when irretrievable.
Abiba Coulibaly is a film programmer with a background in critical geography, interested in exploring the intersection between ethics and aesthetics.
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