A young person stands in the middle of the street in a black and white photo.

Issue 003 Fall 2021 Profiles

Being Seen Like Never Before

Lina Soualem Rewrites Her Family’s Story

by Samia Labidi

Mabrouk, c. 1949. Image courtesy of filmmaker Lina Soualem.


Where do we come from? What is family? Who are we? Key questions that echo throughout Algerian-Palestinian-French director Lina Soualem’s Their Algeria (2020), Soualem’s directorial debut. “We are not given the right to be complex. We are portrayed as one-dimensional, without room for layers and multiplicity,” Soualem once told me, referring to how stereotypically the Arab experience in France is usually portrayed. A solution permeates from her documentary: she allowed herself and her family to be seen as complex and multilayered. The stakes are not merely representational; they are very much political as well. 


Their Algeria nimbly defies categorization. With her film, Soualem sketches a poetic and intimate portrait of her working-class, immigrant Algerian grandparents, Aïcha and Mabrouk Soualem. Their story begins in 1950s Algeria. At the time, their Algeria was in the midst of a liberation struggle against brutal French settler colonialism, which started in 1830.1 Aïcha and Mabrouk had to leave their war-torn country and their village of Laaouamer to settle in Thiers, a medieval industrial town in the dormant volcanic center of France. In 2016, upon the initial shock of learning that her grandparents were getting a divorce after sixty-two years of marriage, Soualem realized that she didn’t know anything about their lives and what they went through. The bond of generational transmission had been severed, and she was set on repairing it by creating a space for dialogue. As a result she embarked on a journey of storytelling to understand her grandparents, whom we get to know as Mémé Aïcha and Pépé Mabrouk. She wanted to explore their memories, notably through the many home movies that her father, actor Zinedine Soualem, shot throughout the years.

A moving voiceover dialogue between the filmmaker and her father gives the film its tempo. One of their exchanges explores the stakes of building and revisiting family archives:

Lina Soualem: I love these images.
Zinedine Soualem: Yes, they are beautiful. . . .
Lina Soualem: What were you looking for by filming all of this?
Zinedine Soualem: Simply to keep memories, traces.

Speaking of a the wedding of Zinedine’s sister, masterfully organized by Aïcha in 1992, the filmmaker also tells her father: “I always thought that these images were in Algeria. I dreamt that we went there, that we were there. We never talked about these images. . . . I don’t feel like it’s part of reality”. Through her creative act, she gives materiality to her family’s past and memories as she pieces their Algeria back together. 


Two older people sit on a park bench facing opposite directions, but sitting close enough that they seem to know each other.
Their Algeria (2020). Photo by Thomas Brémond. Film still courtesy of filmmaker Lina Soualem.

There are many good reasons to write about Their Algeria. Before it premiered in Visions du Réel in 2020, the film won multiple work-in-progress awards, followed by several festival competition awards. It has since been part of the 2021 BlackStar Film Festival lineup while having a fall theatrical release in France, where the filmmaker was born and raised. Recognition from peers and the industry has furthered the film’s circulation opportunities, which is crucial for creative documentaries to meet new audiences—even more so with a film that layers alternative ways of telling, listening, and viewing. Their Algeria resists the erasure of immigrants by investing in this very community.

Soualem is part of a new generation of unapologetic decolonial storytellers.2 As a descendant of immigrants in France, she is undertaking the urgent yet daunting task of addressing a colorblind republic. The formation and sustainability of this republic relied on the exploitation and subjugation of its colonial empire. Soualem’s work shows new ways of living our multiple and moving identities despite being routinely erased in the name of French universalism. In doing so, she is living out the powerful words of author and activist adrienne maree brown: “Our radical imagination is a tool for decolonization, for reclaiming our right to shape our lived reality.”3 

My own interest in Their Algeria stems from a professional and personal kinship with Soualem, one that developed over the years from Paris to Ramallah to Haifa and Tunis. As much as it is rewarding as a programmer and curator to follow a film to its completion, I am more interested in a reading of the film’s impact beyond the French space. 

