Wednesday, 21 November 2007


Constrained Militants:
Algerian Women 'in-between' in Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers
and Bourlem Guerdjou's Living in Paradise

Author: Katherine A. Roberts
Published in: The Journal of North African Studies, Volume 12,
Issue 4 December 2007 , pages 381 - 393


Beur filmmaker Bourlem Guerdjou's 1998 film Living in Paradise
follows the divergent trajectories of a young Algeria couple (Nora
and Lakhdar) living in the Nanterre shantytown during the Franco-
Algerian war. Although the focus on Nora may seem on the surface to
subvert the film's male-centred narrative as her growing political
conscience leads her to harbour FLN militants from the French
police, the film's gender politics are in fact complex and even
problematic. Drawing on theories of women and nation in Algerian
literature and film (Woodhull and Hadj-Moussa), this paper argues
that Guerdjou is working within a stock set of images of women in
Algerian society during the Franco-Algeria war, inherited from
newsreels, documentaries and film classics such as Gillo
Pontocorvo's The Battle of Algiers. Women of Living in Paradise
embody contemporary Algeria's irreducibly contradictory identity.
Expected to be both courageous militant and guarantor of traditional
national culture, they are, in fact, asked to negotiate
the 'betweenness' (Woodhull) of Algerian society in ways that have
proved disastrous for them immediately after liberation and that
continue to haunt contemporary gender relations in their country.


Fist clenched, eyes ablaze, hair in the wind, her body moving
defiantly to the sound of the drums and cries of the crowd around
her, an Algerian women dances in the street, taunting the French
troops and waving in her hands the flag of the nation that eight
years of bloody civil conflict have brought into being. Gillo
Pontecorvo's 1966 revolutionary classic The Battle of Algiers ends
with an image that like many of the film's scenes has become a
cliché, oft-reproduced and oft-excerpted as representative of the
filmmaker's 'capturing' of a critical moment in the history of
liberation struggles around the world. Indeed, the scene is preceded
by a blank screen with the words, 'July 2, 1962: the Algerian Nation
is Born', in a way that conflates text and image, allegorising the
anonymous dancing woman. It is she, the film suggests, who brings
the nation into being, who carries forward the flag and whose
presence signifies the beginning of modern Algeria. It is certainly
a very powerful image, well known to critics and film scholars
alike, functioning as dramatic epilogue which heralds the inevitable
victorious outcome for the Algerian people in a film whose narrative
is primarily concerned with events taking place several years
earlier during the battle for the city of Algiers (January to
September 1957).1 Yet it can be argued that in this last fiery,
symbolically charged sequence, women and nation/flag come together
in a way that has had a profound impact on the representation of
women in anti-colonial liberation struggles in North Africa and
elsewhere in the Muslim world. One cannot help feeling that through
this image - the figure of the individuated local woman, symbolic
repository of indigenous peoples' liberating potential - a series of
possibly conflicting signifiers has been fixed or sown together, as
it were, by Pontecorvo's film, in a way that forecloses the
signifying process and optimistically positions women at the heart
of the liberation struggle in Algeria. To what extent does this
image and others like it that The Battle of Algiers has no doubt
inspired participate in a unifying process that soothes over and
sutures the wounds of what Ella Shohat and Robert Stam identify as
an already fissured revolutionary process (1994)? To what extent do
they deflect attention from tensions within and without, solidify
and thus obscure women's concrete experience in revolutionary

More than 30 years after the release of Pontecorvo's revolutionary
classic, the figure of the female militant returns in second-
generation Algerian filmmaker Bourlem Guerdjou's Living in Paradise
(1998), a poignant portrayal of the Nanterre shantytown outside of
Paris during the Franco-Algerian war. Like Pontecorvo's defiant
dancing 'indigène', Guerdjou's main female protagonist, Nora, is
also filmed dancing and clapping against the backdrop of the
Algerian flag as Algerian independence is celebrated in the
shantytown, once again collapsing together woman and nation on the
eve of a new political era. This nuanced portrayal of a community
caught in a psychological and political no-man's land thus mobilises
the image of the female militant and women's participation in the
war in ways that both inspire and disturb given the glaring
incommensurability between women's anti-colonial militancy and their
current and continued disenfranchisement in independent Algeria
(Bouatta and Cherifati-Merabtine, 1994; Moore, 2003). The present
article is inspired by a desire to go against this closing down of
signification, to break up and disrupt iconic representations of
female militants and to reflect upon the instrumentalising of the
heroic virtuous women warrior. What are the stakes that underlie the
use of images of women to represent war? Drawing upon recent
feminist scholarship in the areas of nationalism and militarism, I
will first explore the question of women's presence/absence in
military iconography (Cooke, 1993, 1995) and, more specifically, the
Algerian woman's role as 'intermediary' and 'negotiator' of
conflicts among men in the context of the modern/tradition divide
that has long characterised Algerian society (Woodhull, 1993). This
will provide a background for a critical reading of gender politics
in Living in Paradise. Although conceived in terms of heroic
militancy, honour and courage, women in Geurdjou's cinematic
universe are essentially symbolic; beautiful, inspiring yet
contained, in much the same way as Pontecorvo's three famous
fidayate or fire-carriers in The Battle of Algiers and the lone
dancing woman with which this paper began.

