Nadir Moknèche’s 2003 film, Viva Laldjérie, is significant on several counts.2 Most notably, perhaps, it was shot on location in Algiers in the wake of the civil war of the 1990s that had deterred cinema crews from filming in the country for nearly a decade. Indeed, the city emerging from the violent conflict is in many ways the film’s central character. Due to the war, Algerian cinematographic production diminished significantly after 1993 before stopping completely with not a single Algerian film made between 1997 and 2002.3 As Benjamin Stora argues, the dearth of images of any kind was a salient aspect of the Algerian Civil War.4 In this context, the resurgence of contemporary cinematic images of Algeria is poignant and historic. While Yamina Bachir-Chouikh’s Rachida (2002) is celebrated as the film that ‘ended the drought’,5 Moknèche’s Viva Laldjérie constitutes a striking cinematic example of Algeria emerging from the war.
Viva Laldjérie tells the story of 27-year-old Goucem and her mother Papicha, depicting their lives in Algiers in the aftermath of the civil war, during which Goucem’s father, Papicha’s husband, died. They live next door to Fifi, a sex worker who receives clients in her apartment. At the beginning of the film, Papicha, a former dancer and singer, is quasi-agoraphobic, and displays seemingly disproportionate suspicion and fear. Because many artists and musicians were among the first targets and victims of violence during the war, it is suggested that her husband, who was also a musician, was a casualty of war for this reason. The fact that the character of Papicha is played by Biyouna, a well-known Algerian singer and actress, is therefore significant. The character’s journey mirrors that of many Algerian singers, including Biyouna herself, whose art was directly threatened by the war. In a sense, the character’s survival of the war is also that of the actress portraying her. Papicha is initially distressed and fearful at the sight of bearded men who remind her of the Islamic fundamentalists, and worries that they are potential perpetrators of violence, but then becomes gradually less fearful when she begins to search for the owners of the cabaret where she used to perform before the war. By contrast, Goucem is in a relationship with Aniss, a rich and older married man, and appears determined to live a life unaffected by the war. This is shown, for example, in her mockery of her mother’s fears at the sight of bearded men, and in her decision to go out unaccompanied when her lover is unavailable. By the end of the film, Goucem’s relationship with Aniss has ended and her friend Fifi has died.
Viva Laldjérie is a complex film, with many themes and layers of meaning, several of which have been studied by scholars. Guy Austin, for instance, has noted the role of colour symbolism in the film, and its ties to nationalism and Islam.6 Similarly, the portrayal of women has been analysed by Maya Boutaghou.7 However, the most immediately noticeable aspect of Viva Laldjérie is that it is in French. Several scholars have commented on this facet of the film, noting the incongruity of the use of French by its Algerian characters.8 Although contemporary citizens of Algiers do speak French, most would primarily speak Darija, the dialectic form of Arabic used in the country, and would certainly not speak French exclusively with the level of consistency that appears in the film. As a result, the reception of Viva Laldjérie has not been warm. As Sylvie Durmelat notes, many critics and journalists from Algeria or of Algerian descent have accused the film of being French rather than Algerian.9
Yet, as this article will show, this exclusive use of French is deceptive. Arabic is in fact present in the film, and I argue that this language issue is key to understanding the film and its historical context. Although Viva Laldjérie is predominantly in French, there are three important moments when Arabic is used. The first of these occurs in an early scene where Papicha listens to an Arabic song in a bar, and Goucem loiters outside her lover’s home while a nearby mosque is playing a recording of the Quran. The second use of Arabic occurs roughly midway through the film, as Goucem and Fifi have a conversation on the roof of their building. Ultimately, the third important use of Arabic in Viva Laldjérie is the song that Papicha sings as the film ends. These three moments constitute a progression. At first, Arabic only comes from recordings played on loudspeakers, then a few words are uttered by actors on screen, and it is only when Papicha sings at the end that the spectator sees a character using Arabic extensively.
