Telling the Untold Tales

David B. Green 16.07.2008 

As we wrapped up our interview, on the lawn behind the Jerusalem Cinematheque, I gave Jean-Pierre Lledo my business card, and he in turn wrote down his address in my notebook: His home is on the “Place du 19 Mars 1962,” in Montreuil, on the northern coast of France, near Calais. The precise date didn’t ring a bell for me, but the year 1962 did, since we had just spent the past hour discussing events surrounding Algeria’s independence from France. And indeed, Lledo, an Algerian of Spanish, Jewish and Berber descent, explained that March 19 was the date that a cease-fire in the war between France and Algeria took effect, in 1962.

It’s not unusual, he said, for French cities to have a “March 19, 1962” street, much the way many Israeli towns have roads named for November 29, 1947, or Iyar 5, the dates the United Nations passed the partition plan for Palestine and Israel declared independence, respectively. What makes for an unusual coincidence is that many of the filmmaker’s works – including the film he is screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival at 4:45 P.M. today, “Algeria: Unspoken Stories” – revolve around Algeria, and the consequences of the war, which lasted from 1954 to 1962.

It is his obsession with those consequences that led Lledo, now 60, to go into exile 15 years ago, after his life was threatened by Islamic fundamentalists. And even now, a half-dozen years after some political stability was restored to the country after the most recent civil war, from 1991 to 2002, left more than 150,000 dead, open discussion of the circumstances that led to a million non-Muslims’ departure from the country after independence is still not tolerated, and “Unspoken Stories” remains an unscreened movie in Lledo’s homeland.

“In Algeria, there is an official version of history, and there are the unofficial ones,” Lledo told me, speaking French through an interpreter. “The official version is the only one that can be taught in the schools and through the media,” and that’s the reason his film is banned. In it, he tells of a number of atrocities that were committed by members of the National Liberation Front (FLN) against non-Muslim residents of European extraction.

According to the official version, he explained, “the war was a struggle against colonialism, with its objective being to make it possible for Algerians to run their own country. It was on that basis that the FLN earned legitimacy from the rest of the world.” In practice though, the war was waged not just by attacks on the French army, but also by a campaign of terror against all non-Muslims. “In all the battles that were fought, the talk was not of fighting for independence but of fighting for God.”

And so over and over in “Unspoken Stories,” we hear participants from both sides report on the talk at the time of jihad and mujahideen, and of the cries of “Allahu Akbar” uttered by the latter as they went about their work. At the same time, we also hear over and over how comfortable relations between different religious groups had been before the war began, with Christians, Muslims and Jews living in the same buildings, and working and socializing together. But in Philippeville (today Skikda), in August 1955, rebels killed 123 non-combatants, including women and children – to which French forces responded by killing some 1,300 rebels (the FLN claimed the number was 10 times that); and in 1962, an indeterminate number of Europeans were massacred in Oran, several months after the March 19 cease-fire went into effect. This violence is one of the main contributory factors to the departure of the 13 percent of the country’s residents who were of European descent (including its Jews) at the time of independence.

According to Lledo, to this day, Algerian citizenship is normally limited to Muslims. In his case, his father applied for and was granted citizenship for the family, even though he was of Spanish, Christian descent, and his wife was of Jewish and Berber background. Jean-Pierre grew up in a secular household, except for a two-year period when his Jewish grandmother came and lived with the family in Oran (“She would take me to synagogue, and I really liked the cholent she made,” Lledo said). After graduating high school, in 1966, he went to France to study, and ended up participating in the student rebellion in 1968. That same year he traveled to Prague, where he had been admitted to film school, but the invasion of Russian forces, after the “Prague Spring,” led to the school’s closing. Lledo ended up studying filmmaking in Moscow, after he was granted a scholarship to the Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK). He earned his diploma in 1976, having studied with the great director and teacher Mikhail Romm.

The soft-spoken director, half-bald with wispy near-shoulder length white hair and a thick mustache, looks like an unreformed hippie. He told me this was his first visit to Israel, and that he expects to be attacked in the Algerian press when it is reported that he screened his film in Jerusalem. “I’m not here as a pro-Israeli,” he explained, but “I wanted to break the taboo” against the country. “Violence,” said Lledo, “is not the solution to injustice. Some people say that violence can accelerate the pace of history, but I say the opposite, that it slows it down. When we use violence, it turns the entire population into an army of soldiers. It’s the opposite of democracy. That’s the situation in Algeria since independence. When the army is in charge, people get used to following orders.

“If someone can help bring about peace someday,” Lledo concluded, speaking about both his birthplace and the country he’s visiting, “I think it is writers, artists, filmmakers. I want to bring people together.”

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