Deconstructing the 'War Myth'

Women's relationship to anti-colonial nationalism has indeed been a
problematic one to the extent that nationalist movements mobilise
both women and feminist discourses strategically in order to further
their goals. Much attention has to be paid in recent years to
the 'war of images' within Islamic Fundamentalism which relies
increasingly on the pious, chaste Muslim women - guarantor of
authentic values in the private sphere - to counteract increasing
economic precariousness and western influence visited upon the
public sphere. However, a similar mobilisation of women as
repository of national identity, as synonymous with 'national
culture' has been operative in Algeria long before the war of
independence. For many, the politicisation of gender is at the heart
of the national imaginary, seemingly indispensable to emerging
postcolonial national identities and to revolutionary iconographies,
or what Miriam Cooke would call 'the War Myth', that underlie them
(1993, p. 201). In this context, Valentine Moghadam's assertion that
the focus on women does not subside but intensifies in times of
revolution and upheaval is of added significance: 'Because of their
reproductive capacity, women are seen as transmitters of group
values and tradition and as agents of sociability of the young. When
group identity becomes intensified, women are elevated to the status
symbol of the community and are compelled to assume the burden of
the reproduction of the group' (1994, p. 18).

Thus Algerian women's participation in the war of independence was
symbolic, not in the sense that their concrete participation is
denied, but in that their participation was logical given the
symbolic status conferred upon them (repository of Algerian national
identity). Their participation was symbolic also in the sense that
concerns us here, that is to say, that the reality of the large
majority of women who fed, housed and clothed militants is largely
glossed over, superseded and replaced by the story of a heroic few
who in turn have become symbols of courage, heroism and enigmatic
purity (e.g. the three women 'fire-carriers' immortalised in The
Battle of Algiers to which I will return later). As Miriam Cooke
reminds us, when the fighting is over and it demands to be
described, 'the War Myth' becomes the ultimate ordering principal
which interprets actions and protagonists. The details are not in
themselves intrinsically important; they acquire long-term
significance only if they find a context and narrator to accommodate
them (1995, p. 10). In so far as this great myth is controlled by
men, women who did not write of their experiences immediately
afterwards have lost the war of symbols that always follows the war
of weapons (p. 15).

In the case of Algeria, the war of symbols began long before the
liberation struggle ended as demonstrated by recent feminist
scholarship's reassessment of Frantz Fanon's essay on the
veil: 'L'Algérie se dévoile', first published in 1959 and translated
as 'Algeria Unveiled' in A Dying Colonialism (1965).2 Fanon's essay
remains of critical importance to the study of women and nationalism
for, as Anne McClintock reminds us, he was one of the first male
theorists of nationalism to take gender as its formative dimension
(1997, p. 93). For him, the wearing of the veil during the early
phases of the independence struggle in Algeria signalled women's
allegiance to cultural traditions that enabled the emerging nation
to forge an identity. The veil thus became critical during the
period of armed resistance to the French forces as both symbol -
refusal to be 'won over' or 'penetrated' by western men - and
instrument - as women began hiding explosives under their veils.
Fanon's essay might best be understood as a cultural and political
intervention in a historical process in medias res that tries to
enable the liberation of Algerian women in a way that complements
nationalism and simultaneously challenges western ideologies
(Woodhull, 1993, p. 22), defining women as the agents of a cultural
mutation and the signifiers of a new postcolonial culture (Moore,
2003, p. 61). His text has nevertheless come under increasing
criticism for silencing women or endowing them with a structural,
auxiliary and, I might add, symbolic agency. In Lindsay Moore's
terms, scant attention is paid by Fanon to the gendered organisation
of Algerian cultural space before independence. This cultural
cleavage was not only the result of French intervention even if
colonialism led to its over-determination. Fanon underestimated the
influence of 'religio-cultural determinants and tenacious local
forms of patriarchy' in Algerian society (2003, p. 62). The question
as to whether Fanon failed Algerian woman (in not properly analysing
their situation) or whether they, in fact, failed him in not seizing
the moment and becoming the new postcolonial woman he strove to
bring forth remains a difficult one. Nonetheless, Fanon's ideal
Algerian woman is articulated in the realm of the not-quite-yet
possible, an ideal image of post-revolution gender relations.3