This progression in the use of Arabic gives the viewer the impression that the language is initially in the background and comes to the foreground intermittently with decreasing subtlety. The importance of background sounds in the film has been noted by Liz Constable:
Urban soundscapes are particularly attuned to sounding through, as distinct from representing, affective relations of displaced subjects in contemporary Algiers, for whom the experiences of individual and shared losses and desires, relating to past and future, are modes of knowing that are works-in-progress.10
According to Constable, Viva Laldjérie ‘uses sound and music to bear witness to – to figure and gesture towards – the residual affective tensions and contradictions generated by traumatising losses’.11 I propose that, in the case of Viva Laldjérie, it is not just sound and music in the general sense, but specifically Arabic sound and music that reference loss and suffering for the main characters. The death of the father/husband, for example, takes place before the events of the film, and the only time Papicha discusses this painful loss explicitly is in the scene where she drinks in a bar while listening to Arabic music. Similarly, Arabic is used when Goucem begins to realize that her relationship with Aniss must end. The fact that Viva Laldjérie is overwhelmingly in French yet Arabic is systematically present when characters’ personal suffering is referenced suggests that language is not an incidental factor in Constable’s ‘soundscapes’. In this article, I examine this Arabic usage to show that the language’s progression is a narrative device that punctuates the development of the main characters’ relationship to their suffering.
Despite the prevailing view among scholars and critics that the film is entirely in French, Arabic is actually the first language heard in Viva Laldjérie. In the film’s opening shots, a call to prayer is overheard coming from the distorting loudspeakers of a distant mosque. In this distant cry, the opening line of the Islamic call to prayer marks the first spoken words in the film. As Viva Laldjérie chronicles the end of the Algerian Civil War, with cinema becoming possible again, one is naturally reminded of the Merzak Allouache film Bab el-Oued City, which was filmed a decade earlier and shot on location in 1993, as the situation was worsening, and in a sense was made in extremis, before Algerian cinema simply stopped due to the escalating violence.12 A parallel between the two films has also been noted by Constable.13 Bab el-Oued City captures tensions mounting just as Viva Laldjérie captures them dying down. The premise of Allouache’s film centred on a loudspeaker on a roof, projecting religious sermons at high volume, until someone is annoyed enough to disconnect it, thereby sparking violence. Viva Laldjérie picks up where Bab el-Oued City left off in the specific sense that loudspeakers also hold a peculiar importance in the film. Suggestively, the first Arabic words in Viva Laldjérie come from loudspeakers mounted on a minaret, likely from a recording. It is significant that no one is seen uttering them on screen, because throughout the early scenes of the film Arabic is consistently heard coming only from unseen loudspeakers, discreetly in the background, in the form of music coming from a radio for example. This contrasts with instances later on in the film when the language is uttered by characters who are visible on screen. This movement of Arabic from the background to being used by the actors shows a development in the characters and their relationships to their personal suffering.
In order to better understand this role of Arabic in Viva Laldjérie, it is necessary to begin with an examination of the first moment in which it progresses from the background to being used by a character on screen, namely the scene oscillating back and forth between Papicha in a bar and Goucem loitering outside her lover’s home. This scene establishes Arabic as a motif that accompanies turning points in characters’ relationships to their suffering. It is in this scene that Papicha’s husband and the circumstances of his death are mentioned explicitly for the first time, coinciding with the first explicit use of Arabic by a character. The scene is also a turning point for both Goucem and Papicha because they each begin to slowly change their perspective on their respective situations. Papicha expresses her confidence that the civil war has now ended, while Goucem begins to realize that she can no longer live in denial, particularly regarding her affair and the recognition that Aniss will not leave his wife.
The scene is prompted when Papicha overhears fellow passengers in a taxi discussing an article in the paper about a group of Algerians in exile in Paris who intend to open a nightclub, which they plan to call ‘The Copacabana’ in homage to an Algerian nightclub of the same name that closed during the war. This news elicits an emotional reaction from Papicha because this is the nightclub where she was a cabaret dancer before the war. She exits the taxi and goes to a nearby bar to have a drink. Meanwhile, Goucem goes to her lover’s home to check whether he is out of town as he said he would be, or if he has lied to her as she suspects. Back in the bar, the song ‘Mate Djabdouliche’ by Cheba Djanet is playing, and is directly mentioned by the characters when Papicha asks for it to be played once again. The lyrics of the song are worth noting, as they mirror the sense of loss that the characters experience:
ما تجبدوا ليش على اللي نبغيه
ما تشوطونيش ما تزيدونيش
دوكا يروح أنا ما قديتش
.نبغيه بالزاف عمري وعليه نخاف.
