The Unspeakable: Representations of Trauma in Francophone Literature and Art

The Unspeakable: Representations of Trauma in Francophone Literature and Art,

Edited by Névine El Nossery and Amy L. Hubbell

This book first published 2013

Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Copyright © 2013 by Névine El Nossery, Amy L. Hubbell and contributors

Chapter 16, Pages 318 – 321

Relating the Unsayable in Algeria:

Jean-Pierre Lledo was born in 1947 in Tlemcen, Algeria and is of Jewish ancestry. Under threat by fundamentalist Islamists, Lledo was forced to flee to France in 1993. Since that time he has been making documentary films about exile, the multiethnic reality of Algeria before 1962 and, like Cassan and Havenel, the “mémoires refoulées par l’histoire officielle.” As Lledo said in an interview, “et tous les films que j’ai faits, on peut dire que ce sont des films où j’essaie de récupérer une mémoire, une mémoire oubliée, une mémoire enfouie, une mémoire cachée, une mémoire tabou, voilà.” To this end, Lledo’s 2008 independent documentary film Algérie, histoires à ne pas dire tracks various Algerians who confront people and places of the Algerian War.

While the first two participants Lledo follows, Aziz and Katiba, lived through the war and investigate personal histories, the third person asked that he and his son be removed from the film, and the last young man, Kheïr-Eddine lived through Algerian Civil War and attempts to explore his postmemory of War for Independence by interviewing witnesses of his parents’ generation. Each participant seeks truths and answers about the events of the Algerian war between 1955 and 1962. They are filmed, often from behind, moving through winding roads, walking up narrow paths, and questioning others who participated in the violence of the Algerian War. As the title suggests, the film attempts to represent the unspeakablepast by letting Algerians tell and interrogate their own story; but during the process, some break down, some withdraw, and sometimes witnesses cannot recount what happened on camera. There is a part of the past too shameful to document, even if it can be articulated.

In attempting to portray the “histoires sombres” of the the war, Lledo first follows Aziz Mouats who seeks to understand why his European neighbors left the region where he lived after the massacre in Philippeville (now Skikda) on August 20, 1955. The Mouats family were viticultors who worked alongside the Europeans, and Aziz states that his family, knowing there were attacks planned, had asked for protection of their European neighbors. His uncle Lyazid who was a regional FLN leader made a commitment to protect them. Consequently, Aziz wants to know why was his family then, “massacrée, rasée” by the French General Aussaresses and his troops during the August 23 Repression of the Algerian uprising. No one has been able to answer these questions, and Aziz emotionally explains:

« Je ne sais pas où sont enterrés mon père, mes deux … jeunes oncles… qui avaient 14 et 17 ans, mon grand-père et tous les autres membres de la famille qui ont été pris ce jour-là gratuitement. »

His story is broken by visible pain and long silences as he remembers

losing his loved ones. His European neighbor Roger Balestriéri took the remaining members of his family in on his farm until the end of the war. Aziz says confidently, “mes enfants connaissent très bien cette histoire parce que je ne cesse pas de leur en parler.” He mourns that what was once a peaceful existence in his memory became a bloodbath, and he claims, “moi, j’en souffre jusqu’à ce jour.”

After fourteen years away from his birth region because the Islamists in East Algeria were and still are a danger to him, Lledo films Aziz’s return to Beni Malek to interview people who may remember his family and recall what happened in 1955. The confrontation with places he remembers is as moving as his encounters with the locals who knew him as a child. He interviews “Mohamed,” the only Algerian survivor who witnessed the massacre of August 20, who was home on military leave at the time. Mohamed gestures at the landscape surrounding them in Beni Malek as he recounts precise memories saying no colons were killed that day in the town, confirming what Aziz had expected. Another man testifies about the subsequent August 23 French Repression and the events that unfolded in front of his home where he stands. He recounts the extreme brutality, the pillaging and burning of homes, how all of the village’s twenty-three men, including his grandfather, father, three uncles and his cousin who was only 15, were gathered together while the women and children cried. No one was spared: “un massacre, quoi.” Mr. Balestriéri came and saved the women and children who were left behind. The man proclaims he will never forget, even if he loses his memory.