Fanon's importance for our purposes here is twofold: he remains,
in 'Algeria Unveiled', the first theorist to attempt to interpret
the possible significations of Algerian women's participation in the
war effort. Second, 'Algeria Unveiled' also constitutes the first
link in a long process of mystification of that same participation
as evidenced by dramatic descriptions such as the following which
can be found throughout the essay: 'Carrying revolvers, grenades,
hundreds of false identity cards or bombs, the unveiled Algerian
women moves like a fish in the western waters. The soldiers, the
French patrols, smile to her as she passes, compliments on her looks
are heard here and there, but no one suspects that her suitcases
contain the automatic pistol which will presently mow down four or
five members of one of the patrols' (1965, p. 58). Long before
historians were able to document women's participation in the war
effort, the image of the attractive, unassuming, yet deadly female
fatale militant came to dominate discourses on women in the Algerian
war. Any genealogy of the woman militant must therefore begin with
Fanon. Women's experiences in the Algerian liberation struggle, i.e.
their motivations, background and concrete activities, have been
only partially documented; much remains to be done and information
gathering is difficult due in part to the fact that so few women are
registered by the Ministry of War Veterans (Lazreg, 1994, p. 119;
Amrane, 1999, p. 63). We do know that the majority of women who
participated came from rural areas, which reflects both the limited
urbanisation of Algeria in 1957 and the fact that a major part of
the war was fought in the countryside. This 'participation' included
organising food supplies and hideouts, working as liaisons, and
guides, collecting funds from other women, obtaining medical
supplies, washing fighters' clothes and transporting weapons
(Lazreg, 1994, p. 124). All of these activities, although a far cry
from Fanon's weapon concealing heroism, were cause for immediate
arrest and torture on the part of the French authorities. We also
know that the post-independence governments in Algeria sought to
erase the memory of this participation (Bouatta and Cherifati-
Merabtine, 1994, p. 197), all too quickly reinterpreted as a
temporary aberration from women's traditional roles. Once again, not
having written immediately about their experiences has meant that
Algerian women have had little if no defence against the extensive
discursive manipulation at work in post-war Algeria.4 Yet, as
Djamila Amrane herself admits, in the case of The Battle of Algiers,
the story cannot be told without remembering the women who
participated on all levels, including that of leadership (1991, pp.
114-16). Here, indeed, state-sanctioned historiography was faced
with a dilemma. How to tell the story of this most important and
decisive battle (a military defeat yet a political victory as it
played a crucial role in galvanising support for the FLN) while
simultaneously avoiding what Clarisse Zimra has called 'the
epistemological tear' (1996, p. 827) that legitimising women's
political agency would cause to the fabric of this particular
society. From a cinematographic perspective, I will contend that the
image of the heroic, beautiful and courageous woman militant has
been the response to this dilemma, as a site of both celebration (of
unparalleled patriotic duty) and containment (for male anxieties and
fears around the transgression of gender roles).

Winifred Woodhull's study of Algerian women in both colonial and
postcolonial literatures by men and women provides a useful
framework for analysing the complex discursive practices at work
with respect to gender. Her rereading of the classics of Algerian
literature, alongside the dominant discourse of western scholarship
on Algerian women, leads her to assert that women are not so much
excluded from national civic life - as the modernity/tradition,
male/female, public/private binary model would explain - but are
called upon 'to embody contemporary Algeria's irreducibly
contradictory identity and contain the nation's dangerous conflicts,
at great cost to women' (1993, p. 2). Torn, in the immediate post-
war period, between the contradictory aims of the Algerian
Revolution (to establish a modern socialist nation and restore pre-
colonial indigenous culture), and, more recently, between competing
notions of Islam (FIS defined fundamentalism and state-sanctioned
regulated Muslim practices), the Algerian nation is in a state of
perpetual social-cultural schizophrenia. Women have come to be
associated in this complex cultural matrix less with 'tradition'
than with Algeria's 'betweenness', its traversal by irreconcilable
modern and traditional currents (Woodhull, 1993, p. 10). Her
analysis resonates most deeply with Algeria's more recent religio-
cultural divisions, but its relevance can be traced back to the
immediate post-war period at a time when gender roles, once
disrupted by the war, were in immediate need of realignment by the
state. Women in Algeria have long embodied the 'conflicting forces
that simultaneously compose and disrupt the nation'; women are
the 'guarantors of national identity, no longer simply as guardians
of traditional values but as symbols that successfully contain the
conflicts of the new historical situation' (Woodhull, 1993, p. 11).5
These conflicts are numerous and multifaceted, be they competing
forms of Islam, the refusal to acknowledge the social consequences
for Algerian society of significant changes in women's education and
employment, or increasing economic, social, religious and political
divisions among men. As Woodhull explains, 'in its effort, then, to
mute economic conflict between men and forestall violent struggle
between fundamentalist groups such as the Muslim Brothers
and "progressive" nationalist factions, the state has fixed
upon "the Arab and Muslim Algerian woman" as the indispensable
unifying force, a symbol whose power is turned against Algerian
women [] in the name of national cohesion and stability' (1993, p.

For Woodhull, women in Algeria - far from being impotent victims of
a monolithic patriarchy or religion - are actively and skilfully
negotiating ways to affirm their own religious and cultural values
while simultaneously protecting their own economic and social gains
in public employment (1993, p. 5). Yet, conversely, the possibility
of imagining a cohesive (though not unitary) national body relies on
the rhetorical strategy of reducing the multiple, heterogeneous
identities of Algerian women to a single female figure. The female
militant has become one of the ways for the national imaginary to
collapse down or compress women's increasing complex and contrasting
realities, channelling them within the safe confines of post-
independence heroic discourse. The war of independence is, after
all, the foundational moment of modern Algerian society. If, as
Algerian feminists argue, the current political function of
misogynistic customs is to forge solidarities among men who are
otherwise deeply divided, while maintaining what is perceived as a
crucial distinction between Muslim and western societies, it is
reasonable to say that the oppression of women, or rather
their 'containment', has become indispensable to Algerian
nationalism in its present form. What, then, has the national
imaginary done with women's multiple heterogeneous identities?