Don’t mention to me the one I love
Don’t hurt me, don’t go on
He’ll leave, and I just can’t
I love him so much, by my life, and I fear for him.14
The fact that it is a song about a lover’s departure reflects both Papicha’s pain at the loss of her husband and Goucem’s anxiety about her current relationship. As the song plays, Papicha starts to dance, and a few younger people get up and dance with her. Then, as the youths continue to dance behind her, Papicha sits and talks to another customer about her dead husband. While her husband’s death was evoked in an earlier scene where she was shown by his graveside, this is the first time that she actually talks about him dying. As this scene unfolds, Papicha mutters a few lines of ‘Mate Djabdouliche’ in an attempt to sing along with the song as it plays, but starts to sob. Unlike previous scenes, where Arabic had only been barely intelligible when heard in a distant call to prayer, or overheard in music playing on a radio in the background, Papicha is seen uttering the words on screen. This marks the first time that anyone is seen employing Arabic in the film, as well as the first time that the impact of the war on the characters’ lives is acknowledged explicitly. Thus, Arabic points to an evolution in Papicha’s mourning. Not only is it in Arabic that she is able to make an emotional reference to her late husband for the first time, but it is also after this first use of Arabic that she begins to contemplate her past as an artist, starts dancing again, and seeks professional acquaintances from before the war.
The scene is also a turning point for Goucem, because she begins to realize that she is mistaken about her relationship with Aniss. While Papicha is at the bar, Goucem continues to wait by her lover’s house, hoping to confirm whether or not he has lied to her about travelling out of town. It is revealed that he is actually in Algiers and did lie to Goucem, and Arabic marks this painful moment of betrayal. A nearby mosque is loudly projecting a recording of the Quran. Here, too, the Arabic emanating from loudspeakers is no longer merely a subtle component of the background soundscape. As was the case with Papicha and Cheba Djanet, it is acknowledged explicitly by characters in the scene. Aniss tells his wife he could not hear her call him because the mosque’s recording is too loud, and proceeds to close the window in order to hear her better. When Aniss closes the window and stays inside the room with his wife, he symbolically rejects Goucem, who stands alone with the noise outside. So it is surrounded by Arabic that she begins to realize that all is not well in her relationship.
In this split scene where both Papicha and Goucem undergo painful moments, the two manifestations of Arabic, one secular and one deeply religious, like two contrapuntal motifs, underscore each character’s suffering. This distinction between the religious employment of Arabic and its evocation in musical form reflects the different affective voids left in the lives of Goucem and her mother. In each case it is a manifestation of Arabic that the character associates with the specificities of her own experience. The secular, festive music of Cheba Djanet to which Papicha dances recalls the fact that many artists and musicians, like her, were among the first targets and victims of violence during the war. Similarly, the Arabic of the Quran that is heard in the background while Goucem waits outside her married lover’s house is a reminder of her vulnerability as a single woman in a religiously conservative, patriarchal society. In this scene, it is specifically the sound of Arabic that underscores the characters’ pain and suffering, and marks a moment of change in their respective relationships to this suffering.
After this first explicit use of Arabic in the film, where it moves from the background to being acknowledged by the characters, the language is used again in a later scene where Goucem chats with her neighbour Fifi on the roof of their building. This scene is also related to a character’s suffering. Fifi is encouraging Goucem to continue to have faith that Aniss will leave his wife, and to wait for him, while Goucem is beginning to accept that it will not happen and that she must move on with her life. In the course of their conversation, Fifi takes a call on her mobile phone. During this phone call, she speaks a few words of Arabic intermingled with the French in which most of her conversation takes place. However, she immediately steps out of shot as we hear her speak these Arabic words, while the camera remains on Goucem. Eventually, the camera cuts back to Fifi as she continues her phone conversation in French, and we finally see her say one word in Arabic: ‘وحشتني’ (you missed me). This single Arabic word is not only heard but seen by the spectator. Since the character uttering the word is on screen, this moment builds on the previous scene where Arabic was used. Because the Arabic word is not coming from loudspeakers playing a recording, the language further progresses from the background to the fore. The moment also marks a progression in the character of Goucem, who is starting to adopt a more realistic perspective on her situation despite Fifi’s encouragement.
Goucem then goes out to the Paradoxe nightclub to dance to Cheba Djanet. This scene is different from others showing Goucem on her outings to this nightclub, because of the presence of Arabic this time. At the end of the night, she is driven home by a young man she knows, and sings a few lines of ‘Mate Djabdouliche’. While the use of Arabic is quite understated, with Goucem shot from behind, her face unseen as she sings the melody more than the actual words, this moment mirrors that when her mother mutters a few lines of the same song’s lyrics in a bar after first hearing a mention of the Copacabana. As was the case with Papicha, this Arabic song again accompanies the character in a moment of transition. Unbeknownst to Goucem, they drive past the beach where Fifi’s body has just been found. She later sobs heavily when she sees her friend in the morgue, like her mother sobbed at the mention of her dead husband in the earlier scene. Fifi’s kidnapping and murder by one of her clients, a government official, is a form of social and political critique. Her death also symbolizes the end of Goucem’s false hopes and illusions since it was Fifi who was the most optimistic about her relationship with Aniss. The fact that this moment occurs alongside Arabic is consistent with the film’s use of the language to accompany turning points in the characters’ developments.
