The story is so simple at first one would barely believe it could sustain an entire film. Yet, like many simple story-lines, it becomes compelling as personalities are revealed and past deeds rear their -- frequently -- ugly head. “Beneath the feet of the women” opens with a middle class family of Algerian descent living in Southern France, preparing to receive a guest: “Who is the guest”? asks 12 years Samira, quizically when she realises how nervous her grand mother, Aya, is becoming.
“The man who is coming fought with your grand father during the war of Algeria. He was an important leader” of the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front), Aya explains to her young granddaughter, betraying her personal feelings by adding: “For thirty five-years I did not get a single letter from him, not a word. I thought I had forgotten everything; and also that he had forgotten me, Aya, the young Algerian of 1958”.
Nobody forgot the events of 35 years ago
But it is clear, when the guest arrives that nobody has forgotten what happened 35 years ago: not Aya, her husband Monceif, nor Amin, the old friend. The film revolves around a discussion which started over dinner and lasts throughout the night, as memories of a glorious, and not so glorious past are relived.
Rachida Krim does not like to be classified in the category of the new wave French women film makers. Neither does she want to be considered the author of a political manifesto. Nor as a “Beurette” (second generation Algerian immigrant). “I am 100 per cent French”, she says forcefully, but it is doubtful she could have produced a film which is so moving and so realistic -- at times, it looks like a documentary -- if she had not drawn heavily on her personal memories and experiences.
Rachida Krim was born in 1955 in France, to a family originating from Western Algeria. Afraid, like all Algerians, to give any information that could be used against her family, she refuses to go into much family detail, revealing only that her father was a white collar employee working in a mine in Southern France and that both her parents had been members of the FLN. “They were rank and file members”, she says, “but quite active, carrying suitcases with money and weapons”. Both were arrested at different times. “I was five years old when my mother was arrested and jailed. I was separated from her for two years... It is a period I remember well”.
When Algeria became independent in 1962 her father did not go back to Algeria. When asked the obvious question, why? Rachida Krim is reluctant to elaborate. “He should answer this question himself”, she says guardedly. However, she later mentions it was probably because he had a job and five children in France, and was not keen to start again from scratch in his home country. However, the more Rachida Krim reluctantly reveals about her background and past the more understandable the storyline of her latest film. “Beneath the Feet of Women” poses a number of questions: how and why an ordinary, illiterate Algerian woman became so involved in a war, to the point of abandoning her husband and her children and killing the “ennemy” -- for the sake of a revolution of an uncertain nature?
Why Algerians living in France do not go back home?
Rachida Krim also questions the nature of the relationship between Algerians and their own country. If they are so emotionnally tied to their homeland, why are they unwilling to go back home. Why do they choose instead to remain among the former “ennemy”?
After graduating from high school, Rachida Krim became a painter. However she felt she could not convey her emotion and experiences with her paintings. As a teen-ager, she went to Algeria on holidays and attended a traditional wedding. There were scenes that haunted her. “The day after the ceremony, the bride and the groom came out of the wedding room, pale and dishevelled. Both of them had to act: she had to prove her virginity. He had to prove his virility. It’s an image that has haunted me for 17 years”.
In 1992 Rachida Krim returned to Algeria to work on her first film, a short 18 minute feature on a wedding, called “Fatiha”, after the name of the first sura of the Koran. During her stay in Algeria Rachida met many women who told her their stories and she decided to shoot a full length film based on their lives.
The encounter between Aya and Amin, 35 years after the events of the war, is an excellent vehicle for reflection. Factual at first, through the use of flashbacks, the spectator actually sees what happened in 1958, during the war. Later, these events are put in perspective by the remarks and thoughts of the participants and of the newcomers: Fuzilla, Aya’s daughter and mirror image -- we meet her at exactly the age her mother was in 1958 -- and Samira, Aya’s grand daughter, neither of whom afraid to ask pertinent and frequently disturbing questions.
It is the constant movement between past and present which holds the viewers attention: the tale of Aya’s resistance in 1958 might have made an interesting film in itself. But seen in 1997 through a vintage lens, it acquires a very special flavour. The young Aya is played by a remarkable actress, Fejria Deliba, an Algerian born in Tunisia and living in France. Alas, the Italian actress Claudia Cardinale cast as the older Aya is less than convincing. The two Amins, the young one played by Algerian Hamid Tassili, and the older one by Palestinian Mohammed Bakri,are excellent.
