Film-maker exploring feminism in Algeria


Sofia Djama does not consider herself a feminist. It's not because she doesn't believe in equal rights for women – as a 33-year-old female director in Algeria, she is already a trailblazer. It's more that, as she puts it: "The rights of women in Algeria are such that you can't be feminist in the traditional sense. There are things you can't even discuss or negotiate."

The main problem, as Djama sees it, lies in the interstices between legal and social morality in her country.

"On one hand, I consider myself totally free," she says, speaking over the phone from Paris, where she spends some of her time. "I have a right to wear a skirt, to go to the beach – the law doesn't ban me from doing so. If I don't want to fast during Ramadan, the law doesn't oblige me to. But from the perspective of social morality, it's absolutely forbidden."

It is this nuanced tension that Djama explores in her second short film,Softly One Saturday Morning (Mollement, un samedi matin), which scooped two prizes at the prestigious Clermont-Ferrand international short film festival earlier this year.

Djama's film tells the story of Myassa, who is returning home late one night after work and is the victim of an attempted rape. Her attacker pins her against the wall of her Algiers apartment building, but fails to get an erection. The next day, Myassa is faced with a choice: to report the assault to the police or to forget it ever happened.

"It's not a film that is anti-men," says Djama. "I wanted to concentrate more on the failure of the system: we're at a stage in Algeria where young people are undergoing a complete crisis of identity. There are no jobs; they have no room to express themselves freely in a cultural space; they are forced to live at home with their parents; as a result, they are turning to Islam in search of an identity.

"The current government in Algeria no longer relates to its youth and these young people are full of hatred and violence. That's what I explore in the film: both the woman who is assaulted and the man who assaults her are victims."

Softly One Saturday Morning is beautifully shot and subtly directed in a way that enables Djama to portray the reality of modern-day Algeria. It is an existence filled with petty frustrations (the difficulty of getting a plumber to fix a broken tank) and humiliation at the hands of incompetent state authorities. When Myassa reports her attempted rape to the police chief, his first response is to laugh. Throughout, there is an undercurrent of machismo.

"A few people have mentioned the name of [feminist film director] Virginie Despentes to me but she has quite a violent approach, whereas I'm not about settling scores," says Djama."I just want to put it all on the table."

In fact, she cites her most powerful influence as Ken Loach: "I adore him and that kind of social realism."

For all her success, the film industry in Algeria is still in its infancy. According to Djama, there are no film schools in her home country, which makes it almost impossible to employ Algerian technicians. Softly One Saturday Morning had to be made with financial backing from Europe. Was she worried about how the film would be received in Algeria?

"Yes, but the Algerian Press Service [the equivalent of the Press Association] was the first to cover its release. It does the authorities no favours to be seen as censors. What's happening in Algeria is much more subtle than that: it's auto-censorship."

As one of the few women working in her field, Djama is keen to be a role model for aspiring film-makers. "There are no heroes in Algeria, only martyrs," she says. "When [Algerian athlete] Taoufik Makhloufi won the 1500m at the Olympics, the race wasn't even shown on domestic television. He wasn't supported by his country."

Djama says she would like to be "internationally recognised". At the same time, she feels "completely African but also Maghrebi – my influences are Arab and Muslim. And I'm very happy about that."

Djama's directors to watch out for

Tariq Teguia, director of Inland, a poetic reflection on the state of contemporary Algeria.

Nadir Moknèche, whose drama Viva Algeria focuses on three women caught between the modern world and fundamentalist Islam.

Malek Bensmaïl, director of La Chine est encore loin, which chronicles everyday life in the village where the war for Algerian independence began.