Fidayate, Laskars and Domestic Conflict in a Nanterre Shantytown

Bourlem Guerdjou's 1998 film Living in Paradise brought to the
screen a largely forgotten chapter of French history: the plight of
thousands of immigrant workers living in the squalid shantytowns of
Paris during the later days of colonial rule in Algeria. In adapting
the autobiographical text by fellow second-generation immigrant
Brahim Benaïcha, Guerdjou expanded upon the largely child-focused
narrative of the book, adding the point of view of the young boy's
parents, Lakhdar and Nora. Guerdjou's narrative foregrounding of
Lakhdar and Nora offers a rare glimpse - albeit significantly more
effective in the case of Lakhdar than of Nora - into the
consciousness of these often one-dimensional figures who are rarely
given their due in Franco-Algerian cinema.6 The film takes on the
question of alternative and competing collective historical memories
in that it features a dramatic recreation of the 17 October 1961 FLN-
organised demonstration against the curfew imposed on Algerians
living in Paris, resulting in the death of hundreds of Algerians at
the hands of the French police. Although perhaps less well known to
French historical consciousness, this event has become a veritable
événement de mémoire for the Algerian immigrant community.7 The
film's portrayal of the 17 October massacre, the depiction of
conflicts among Algerians within the shantytown, the use of Arabic
dialogue and non-professional Algerian actors, the grayish newsreel-
like quality of the cinematography and the painstaking recreation of
the Nanterre shantytown based on archival footage (the film was shot
in Tangiers) all concur to produce a stylised documentary-like
aesthetic effect - similar in many ways to Pontecorvo's 'docu-
realist'-style The Battle of Algiers. However, films such as Living
in Paradise, like much of Beur cinema, have primarily been studied
for the ways in which they contribute to debates about France as a
plural society, challenging hegemonic representations of Frenchness
while foregrounding the voices and subjectivities of ethnic others
(Tarr, 2005, pp. 1-26). Placing Geurdjou's film instead in the
context of Algerian representations of history/national culture
brings to the fore a whole new set of questions. How do filmmakers
come to understand their country of origin? How have second-
generation Algerians filmmakers remembered women in the war of
independence struggle?

Living in Paradise follows the divergent trajectories of Lakhdar and
Nora as they negotiate the paradoxes of living (and for Lakhdar,
also working) in a country at war with their own. The conflict that
ensues between them constitutes one of the main narrative twists of
the film. Lakhdar's dream to obtain a modern apartment for his
family leads to isolation and causes him to exploit members of his
own community. The film establishes Lakhdar as the narrative's main
focaliser through the frequent use of close-ups that show his
reactions to the harshness of life in the shantytown, often without
any dialogue. The spectator is made complicit with his desire for
warmth and intimacy from his wife along with his dream to provide a
decent home for his family and to see his son succeed in school. His
literacy and mastery of French give him a certain status within the
community; he writes letters home for the illiterate workers and
acts as a translator for a French doctor who tends the wife of
another migrant worker. However, Lakhdar is not a consistently
sympathetic character. Guerdjou's portrayal here of the immigrant
father functions as a reaction to glorified depictions of 'les pères
magrébins', hard-working and faithful, sacrificing themselves for
their families. Lakhdar's motivations for bringing his wife and
children from their village in Algeria - without warning Nora of the
conditions in which they would have to live - appears decidedly
selfish. His obsession with finding the money to pay for a decent
apartment alienates him both physically and psychologically from his
family and is behind both his refusal to devote cash to support the
FLN and his construction of a makeshift hut to rent out to a fellow
migrant and his family for extra income.8 Nora, who is led into FLN
militant activities, appears at first to challenge her husband's
authority; yet her one-dimensionality or the lack of depth in the
portrayal of her character ultimately makes her a figure of
containment for conflict among men in the shantytown.

The film first depicts Nora in traditional dress in a sun-drenched
sandy village (metonymy for the 'homeland'), receiving a letter from
Lakhdar which she asks her son to read. When the family arrives in
Paris, the spectator sees her body from behind, covered in the haïk
or white veil characteristic of 1960s Algerian. She is mute and
passive although close-ups to her face attest to the disappointment
she feels at the sight of the squalid living quarters she must now
inhabit with her children and the realisation that her husband
purposefully did not disclose the particulars of their living
situation in his letters. The role Nora is called upon to play
within the context of the bidonville is commensurate with our
previous discussion of the gendered organisation of cultural space
in Algerian society, i.e. women as negotiators of the 'trauma' of
Muslims living in an increasingly westernised society. Much like the
move from small villages to larger cities within Algeria has meant
an increase in veiling and limits on women's circulation, freedom
and movement due to forced cohabitation in close proximity with
strangers, Nora looses what freedom we can assume she had in her
native village upon entering the shantytown: Lakhdar forbids her to
leave the hut and to wash with the door open when a neighbour was
found spying on her bare legs. Nora's character indeed does become
more interesting when she leaves the hut to explore Nanterre's rows
of corrugated shacks, loses her way and is befriended by Aïcha, a
tall, determined woman in modest western dress and active FLN
militant operating on French soil. A relationship between the two
women ensues wherein Nora is drawn into militant activism. What
appears at first to be a genuine rapport of female solidarity is,
however, tempered by the fact that Aïcha is in need of recruits to
carry out operations and that the newly arrived, disoriented and
disillusioned by their new circumstances are often easiest to