A shared “golden” past
In a flashback, Amin, Monceif and other FLN militants in their cell must decide the fate of two comrades, Ferid and Anissa, the wife of another comrade, who have had an affair. For adultery, there is only one sentence: death. One militant shows some compassion for the two defendants but the others, Amin included, vote for the death penalty. Meanwhile, Aya, confined to her role of servant, helps serve coffee and silently watches the scene being played out. No input is required from a woman. Eventually the adulterous couple are executed in a French forest. Thirty five years later, during the course of dinner where Amin and Monceif recall moments of their shared “golden” past, Aya asks: “Do you remember the case of Ferid and Anissa? I am getting tired of hearing your stories. They are not true, we have not been only heroes. We must ask ourselves, how could Algeria’s youth find its way when everything we have today is built on lies”.
When Aya was first recruited to collect money for the cause, she was still “only” the mother of two young kids, who helped serve coffee during the secret meetings of her husband’s FLN cell. To collect money, she must be able to sign receipts. We learn that she does not, at this stage, even know how to sign her name; she is totally illiterate. We see her learning how to write her name with a hesitant pen, guided by Amin’s hand. This first physical contact between Aya and Amin marks the stirrings of a passion which runs through the whole film, covering events from 1958 -- up to the present days.
Later on, we see the young Aya imploring Amin to teach her to read and write, in Arabic, not French. “Impossible”, answers Amin with some irritation, and he starts pacing the room, reading the Koran aloud. Suddenly, he closes the holy book but continues “reading”. “You see, he tells Aya, I know it by heart; I cannot read Arabic either. I am an illiterate like you. I went to French schools: they did not only steal our land, they also killed our culture, our history. All whe have left from our culture is the Koran, nothing else”.
For the sake of the revolution -- or to win Amin’s love, Aya obeys all the orders he gives her. One day, she is told to kill a French officer, which she does with considerable bravery. She escapes from the scene with Amin, and there follows the film’s only love scene and a chaste one by anybody’s standards. Amin immediately feels that Aya is different. “I want to know”, she asks desperately, “why am I not missing my children, my husband... Is it because of the war”? But it is clear she knows there is another reason.
Quite lyrically, Amin tells her that “when Algeria is free from the French, Arabic will be the unique language, and Islam our religion. All children will go to school and study in Arabic. We will re-invent everything. There will be no more poverty. We will create a big, rich country”. Anybody even slightly aware of the present situation in Algeria can appreciate how empty these words sound today. “And, where do I fit in”, asks Aya, “What about me”? “You will be with me”, answers Amin, “I will bring you and your daughters with me, you will live in a big house. You have heard our Algerian proverb that beneath the feet of mothers lies paradise; my sons will know it”. “And beneath the feet of the wives, what do you find”?, asks Aya.
Amin did not send for Aya, he married another woman and his son grew up to be an integrist who forces his mother to wear the veil. Now, it transpires, Amin is afraid of going back to Algeria -- he is scared he will be killed.
“What a mess”, says Aya. “Yes, like my whole life”, answers Amin, “I feel responsible for what’s happening in Algeria”. “We are all responsible”, concludes Aya, “you, for keeping silent. Me, for running away”.
About to leave after this long night of discussion with Aya, Amin walks away with Fuzilla who tells him: “It took me years to learn that my father and my mother had been in the resistance and that my mother had been sent to jail. I think they decided not to tell me about their participation to the struggle because they had decided not to return to Algeria. It was my mother who decided not to go back: it was the first time I ever saw her say no to my father. She was determined not to return”. After getting out of jail, Aya was a different woman: she had experienced a revolution within herself. She knew all about Amin’s shortcomings and knew she would stay with her husband and children. She would stay in France.
Aya and Amin know that they will not meet again. In a farewell letter to her, Amin writes: “You were so beautiful. I thought about everything you said to me... Today in our homeland they want to hide the women, they want to veil them, yet they are our most precious asset. Once you asked me what lies beneath the feet of women and wives. Today I know the answer. Beneath the feet of the women, lies the truth”.
(The Middle East magazine, December 1997)
Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2012