When the film ends, we discover that Their Algeria is dedicated to the memory of Soualem’s late Pépé Mabrouk, which adds power to the story. Her cinematic gesture operates as an act of reconnection. Filming him in the cityscape of his adoptive town, Soualem offered her grandfather the gift of pride by reinscribing his individual story into the bigger history. Thiers is haunted by the ghosts of the cutlery industry that exhausted his body. Mabrouk Soualem’s life there was as meaningful as it was important. He raised a family and was part of a community where he provided support to newcomers.

With images of the home village of Laaouamer under snow, Soualem gifted her grandfather a piece of Algeria. Seen through Soualem’s phone screen, this memory of Algeria mirrors the opening shots of Thiers also under a blanket of snow. Thiers and Laaouamer are not just symbolic anchors to the narrative; they are constitutive of the family’s identities. Along with her grandfather we come to the realization that the two mountainous places are inextricably linked and forever intertwined, in their lives and throughout the film. Early in the film, Soualem asks him to talk about the pictures of the family he left behind in Algeria. He is not attached to pictures as memorabilia: “In the past Arabs didn’t like keeping pictures. It reminded them of painful memories.” The images of Lina in Laaouamer are breaking this cycle. They are a source of joy and worthy of being preserved and shared. In his last appearance on-screen, Mabrouk Soualem looks straight at her behind the camera and a smile of utter happiness illuminates his face, making it a particularly memorable scene. Such moments in the film are charged with warmth and lyricism as they capture fragments of a life that would have otherwise fallen into oblivion.


A headshot portrait of a person wearing a blouse, small hoop earrings, hair up in a large bun, taken in black and white.
Portrait of Mabrouk. Image courtesy of filmmaker Lina Soualem.
A headshot portrait of a person wearing a suit and tie, short black hair, taken in black and white.
Portrait of Mabrouk. Image courtesy of filmmaker Lina Soualem.

While seasons pass by, we get more and more acquainted with Aïcha and Mabrouk, as Soualem captures fragments of their life. “We never spoke. We’re not gonna start now,” her Mémé Aïcha says half-jokingly and gracefully, revealing that silences will prevail at times. Both grandparents open up, however, as Soualem continues her creative act. The grandparents are never under scrutiny. Even when the filmmaker asks uncomfortable questions, she respects their boundaries. There’s even a radical tenderness in the way the camera lingers on their faces, revealing their wrinkles and the depth of their gazes. We are privy to their lives—we are engaged in their stories, witnessing the conflicted emotions they feel—yet we don’t have access to all their inner thoughts. Many things will be left unsaid. Away from a voyeuristic inquiry, Soualem’s camera gives way for the narrative to invest the liminal space of Algerian exile, where silences hide the unresolved trauma. The grief of loss, erasure, and dispossession also persist, even more so when living in a country in denial of its colonial past and present.4

Soualem takes over her father’s videos and unanswered questions, interlacing her cinematic gaze and subjectivity with her father’s by reinterpreting his home videos. The film ends with the final voiceover exchange between the father and daughter duo, where Zinedine asks what she was thinking about when she reached their village of Laaouamer. “I thought about us,” she says, to which he replies playfully, “The password is Soualem.” Although centered on her grandparents first and foremost, this first-person movie is about the broader Soualem family unit. Still, their story manages to have a universal reach.

To discuss Their Algeria is also to discuss the positionality of the filmmaker and understand how Soualem constructs her own artistic and political subjectivity. She performs and embodies a new mode of representation that defies any notion of fixed identity while creating a new mode of intersubjectivity and viewership. There’s a very smart play throughout the film of blurring the traditional boundaries of a first-person account: she creates the possibility of an alternative viewing experience, challenging the viewer, alternatively adopting the point of view of one generation or the other, making more tangible an experience that is usually an elusive one. She plays with the narrative boundaries of distance and proximity. With this film, the three generations of Soualems are foreclosing new ways to understand the past, inform the present, and construct the future. Through deeply personal accounts of sorrow, they extend the possibility of universality, as the viewer is not engaged in a passive experience: the author’s self-reflection acts as a mirror, inviting us to engage in self-reflexivity.