Aïcha's initial reaction to Nora, 'You smell of home' (in Arabic,
using the word bled for home), spoken with more than a tinge of
nostalgia, posits Nora as the incarnation of authentic Algerian
culture: the repository, the village-home, the need-to be-protected
and preserved-from-colonial influence for which Aïcha and her fellow
FLN militants are fighting. In a key scene, Aïcha visits Nora when
Lakhdar is absent in order to collect funds for the FLN. Aïcha
encourages Nora to go and do her washing with the other women and
not to isolate herself because 'life is hard here'. She also
convinces Nora to help with the war effort for she is no longer at
home. Aïcha's suggestion that Nora is 'elsewhere', away from home,
might lead the spectator to interpret her situation as potentially
liberating and Aïcha's remark as an invitation to act in a way that
she would not otherwise, therefore suggesting that the French
bidonville could become a place for a transformation in gender roles
and a politicising of women's identity. Yet the film is constructed
around a complex reconfiguring of here/there, France/Algeria. While
the men must negotiate between two spaces, the bidonville and the
workplace which requires some contact with French society, the
female characters in Living in Paradise do not really leave Algeria
in a socio-cultural sense. Through community networking and the
parcelling out of shantytown territory, the social structures
operative in Algerian villages were reproduced in France; those
families originating from the same village were grouped together in
the shantytown, thus creating a miniaturised version of the Algerian
not-yet-nation on French soil. While Nora is 'not at home', the film
suggests through Aïcha's actions that this socio-cultural space is
to be utilised only temporarily to further the nationalist cause.
Women's agency - much like our preceding discussion of Algerian
women's participation in the war - is once again accorded, conferred
and structured by external forces for a common goal, that once
attained, presupposes women will return to pre-revolutionary roles.
Aïcha returns to Algeria with her husband shortly after these
encounters with Nora, only further suggesting that this 'away from
home space' is not to exploited for the transformational
possibilities it may offer women in terms of gender hierarchies, but
as a site of strategic intervention.

Aïcha and her husband's characters are inspired by what is known of
the French faction of the FLN operating in France during the war.
Known as laskars, they were experts of the Paris metro system
routinely dropped off weapons and leaflets in the trash cans which
others came to collect (Graebner, 2005). At one point in Living in
Paradise, Aïcha hands a suitcase to Nora and explains to her how to
use the metro system, knowing that the young women cannot read the
station names. Aïcha's importance for the mobilising of the
Algerians in Nanterre is captured in a dramatic sequence: alone atop
a podium, her first in the air, the wind against her headscarf, she
rallies the inhabitants amid resounding cries of 'Make Algeria
Algerian' and leads them to Paris in what was to become the tragic
demonstration-massacre of 17 October 1961. The staging of Aïcha, I
will argue, bespeaks, at least in part, of the mobilising of a
national cinematic intertext in the form of Pontecorvo's The Battle
of Algiers9 and, in particular, the famous 'fire-carrier' sequence
during which three women masquerade in western dress in order to
transport bombs to the European neighbourhoods of Algiers in 1957.
My comparison is based here on reoccurring imagery, but also on the
complex pleasure the spectator experiences in observing and
identifying with the female militant (although the fact that Aïcha
is allotted significant dialogue in Guerdjou's film makes her a more
empowering and complex character than Pontecorvo's trio). My return
to Pontecorvo's classic here is also grounded in Algerian cinema's
lack of images of the female militant that would have been available
to filmmakers like Guerdjou. As Mouny Berrah has noted, women were
largely absent from Algerian fiction films about the war except in
the figure of the martyred/suffering mother who mourns her dead son
(e.g. Le vent des aurès, 1966, Mohamed Lakhdar-Hamina).10

Pontecorvo's film dramatises the French military crackdown on FLN
militants in Algiers and its effect on the civilian population. The
film offers insights into the organisation of the various cells of
the FLN and to the political motivations behind the movement.
Although anonymous Algerian women are shown in various roles as
supporters and providers of refuge for FLN militants, the film's
most memorable depiction of women is through the famous sequences
during which the fidayate, 'fire-carriers' or sacred martyrs,
disguise themselves in western dress in order to pass through French
army checkpoints and ultimately plant bombs in the European section
of Algiers. This sequence has been extensively analysed by film
scholars for the way in which it plays with notions of masquerade as
a subversion political ploy and underlines racial and sexual taboos
of desire within colonial segregation (i.e. the women become
desirable to the French soldiers when they masquerade as French
women: Shohat and Stam, 1994, pp. 249-55; Orlando, 2000). Of
particular importance is Lindsay Moore's recent analysis of this
sequence in conjunction with her rereading of Fanon's essay. She
points out that the spectator has limited access to the subjective
experience of the women for they are not seen participating in the
planning strategies of the guerrilla activities - and historical
research suggests that they were (Amrane, 1991, pp. 114-16). The
spectator's interaction with these three women is mediated through
their mirror images in the lengthy masquerade sequence: 'The viewer
is placed in a paradoxical situation; we witness the women in
nominally intimate space but can only see the disguise of their bare
faces. The overall impassivity of the faces and the lack of verbal
exchange imply that the women are acting under orders to which they
collectively subscribe. The spectator here engages with a social
rather than a private consciousness' (Moore, 2003, p. 65). While it
is true that the film skilfully deploys identificatory mechanisms on
behalf of the women, for example, eyeline matches in the bomb-
planting scenes, 'these insist primarily upon the humanity of
the "terrorists" and so, once again, privilege identification with
the Algerians as a national group' (Moore, 2003, p. 68). Lack of
access to female testimony, Moore contends, and the focus on the
play of surfaces (masquerading as the West) conceals a lack of depth
in the portrayal of these women.11

