News Column

Algiers' decline, from its rooftops

October 28, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 28--ABU DHABI -- As any resident of a rooftop flat will tell you, living at the top of a building can provide a great view of the city. Cities being what they are, though, sooner or later there will be a tower block that's taller than yours, so your own eccentricities will feed someone else's entertainment and insight. Algerian auteur Merzak Allouache appears to have taken some inspiration from these commanding heights in making his latest film.

"The Rooftops" had the distinction of being the only Arabic-language work selected for the main competition of the Venice Film Festival this year. Nowadays it is screening at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, in the Narrative Feature Competition.

"Rooftops" has a simple day-in-the-life premise. It subdivides Algiers by time, from dawn to evening calls to prayer, and space, the city's five historic neighborhoods -- Notre-Dame d'Afrique, Bab al-Oued, the Casbah, Telemly and Belcourt.

One rooftop from each quarter provides the location of a story, each of which is unrelated to the other except insofar as they reflect some of the diversity of experience to be found in the Algerian capital. It is a diversity of the marginal, populated by displaced persons and squatters, bohemian artists and criminal real estate developers.

Here resides a confluence of last-century's fight for secular independence and the resurgence of tradition and Islam witnessed this century.

In Notre-Dame d'Afrique, two hoodlums torture a man, repeatedly submerging his head in a pan of water.

Garbed in businessman's attire, their boss Hamoud (Mourad Khen) alternates between talking business on his mobile and, when his victim isn't drowning, gently pressing him to sign this piece of paper, so he can release him to return home to his family overseas.

Squatting on a Bab al-Oued rooftop, Salouma (Nassima Belmihoub) is the matriarch of a strangely dysfunctional family -- a virtually catatonic daughter and her drug-addled son.

Salouma has been enduring a running eviction battle with her landlord Hajj Mouloud (Hamid Remas), who materializes to inform her that she and her family will be removed by force if need be. He reassures her with the fiction of state social housing for the poor.

In the Casbah, a devout family man keeps his uncle Larbi (Rachid Benalal) shackled in a box designed to house pigeons. To the general annoyance of the household, the older man chatters away like a madman about Algeria's independence struggle.

In the Central Algiers district of Telemly, Assia (Adila Bendimerad, the mainstay of Allouache's last three films) and her folk-inflected pop band use her building's rooftop as a rehearsal space.

In Belcourt, meanwhile, lumpen proletarian entrepreneur Halim (Aissa Chouat) rents out his rooftop squat to the needy. An aspiring boxer who works out on his heavy bag here bullies Halim like a servant. When a Sufi quack named Sheikh Lamine (Ahcene Benzerari) "treats" a young woman who finds no pleasure in sex with her husband, Halim finds a grifter's amusement in watching the sheikh beat the "red jinn" out of her.

The simple premise of "Rooftops" is effective but not particularly original, in either visual or narrative terms. The MENA region's rooftop template was cast in Cairo, where destitute families also reside in graveyards and disused archaeological sites.

Among Northerners, whose state regulations and historically cruel climate make such informal living arrangements seem exotic, these locations have an innate visual power.

Here, Allouache bridges his bundles of discrete narrative with exterior vistas of rooftop domiciles and street scenes. As rendered by the cinematography of Frederic Derrien, these tableaux approach some of the evocative voyeurism of exposed intimacy found in the Cairo rooftop studies of Arab-American photographer Randa Shaath.

Allouache's story seems unlikely to have found inspiration in Arabic-language works, as it is steeped in literary conventions established over the past century for portraying atomized urban life.

That said, the narrative structure betrays none of the flashy temporal experimentation of Arriaga and I??rritu's lauded trilogy ("Amores Perros" et al.). Spatial differences aside, Allouache's story moves more like "The Yacoubian Building," Wahid and Marwan Hamed's benchmark 2006 adaptation of Alaa al-Aswany's novel.

Whatever the writing lacks by way of formal experimentation, the stories certainly betray Allouache's personal investment in the sad state of contemporary Algiers.

The musicians' rehearsals in Telemly have captured the attention of Nayla (Meriem Medjkane), a silent muhajiba, or veiled woman, who lives atop an adjacent roof.

Uncomfortable, Assia confides that her neighbor has texted poetic expressions of love to her. It's a joking aside she finds reason to regret when Nayla's story resolves itself.

Uncle Larbi's ranting eventually prompts his great niece Layla to come to him at night and offer him freedom. He declines, saying that the sun hurts his eyes.

It's a metaphor that is reinforced that evening when his nephew hosts evening prayers.

During his sermon, the sheikh tells the story of a holy child, born to an East African Christian family, whose saintliness was much prized by the great leader, Moammar Gadhafi.

The extended torture session in Notre-Dame d'Afrique is interrupted when a film crew arrives to shoot a documentary that seeks to represent Algiers as the jewel of the Arab world.

The cruelty with which this story is resolved -- both for the tortured man and the film crew that, in another movie, might have saved him -- is only reinforced by the bleak comedy of the backstory behind the violence.

The tale of Halim the grifter is brought to an ambivalent conclusion when one of the building's residents shows up to prepare the roof for his son's wedding party -- whose musicians ensure that the film's closing number is buoyant with incongruous joy.

Insofar as any of these characters can be seen to stand in for Allouache himself, it is police detective Boubekir (Mohammad Jouhri). When Hajj Mouloud's son turns up at Salouma's to find his missing father, he calls upon his father-in-law, Boubekir, to come get to the bottom of things.

When the retired policeman arrives, the son gives him the backstory of Salouma's family, a plight stemming from kidnap and serial rape by Islamist rebels and rejection by her own family.

Boubekir replies with the story of how he came to live in Bab al-Oued. After independence, he says, he squatted the flat of a Spanish communist, who had himself been a refugee of the Spanish Civil War.

When the Spaniard departed, he says, he left his wealth of books behind. After reading them, Boubekir himself became a communist. The authorities later arrested and tortured most of his comrades, who died or fled the country in their turn.

"We wanted to change the country," he tells the young man. "The country changed us."

"That's well put," the other replies.

"Yes," Boubekir nods. "I stole it from somebody else."

The Abu Dhabi Film Festival continues until Nov. 2. For more information visit www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae/en.

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(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)

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