The filmmaker’s intent was never to provide all the answers to the existential questions about identity and belonging, her own as well as the viewers’. Rather, the film acts as one piece of a much larger puzzle, mirroring Soualem’s journey through cinema, which is at once familial, creative, and political. Her process is steeped in a belief that collaborative work has the potential to be disruptive and can be read as an urge to contribute to tilting the power imbalance in terms of access to resources as well as which narratives get to be reflected on-screen.

Looking back, it seems apt that I first met Lina a few weeks after seeing her on-screen in At My Age I Still Hide to Smoke (2016), an ensemble film by Algerian playwright Rayhana. Lina’s mother, the Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, plays the main character in this choral feminist huis-clos movie set in Algeria’s Black Decade. Back then, she had been filming her grandparents for a few months, and we were both volunteers in a Palestinian Film Festival in Paris. She was also working on two festivals that she cofounded, Palest’In&Out (Paris) and Haifa Independent Film Festival. In Their Algeria, her father, Zinedine, uses the term فلحة, or felha (resourceful), which perfectly describes her. In turn, I would describe Soualem as a talented storyteller and cultural organizer who keeps questioning the systems and structures in place while building communities and expending the resources, shedding the light on exceptional people and their stories. 

I have had the pleasure to witness her grow as an artist while getting a clear sense of the breadth of her hybrid storytelling practice in the making. She is developing a promising polyphonic body of work deeply rooted in the exploration of the self (in all its multiplicities). It comes as a no-brainer that she doesn’t need validation to go back and forth between her Algerian and Palestinian heritage, as well as her French upbringing, from one project to another. She is free to explore all parts of what constitutes her entire experience. In her essay “A Map of Parallel Worlds between Algeria and Palestine,”5 she writes about a rare skin condition, erythrokeratodermia variabilis, linked to unique migration patterns between her two countries of origin. She insists, “My story is only one story among the multiple intimate stories that compose our collective history.” She tells me that “some identities need to be lived through struggle,” and “storytelling is directly linked to our survival; we are no longer waiting for others to recognize our humanity in all its pain and beauty.” She adds that not having to prove our humanity becomes the prerequisite to how we center and frame our narratives. Having to code-switch while navigating social spaces where her backgrounds would not be perceived as positive, Soualem feels that growing up in France somehow robbed her of a sense of wholeness. It wasn’t until she moved to Argentina (to work for a Human Rights Film Festival) that her multicultural background was really valued for the first time.


A muted color photo of a vast landscape, snow capped mountains are visible in the foggy distance while a large open field of green is in the foreground.
Algeria. Photo by Lina Soualem.

More than ever, Soualem is invested in the process of producing her stories in a collaborative environment and in a way that disrupts representational expectations. Her second feature documentary, Bye Bye Tiberias, is the perfect illustration. It will explore her Palestinian mother’s emancipatory and trailblazing journey as an artist. Foregrounding Abbas’s artistic path in photography, theater, and cinema, this second feature will be carried by the mother-daughter duo this time around to tell this story, collaboratively. Soualem is in the process of cowriting with filmmaker Nadine Naous,6 a Palestinian-Lebanese filmmaker, and the France-based Lebanese editor Gladys Joujou has been on board since the inception of the project. Joujou, the editor of Their Algeria, is also credited as an artistic partner. Soualem feels privileged to work closely with her, telling me: “Gladys has a gift, which is to always look for humanity, in all the stories she works on. No matter how painful or bleak they are, she is always able to sublime them.” She was instrumental in Soualem’s path to finding and refining her narrative and creative sensibility. This was crucial in helping her interlace the intimate and the collective, both narratively and aesthetically. Time and again, Joujou’s work as an editor manages to achieve a seamless balance between the form and the content, allowing the movie to be soulful. In this case, it was a way to push the boundaries of representation of immigrant life.

Over the years, Soualem and I have had regular conversations evoking the transformational power of cinema. We believe that programming and curating cinema can bring about positive change, as it  moves the lines of representation, pushes back against our presumed homogeneity, and defies expectations from the industry and the audience. A shared concern throughout all of our collaborations on Palestinian cinema was to create new platforms for showcasing the diversity of Palestinian artists and plurality of their artistic voices. We want to open up new venues for connections, essentially shifting the narratives around Palestinian arts. While her connection to Palestine and its creative scene is organic and longstanding, it’s her filmmaking journey through her Algerian heritage that reconnected her to the broader Arab region. With a French production company attached to her project, she gradually gained support and built a strongly knit community around her film through industry platforms in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt. The making of her film is a journey in itself, pushing the boundaries for financing and programming, going back and forth between both banks of the Mediterranean. Ultimately, this supports the filmmaker’s multipositionality and investment in creating links beyond imposed border divides.

