Amin Zaoui
on the film and the book

Opium and the Stick

 

The novel’s poetics and the film’s ambition

 

Algerian novelist Mouloud Mammeri (1917-1989) was a controversial intellectual. Bold, rigorous, and candid, he is considered one of the founding fathers of the Algerian novel written in French. Mammeri lived by his principles and died without compromising them. During the Algerian Revolution against French colonisation, he was one of the intellectuals who joined the National Liberation Front. He penned some of the speeches in defence of the Algerian cause at the United Nations General Assembly, delivered by Mhamed Yazid, the then Minister of Information in the provisional government of the Algerian Republic.

Although primarily celebrated for his classic literary works such as La Colline oubliée (1952, The Forgotten Hill), Le Sommeil du juste (1952, Sleep of the Righteous), and L’Opium et le bâton (1965, Opium and the Stick), his contribution to research was no less important. Mammeri was a keen linguist, anthropologist and researcher who wrote up the foundations of Amazigh grammar, and deserved the title of “Sibawayh of the Amazigh language”1. His seminal work on the Amazigh language, Tajerrumt n’tamazight (Kabyle Grammar) was first published in 1976 (Maspero).

In addition to his writing and research interests, Mammeri was also drawn to the significance of visual media. He believed that films, both documentary and narrative, could capture and communicate cultural, political, and historical messages more powerfully than just the written word. He wrote the scripts for two documentaries Dawn of the Sentenced to Death (1965), directed by Ahmed Rachedi, and Death of a Long Night (1979), directed by al-Guthi Bin Ddouch.

After Independence in 1962 Mammeri’s literary texts began to appeal to the Algerian movie industry. Two of his major novels were made into films, with L’Opium et le Bâton (1970), being the first feature film produced after Independence and based on his novel of the same title. The film was directed by Ahmed Rachedi and produced by the Algerian National Institute of Cinema (ONCIC). Mammeri’s other novel made into a movie was La Colline oubliée (The Forgotten Hill). Directed by Abderrahmane Bouguermouh (1936–2013), it was the first Algerian feature film in the Amazigh language. The production of the movie took place between 1992 and 1995.

Mammeri’s novels are thoroughly visual and rich in descriptions, vividly written with an abundance of fine details of nature and human life, ranging from costumes, topography, landscape, to language and emotions. Artistically, Mammeri is close to naturalism, especially in his understanding of the nature of tribal life in the mountains. His accounts of nature can be described as oil paintings made of words. His morphological and physical portrayals of characters are drawn from the daily lives of simple peasants from the tribal areas, including his own village of Taourirt Mimoun, which was also the birthplace of the distinguished scholar Mohammed Arkoun (1928–2010)

Mammeri’s constant highlighting of daily life in the mountain region is not an expression of isolation or negative regionalism. Rather, he was writing the lives of ordinary people who lived in the area where he was born,and in doing that following in the footsteps of fellow novelist Mohammed Dib (1920–2003) who meticulously documented the traditions of disadvantaged families in Tlemcen in his trilogy on Algeria, La Grande Maison (1952, The Big House), L’Incendie (1954, The Fire) and Le Métier à Tisser (1957, The Loom). The trilogy was made into a highly successful TV series called L’Incendie (The Fire), directed by Mustapha Badie (1927-2001).

Within the pages of Mammeri’s literary texts Algerian cinema found a rich mine of images that were intact, in real colours. It also found mature dialogues that were free of exaggeration and embellishment, as well as clearly defined characters who spontaneously reflected the essential nature of Algerians at the darkest moments of their historical struggle, the struggle between those striving for freedom and a colonial power dedicated to enslavement and oppression.

Mammeri’s narratives benefited immensely from his knowledge as an anthropologist who spent a lifetime tracing historical, linguistic, cultural, and symbolic developments.

When the film L’Opium et le Bâton was released in Algerian cinemas – more than six hundred cinemas at the time – the audiences were unprecedented. The film achieved record viewers and box office sales, something never seen before in Algerian cinemas. To this day, the film maintains a strong presence in the Algerian cinematic imagination. Following the paths of the novel, the film portrays Algeria in its mythical dimension, where the dream of freedom and justice is a byword shared by all Algerians. The film highlights the ordinary Algerian, simple in his daily life but grand in his dreams and aspirations. It is a film about the individual who lives between reality and fantasy; the individual who cannot stop bursting barriers to achieve both his individual and his collective freedom.

The novel L’Opium et le Bâton is viewed as a smart narrative that presents the Algerian Revolution poetically and with insight, away from stereotypes, exaggerated writing, and quixotic heroism. In the novel, opium symbolised the hollow slogans employed by the colonial power in an attempt to save itself in the last quarter of the game of history. Colonial France presented itself as the patron of justice and equality for all people living in the colony – which was considered a French province – so there should be no disparities between Europeans, Amazighs, and Arabs. When propaganda failed to ease the tensions, France decided to use the “stick”, which stood for crackdown, displacement, torture, and starvation of the local population.

L’Opium et le Bâton is based around a family of three siblings: Bashir Lazrak, a physician graduated from Paris University; Beleed, a French language teacher who leads a schizophrenic life as both a friend of the French and a sympathizer with the revolution; and the youngest brother, Ali, who is fully engaged in the anticolonial war as a member of the FLN, the National Liberation Front. His dream is to raise the Algerian flag in the sky over the Algerian capital Algiers. As such, the family represents Algeria during the revolution for national liberation.

The film has indeed preserved the astuteness of the novel since it offers an objective and bold view of the Algerian Revolution; the war was not between the French and the Algerians, but rather between the colonisers and the colonised – there were some locals who aligned themselves with the colonisers, and on the other hand, some French sided with the Algerian Revolution.

The film owes its success to two factors. Firstly, it selected a novel that is “intelligent”, strong, and poetic – even as it addresses violence. Secondly, it brought together the best actors in the Algerian film and theatre industry of the 1960s who were themselves part and parcel of the Revolution. Most of the cast were members of the national liberation movement, actors such as Mustapha Kateb, Sid Ali Kouiret, Mahieddine Bachtarzi, Larbi Zekkal, Hassan El-Hassani, in addition to the great French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant.

Screening of the film contributed significantly to circulation of the novel while, conversely, the popularity of the novel and the name of its celebrated writer have granted the film a unique reception.

 

Translated from the original Arabic by Adil Babikir

 

Selected from Banipal 62 – A Literary Journey through Arab Cinema

Click here to go to Banipal 62 contents list

Order Banipal 62

Back to all selections