Reviving Algeria's Once-Robust Cinema Industry European film aficionados are noting a resurgence in North Africa's film industry. But Algerian producers and critics say the war-battered and repressive country still has a long way to go to regain the form that produced such classics as The Battle of Algiers in the 1960s.
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Reviving Algeria's Once-Robust Cinema Industry

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Reviving Algeria's Once-Robust Cinema Industry

Reviving Algeria's Once-Robust Cinema Industry

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, we'll report on a resurgence of filmmaking on the shores of North Africa. Algeria was once North Africa's hub for film. This month, as the industry tries to come back, Algeria hosted the second annual Arab International Film Festival. You learn a lot about North Africa when you learn about this industry's decline and its effort to come back. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON: The beautiful Mediterranean port city of Oran was known before Algeria won its independence in 1962 for having one of the largest concentrations of Europeans of any North African city. Later, it became known as the home of rai music, an infectious blend of African, Arab and Western influences.

But local organizers are hoping that Algeria's second city will play a key role in the revival of the country's once-robust cinema industry. Actors, producers, directors and critics gathered here this month for seminars and screenings of films from France, the Middle East and North Africa. At least four new Algerian films are in the competition, a respectable showing for a country that saw its film industry all but crushed by years of war.

But to those familiar with the industry, the new Algerian efforts represent a light at one end of a very long tunnel. A closer look shows that many of the French men and women here are Algerians who were forced to emigrate to pursue their passion for movies. One is producer Omar Derice(ph).

The 38-year-old was born in the Kabuli region just east of Algiers but has made his career in France, producing nearly a dozen pictures, many having to do with his native land. He's happy to be back and to see so many film people in Oran. But although he hears talk of an Algerian cinema revival, he doesn't see it yet.

Mr. OMAR DERICE (Producer): (Through translator) Frankly speaking, today the Algerian cinema lives in crisis, a serious crisis. In the '80s, around the whole Algeria, we've got 500 movie houses. And today we have only 10 movie houses. There's not a film Algerian-produced in Algeria 100 percent by Algerians. Most of the films are co-production between Algeria and France.

KENYON: In the 1960s and '70s, it was a very different story. Some Algerians had carried 16-millimeter cameras into battle during the 1950s and early '60s, as Algeria brought a bloody end to France's 130-year colonial rule. The films that emerged from the nascent Algerian state were dominated by powerful, if somewhat one-sided, tales of gritty rebels overthrowing cruel colonial oppressors.

The most famous film of this period was actually directed by an Italian and took a slightly more even-handed approach to the violence on both sides of the war. "The Battle of Algiers," hailed by one critic as the greatest revolutionary epic since Eisenstein's "Potemkin," was banned in France on its release in 1965.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Battle of Algiers")

KENYON: With its scenes of women planting bombs and a superior armed force pinned down in messy, door-to-door urban combat, "The Battle of Algiers" was screened at the Pentagon in 2003 as U.S. and allied troops faced a growing insurgency in Iraq.

By the 1970s, though, Algerian filmmakers were turning to social issues - poverty, corruption and mismanaged government - topics the Algerian leadership was less keen to promote. Government enthusiasm for the movie business faded. The leading film school was closed. Money dried up. And the talent began to flee, even before the so-called black decades of civil war and terrorist attacks.

Algerian film critic Asmah Ateem(ph) says recently, young filmmakers have begun to emerge. But she believes they have a lot to learn.

Ms. ASMAH ATEEM (Film Critic): We have filmmakers, new talent, but they don't know how to do a movie. They don't have a technique and they don't study, you know, because we have no institute of cinema here. Real, real cinema, it's not here, not yet.

KENYON: Ateem and others here believe real cinema can return to Algeria, which still has compelling stories to tell. But there needs to be a major rebuilding effort involving both the state and the private sector for Algeria to regain its place in world cinema.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Oran.

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