Soualem is also one of the nine cofounding members of Rawiyat (راويات, storytellers in Arabic), a “collective of women filmmakers from the Middle East, North Africa, and the diaspora joining forces to imagine a new landscape in the region and beyond.”7 Self-reflexivity is at the center of the collective, and the members are aware of their relative position of privilege. Rawiyat also works toward a more sustainable industry by supporting and nurturing voices that are emerging and established. In fact, it is through one of the collective members that she was introduced to Frida Marzouk,8 the Brooklyn-based French-Tunisian cinematographer with whom she is collaborating for the shooting of Bye Bye Tiberias.

Soualem stands on the shoulders of generations of storytellers, both in France and in Arab countries. The novelty, however, is how she not only honors this legacy but is part of a new artistic and political movement. This contemporary movement challenges narrative norms and provides a new outlook on marginality while creating new diasporic dynamics and connections. In the French context, her work resonates with the current generations of artists, thinkers, and cultural organizers pigeonholed in a country that still considers them as aliens, in need of assimilation. Her film also belongs to a larger body of work from Arab filmmakers, past and present, who chose the nonfiction realm and the first-person narrative to revisit traumatic memories and navigate exile.

There’s a clear momentum that allows us to think of these filmmaking experiences as a new cinematographic epistemology and praxis. They create a new visual language and aesthetic culture from the standpoint of those who are deemed “the minority.” Rather than have stories catered to the hegemonic white and male gaze, they question authorship and disrupt the power dynamics at play in production as well as distribution. This momentum also creates a new intersubjective viewership, allowing for universality to stem from untold stories from the margins. Soualem’s generation is out to correct all forms of under-representation, misrepresentation, stereotyping, and exclusion. From auteur cinema to pop culture, they are affirming their right to break from the mold. 


Footnotes:

1. The Algerian War of Independence spanned from 1954 to 1962. The French colonial rule over Algeria relied on systemic atrocities, massacres that amount to ethnic cleansing and incremental genocide, killing millions of Algerians and displacing millions of others. We are currently witnessing in France a political pushback and historical reappraisals to restrict the access to the archives on the one hand, and to underline what is presented as a “positive role” of colonization on the other hand.

2. Including Hajer Ben Boubaker, Nabil Djedouani, Kaouthar Harchi, Hafsia Herzi, Faïza Guène, Karim Kattan, and Dorothée-Myriam Kellou, to name a few. 

3. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (Chico: AK Press, 2019).

4. See two illuminating works that shed light on the colonial continuum that affects how the post-colonial immigrant population has been treated for decades in France while still having repercussions in Algeria: Karima Lazali, Colonial Trauma: a Study of the Psychic and Political Consequences of Colonial Oppression in Algeria (Boston: Polity, 2021) and Leopold Lambert, States of Emergency: a Spatial History of the French Colonial Continuum (Toulouse: Premiers Matins de Novembre, 2021). 

5. Text originally published in May 2020 in French as “Une Cartographie de mondes parallèles” in the participatory fanzine Divine, created by Sido Lansari, and available in English at https://thefunambulist.net/magazine/politics-of-food/a-map-of-parallel-worlds-between-algeria-and-palestine-by-lina-soualem.

6. Naous is also exploring her multiple identities and belonging through nonfiction in Home Sweet Home (2014), in which she returns to Lebanon to reconnect with her parents. In a more recent film, Au Kiosque Citioyen (2019), on the eve of an election day she explores the act of voting and what it means to be a naturalized French citizen. 

7. https://rawiyat.com.

8. Frida Marzouk was Erige Sehiri’s cinematographer for Under the Fig Tree (forthcoming). It is the first narrative feature for Marzouk, who also navigates fluidly through her identities and multiple creative and physical spaces she inhabits.