Lledo films Aziz as he pursues the story in a nearby town of El Alia where the orders of the August 20 uprising were followed: the FLN members killed every European they found. This event had been so silenced in the region that Aziz had only discovered the El Alia massacre through research on the Internet. In the film, an Algerian witness recounts in horrifying detail how the day unfolded: in the name of Jihad, men broke down doors and threw gasoline on the Europeans. The witness recounts in Arabic that the “Gours” were killed with guns, axes, knives and even rocks. Even women and children were not spared because the attackers were told they had to terrify the women to successfully chase the colonizer out. In El Alia, the FLN members personally knew the Europeans they killed. The witness testifies in graphic detail that during the slaughter of a European woman he ate the dinner she had been cooking. The killings

continued for three hours until the French military responded. While the attackers fled to the mountains with their families, the French executed those who remained in El Alia during the Repression.

Eventually Aziz is led to the place where his uncle Lyazid, who had purportedly protected the Europeans in Beni Malek, was killed by the French. Another unnamed witness and the only person with Lyazid at his death guides Aziz to the place where Lyazid died while giving a confused account: Lyazid saw thirty to forty French soldiers and he ran towards them rather than away. Aziz, upset, argues with the witness who only explains in Arabic, “His day had come.” Aziz places a rose on the spot and the men part, Aziz walking away from the camera while the witness walks towards it saying solemnly, “What a story. What else can I say to him?”

Aziz continues to wonder, “quels étaient les mots d’ordre” on that day. He has gathered pieces of accounts from various witnesses and official history, and the narrative is incoherent to him. For forty minutes Aziz awaits Lyazid’s co-leader of the Beni Malek uprising, the last survivor who could alone have told him the truth about the orders given that day. His hope for answers finally diminishes. “Faillait-il tuer sans discernement?” Did his uncle spare the lives of the colonists? Numerous questions continue to hang above him at the end of these encounters. Aziz is left in an abandoned graveyard, now in ruins and overcome with dense vegetation, remembering the burial of his loved ones. Emotionally broken down at the site, Aziz has been confronted with fragmented testimonies filtered through memory leaving his own history unresolved.

Lledo renders the incomprehensible lucid through his filmic work: the testimonials come across in dialogue shifting frequently between French and Arabic. He provides subtitles in French and in English to make the story cogent to a broad public. The end result is a documentary that searches the past, following literal and figurative trails that sometimes lead to horrific memories not previous explored and much less exposed. The absence of certain witnesses highlights the gaps still remaining in the war story. In spite of its merits, Algérie, histoires à ne pas dire has been met with resistance in both France and Algeria. In the preface to a book related to the film, Grand-père a tué deux colons, the publisher, Wolf Albes writes:

’Pour la première fois, au cinéma, l’on voyait des Algériens arabes et

musulmans raconter les massacres qu’ils avaient pu commettre à l’encontre de civils européens pendant la guerre d’Algérie.

Comment un tel film, interdit en Algérie aussitôt qu’achevé, avait-il pu

être réalisé?…

Ces précieux témoignages ne disparaîtront donc pas et contribueront à

corriger l’image grotesque et déformée de l’Algérie d’avant 1962, diffusée par les medias. (7-8).”

Similarly, Lledo explains that the pre-edited portion of the film dealing with the 1945 Sétif Massacre was rejected by each French television

station causing him to reflect, “Il me fallut bien en conclure que l’État

français, sans doute de façon moins directive, s’alignait sur la version de son homologue algérien” (10). As such, the publicly acknowledged

“guerre de mémoires” is directed by official historians such as Benjamin Stora rather than by those communities in Algeria where the events took place. Once again, testimonial of even the most shocking and horrific portions of the Algerian War is readily assembled and available, but diffusing the story to a broad audience becomes a difficult task for smallscale publishers and independent film companies such as Lledo’s. The trauma is voiced, but the story remains obstructed.

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