Contrary to the female militants, the male militants in The Battle
of Algiers do not lack depth; they are psychologically motivated
characters whose actions are to be understood within a well-defined
paradigm of submission, alienation and eventual revolt. The film's
protagonist, Ali La Pointe, who dies in an explosion at the end of
the film, is described by a voice over in newsreel-style at the
narrative's inception as an illiterate draft-dodger, in and out of
juvenile court for acts of vandalism and civil disobedience. He
becomes politicised in prison where he witnesses the execution of
fellow prisoners and is subsequently tested and then recruited by
the FLN cells operating within the Casbah. The film's narrative
logic thus situates and contextualises the male revolutionaries,
motivating their actions. The women militants do not, however,
receive the same treatment. Although Pontecorvo had written dialogue
for the three women during the masquerade sequence, the dialogue was
deemed to 'ring false' and was omitted.12 Thus, we do not have
access to the women's motivations. If there is a rise to
consciousness on their part, it occurs off-screen. No indications
are given with respect to the women's past - age, place of birth -
as with Ali La Pointe - nor does the film contain other scenes that
would explain their desire to carry bombs for the FLN. As to whether
the absence of any references to the women's respective pasts hides
a less than auspicious life led before the revolution is unclear.
Their one-dimensionality, however, makes them ready fodder for
symbolic representation: they become courageous heroines, untainted,
uncomplicated figures of female militancy.

Research on women's participation in the war effort has emphasised
their contribution to what Miriam Cooke would call 'the home front'.
As previously discussed, their enormous contribution to the Algerian
revolution is best measured through the hiding of FLN militants and
activities such as nursing, food preparation and delivering supplies
as well as consciousness raising among village women. Those women
who were fidayate were a distinct minority. Yet Amrane underlines
that those few women who engaged in combat had totally broken away
from traditional female roles in Algerian society. They are depicted
in photographs dressed in military fatigues or in long pants with
short hair and thus in complete contrast to the image of the
seductive fire-carriers in The Battle of Algiers. While it is true
that the masquerading process was necessary in order to enable them
to pass through French checkpoints, the camera's lingering on their
beautiful faces during this sequence transforms the women into
objects of visual pleasure. Further, the incessant, relentless drum
music that stands in as dialogue during this scene serves
to 'Africanise' these women, underlining the temporary nature of
their adoption of western dress and placing them within
an 'indigenous' context of frenzy and fury. The use of the same
music at the end of the film during the famous closing sequence
depicting the dancing flag-bearing woman establishes a crucial link
between the two representations of Algerian women, positing them as
both the source of an authentic Algerian local culture and
restricting them through their silence. They are figures of
containment; figures that galvanise, that mobilise, yet that allow
identification without the complexity afforded to male characters.
It is precisely this complexity that can and has led to divisions
among men within the FLN. The Battle of Algiers glosses over this
threat yet prefigures the troubles to come in post-independence
Algeria in the words of key revolutionary Larbi Ben M'Hidi: 'it is
after the revolution is won that the real difficulties begin'.

Our discussion of the fire-carriers sequence provides a necessary
framework within which to analyse women in Bourlem Guerdjou's film.
Like the fidayate, Aïcha in Living in Paradise is bereft of context
that would explain her militancy. She is portrayed as a determined,
courageous woman who is not afraid to stand up to men. Close-ups of
her face and medium shots of her sober, yet elegant dress emphasise
her height and beauty. Despite the way in which her character
inspires and moves, she, too, functions in the film as a figure of
containment, of this 'in-betweenness' articulated by Woodhull that
was already present during the revolutionary period. Aïcha's one-
dimensionality also serves as a counterpoint to contradictions among
men and ultimately serves, I will argue, to neutralise them. Indeed,
the film foregrounds tensions within the Algerian community in
Nanterre through the character of Lakhdar. He refuses to give money
to the FLN 'brothers' in Nanterre, despite Nora's insistence, which
prompts the militants to accuse Lakhdar of wanting Algeria to stay
French. When Nora forces him to contribute, he accuses her in turn
of betrayal, demanding to know whether she is 'with him or against
him'. This scene serves to highlight the complexity of the situation
of the Algerian migrants, unwilling to admit that they are fighting
for the independence of an Algeria to which they will probably never
return. Through Lakhdar, Guerdjou problematises alliances at once
cultural, familial and national: he hints at mechanisms of coercion
within the bidonville - people pay because they have to - and the
ease with which the inhabitants are manipulated by their leaders,
bringing to the surface divisions that will plague post-independence
Algeria. Through Nora, these same shifting alliances simplified and
collapsed. Her commitment to the revolutionary cause is neither
fully explained nor contextualised. Nora must remain one-dimensional
in order to 'anchor' Lakhdar, enabling him to negotiate the modern-
tradition conundrum that defines his life in France.

The film's mise-en-scène reinforces this gendered representational
code. While male characters such as Lakhdar and his friend Rachid
are individualised through close-ups of their faces and dialogue
significant to establish their psychology, the women, with the
exception of Nora and Aïcha, are represented as a collective unit.
They perform various domestic tasks in groups but without any
meaningful dialogue among them (the only other minor female
character is a nameless neighbour suffering from mental illness). In
one scene we witness Nora being watched by Lakhdar from behind. Her
clothing and hair are so similar to her neighbours' that the
spectator can barely distinguish her from the others. The film
thus 'imbeds' her within the larger female community in Nanterre.
These and other scenes take on an ethnographic dimension in the way
they allow the spectator to view these women without giving access
to their consciousness, such as the medium shot of Nora, seated,
sowing the Algerian flag in the company of four other women and
another of the women dancing during the arranged marriage of a
neighbour. During the closing scenes of Living in Paradise, Lakhdar,
having gambled away the family home in an effort to pay for the
precious apartment, prepares to leave the shantytown, suitcase in
hand. He stops and stands opposite a fence separating him from the
rest of the inhabitants, fervently celebrating Algerian
independence. Nora is at the centre of this image, clapping and
dancing, the Algerian flag in the background. She becomes here
Pontecorvo's indigène: unspoiled, uncomplicated by material greed.
Lakhdar looks to her to resolve his problems; she sees him, leaves
the group, crosses the empty field and the couple is reconciled. It
is she, the filmic argument suggests, who will bring Lakhdar back
into the community, providing the unifying force that will heal
divisions among men.

As Alex Hargreaves has convincingly argued, the strength and
originality of Living in Paradise lies in the complexity of
Lakhdar's character: this mixture of strong and weak, silent and
spoken, sympathetic and antipathetic features that make him such an
arresting presence (2000, p. 350). Neither Nora nor Aïcha are
afforded the same complexity. Aïcha's departure prevents the film
from further developing the friendship between her and Nora and from
confronting the fate reserved for female revolutionaries after the
fighting is over. Nora is last pictured sitting in silence with her
family, aimlessly brushing her daughter's hair. Through their one-
dimensionality, both women serve as figures of containment that will
supposedly heal the emerging Algerian nation. In sum, neither Battle
of Algiers nor Living in Paradise shows women's participation in the
war effort to be transformative in the sense described by Miriam
Cooke. Whether this perhaps explains why women were unable to resist
the conservative tide that would come to characterise their
situation in post-war Algeria remains to be seen. One thing is
certain: as long as women are typically constructed as the symbolic
bearers of the nation, they will be denied any direct relation to
national agency. And Pontecorvo's dancing indigène will remain
forever an enigma.


1. This scene, like many others in The Battle of Algiers, was
carefully staged and rehearsed; however, this knowledge does not
appear, at least in my view, to take away from the raw and seemingly
spontaneous energy that is offered on screen. For details on the
production of Pontecorvo's classic, see Joan Mellon's (1973)
Filmguide to the Battle of Algiers, and the booklet and additional
audio-visual material included in the film's recent three-DVD re-
release (Criterion Collection, 2004).

2. Recent feminist critiques of Fanon's essay include Lazreg (1994,
pp. 125-33), McClintock (1997, pp. 93-9), Moore (2003) and Woodhull
(1993, pp. 20-4).

3. For Miriam Cooke, Algerian women were not so much 'let down' by
their male FLN counterparts as by themselves to the extent that they
underestimated the importance of their actions as transgressions of
prescribed gender roles. In comparing both men's and women's
writings about the war, Cooke argues that: '[t]o the Algerian male
writer, women's military participation was filled with significance,
but to the woman writer it was not. Whereas the women wrote of
multiple, generally undramatic roles for women in the revolution,
the men described only one that was mythically terrifying.
Political, sociological, and now this literary evidence contends
that during the revolution, Algerian women were not conscious of
their opportunities, and they have not thereafter "allowed"
themselves to be disempowered' (1993, p. 185). Reasons for this are
still unclear, although Cooke sites the absence of an indigenous
Algerian feminist movement within which women could situate their
struggle as a determining factor.

4. Two recent memoires by women militants - L'Algérienne (2001) by
Louisette Ighilhriz and Des douars et des prisons (1993) by
Jacqueline Guerroudj - have begun to reverse this trend. I am
indebted to Caroline Kelley (2004) for bringing these two texts to
my attention.

5. Author's emphasis.

6. Many early second-generation Algerian films tend to portray this
first wave of immigrant workers as tired, resigned figures -
impotent fathers and resilient, traditional mothers - lost in a
passive reverie for a home to which they will never return and are
unable or unwilling to articulate their histories (Tarr, 2005, p.

7. The erasure of this event from French historical consciousness
has been recently addressed in the placing, on 17 October 2001, of a
commemorative plaque near the Pont Saint-Michel dedicated to victims
of the police repression of what was in essence a peaceful
demonstration. For a detailed discussion of the memory of 17 October
1961 as it relates to Algerian literature, see Seth Graebner (2005)
and Anne Donadey (2001).

8. Indeed Guerdjou admits to having been 'bothered' by the image of
the 'good immigrant father' and thus wanted to create a more complex
character, an individualist who tries to rise above his
circumstances: 'The situation was so difficult that the exploited
could become, in turn, exploiters. Algerians robbed each other. One
must not forget that there were 89 shantytowns on the outskirts of
Paris and 25, 000 people in Nanterre. There were also what we
call "the sleep merchants" who rented barracks, hotels, cars,
whatever they could. In the same sense, people were obviously for
the liberation of Algeria but they resented paying for it. In this
film, I broke with the strictly positive portrayal of the first-
generation migrant; I try to break away from clichés []' (interview
with Didier Peron, Liberation, 17 March 1999).

9. Despite being directed by an Italian filmmaker and co-produced in
Italy, Battle of Algiers is based on a script by FLN militant Yacef
Saadi and sanctioned by post-independent Algerian government
authorities. The film is generally perceived by Algerian
intellectuals to this day as 'une commande' for Pontecorvo, i.e. a
successful cinematographic rendering of an idea emanating from an
Algerian historical consciousness.

10. Berrah's condemnation of Algerian cinema for its erasure of
women is virulent: 'In a country where there were heroines of the
caliber of Djamlia Bouhired, Jacqueline Guerroudj, Djamila Boupache,
Hassiba Ben Ali, Ouirda Meddad, Anne Steiner, Zohra Drif, Meriem
Zerdani, Baya Hocine, and many others, in a country that ordinarily
loves heroes, all of these women were erased from history - with one
exception, the extraordinary Djamila l'Algérienne by Youssef Chahine
(1958)' (1996, p. 76). Once again if the female militant was the
subject of a film it was the work of an outsider, in this case, an

11. The three women bombers of 30 September 1956 were Djamila
Bouhired, Zohra Drif-Bitat and Samia Lakhdari. The film depicts the
masquerading and bomb carrying of Bouhired and Drif-Bitat along with
Hassiba Ben Bouali who in fact did not participate in this incident.
She dies with Ali La Pointe in the explosion - re-enacted in the
film - that marks the end of the battle of Algiers. It is worth
noting that the booklet that accompanies the new DVD release of the
film contains much less explanatory and biographical information on
female militants than on male militants.

12. Gillo Pontecorvo, interviewed in 'The Making of The Battle of
Algiers', DVD 2, Criterion Collection, 2004.


1. Amrane, D. (1991) Les femmes algériennes dans la guerre Plon ,
2. Amrane, D. (1999) Women and Politics in Algeria from the War of
Independence to Our Day. Research in African Literatures 30:3 , pp.
62-77. [ crossref ]
3. Berrah, M. (Arasoughly, Alia ed.) (1996) Algerian Cinema and
National Identity. Critical Film Writing from the Arab World pp. 63-
83. World Heritage Press , St-Hyacinthe, Québec
4. Bouatta, C. and Cherifati-Merabtine, D. (Moghadam, V. ed.) (1994)
The Social Representation of Women in Algeria's Islamist Movement.
Identity Politics and Women: Cultural Reassertions and Feminisms in
International Perspective pp. 183-201. Westview Press , San
5. Cooke, M. (Cooke, M. and Woollacott, A. eds.) (1993) Wo-man,
Retelling the War Myth. Gendering War Talk pp. 177-205. Princeton
University Press , Princeton
6. Cooke, M. (1995) Arab Women Arab Wars. Cultural Critique 29 , pp.
7. Donadey, A. (Ireland, S. and Proulx, P. J. eds.) (2001) Anemesis
and National Reconciliation: Re-membering October 17, 1961.
Immigrant Narratives in Contemporary France Greenwood Press ,
8. Fanon, F. (1965) Studies in a Dying Colonialism Monthly Review
Press , New York
9. Graebner, S. (2005) Remembering 17 October 1961 and the Novels of
Rachid Boudjedra. Research in African Literatures 36:4 , pp. 172-
197. [ crossref ]
10. Guerroudj, J. (1993) Des douars et des prisons Fayad , Paris
11. Hargreaves, A. (2000) Resuscitating the Father: New Cinematic
Representations of the Maghrebi Minority in France. Sites: The
Journal of Twentieth Century Contemporary French Studies 4:2 , pp.
12. Ighilhriz, L. (2001) L'Algérienne Bouchène , Algiers
13. Kelley, C. E. (2004) Women Writing Revolution: Remembering the
Algerian War of Independence. Celaan (Revue du centre d'études des
littératures et des arts d'Afrique du Nord) 1-2 , pp. 39-52.
14. Lazreg, M. (1994) The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in
Question Routledge , New York
15. McClintock, A. (McClintock, A., Mufti, A. and Shohat, E. eds.)
(1997) 'No Longer in a Future Heaven': Gender, Race and Nationalism.
Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation and Post-colonial Perspectives
pp. 89-112. University of Minnesota Press , Minneapolis
16. Mellon, J. (1973) Filmguide to the Battle of Algiers Bloomington
University Press , Bloomington
17. Moghadam, V. M. (Moghadam, V. ed.) (1994) Introduction: Women
and Identity Politics in Theoretical and Comparative Perspective.
Identity Politics and Women: Cultural Reassertions and Feminisms in
International Perspective pp. 3-26. Westview Press , San Francisco
18. Moore, L. (2003) The Veil of Nationalism: Frantz
Fanon's 'Algeria Unveiled' and Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of
Algiers. Kunappi 25:2 , pp. 56-73.
19. Orlando, V. (2000) Historiographic Metafiction in Gillo
Pontecorvo's La bataille d'Alger: Remembering the 'Forgotten War'.
Quarterly Review of Film and Video 17:3 , pp. 261-271.
20. Shohat, E. and Stam, R. (1994) Unthinking Eurocentrism:
Multiculturalism and the Media Routledge , London
21. Tarr, C. (2005) Reframing Difference. Beur and Banlieue
Filmmaking in France Manchester University Press , Manchester
22. Woodhull, W. (1993) Transfigurations of the Maghreb: Feminism,
Decolonization and Literatures University of Minnesota Press ,
23. Zimra, C. (1996) Not so Far from Medina: Assia Djebar Charts
Islam's 'Insupportable Feminist Revolution'. World Literature Today
70:4 , pp. 823-834.
24. - Guerdjou, Bourlem (1998) Living in Paradise, 3bProductions
25. - Pontecorvo, Gillo (1966) The Battle of Algiers, Casbah/Igor
Films (Algeria/Italy).

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