Papicha, meanwhile, ceases to display signs of fear. After deciding to reconnect with the life she lived before the war, she starts looking for the owners of the old Copacabana nightclub. As she tracks them down, she finds old friends and Le Rouge Gorge, a new cabaret and restaurant where she becomes a singer. Papicha now finds refuge in this ersatz Copacabana where she is able to engage in artistic activity as she had in the past, and is able to regain elements of her previous life that she had lost during the war. It is there that the third and final moment of Arabic use occurs. The film culminates with Papicha stepping on stage at Le Rouge Gorge. The viewer finally sees, rather than simply hears, someone use Arabic on screen for an extended time. The song that she sings, ‘Mouaoud Lik’ (‘Promised to you’), is a love song lamenting a lover’s betrayal which has been sung and recorded by a variety of Algerian artists, and the lyrics are reminiscent of Goucem’s relationship with Aniss. As prior uses of Arabic in the film accompanied turning points for the characters, in the case of Papicha this turning point leads to an improvement in her situation. The closing scenes of the film imply that the same will happen to Goucem, and she is shown chatting merrily with young people of her age.
These three pivotal uses of Arabic in the film – the recordings of the Quran and music coming from loudspeakers, the conversation on the roof, and Papicha singing at Le Rouge Gorge – have one thing in common, insofar as they serve the narrative by indicating a shift occurring in the characters’ relationship to their pain and suffering. In addition to the characters’ own personal suffering, through their surroundings the film also sheds light on the broader collective suffering of a society emerging from a civil war. Therefore, the use of Arabic, from its seeming erasure to its subtle presence at key moments, is highly significant in relation to the historical context in which the film was made, and against which it is set. While language carries tremendous political weight in any discussion of identity, this is particularly so in the case of North Africa, where language has been intimately tied to colonial, postcolonial, and decolonizing discourses.15 This was the case, for example, with the Arabization policies, governmental endeavours to update the French-based education system inherited from colonialism.16 Consequently, Arabic usage in North Africa is a highly politicized topic, as well as a highly polarizing one. In the Algerian context specifically, Arabic is closely associated with both the official national discourse (namely the government’s Arabization policies and their political and social consequences) and the civil war (among whose protagonists was the Islamic Salvation Front, a group whose leaders favoured Arabic and shunned other languages). French, in contrast, is generally associated with less conservative political outlooks. These political implications are germane to Viva Laldjérie, and the dynamics of language in the film also help us to understand the characters’ social and political positions.
In the turmoil of the war, Arabic itself had become associated with the religious fundamentalism and politics entwined in the conflict. In this context where Arabic has violent political connotations, French enables the characters in the film, who are portrayed positively as progressive and liberal women, to distance themselves from the restrictions of an Arabic-speaking, conservative environment. Indeed, their speaking French is in opposition to this conservative social environment. In addition to these political connotations, speaking French is also an index of social class in North Africa, and can be elitist. As Christa Jones has pointed out, part of the divide between Goucem and Aniss is not only generational, but also socio-economic.17 Aniss is affluent, and enjoys economic as well as male privileges that allow him to maintain a comfortable lifestyle amid a civil war. He supplies Goucem with money, keeping her dependent on him. His son, who possesses the same socio-economic privileges, says that he will leave the country when he becomes too dissatisfied with his fraught life as a gay man in Algiers, whereas leaving is not a likely option for someone in Goucem’s position. For this reason, Arabic suggests the very concrete dangers and risk of violent reprisals against women and gay men, as was not uncommon during the civil war, and it is also as a reminder of the economic hardships that Goucem and Papicha risk with the end of Goucem’s relationship with Aniss. Therefore, when Arabic in the film points to the characters’ personal suffering, it also alludes to the political and social tensions within Algerian society, and the broader collective suffering in this particular period in the country’s history.
This reading of the dynamics of French and Arabic and their political implications may also be applied to the film overall. Viva Laldjérie, as an Algerian film in French, is a reaffirmation of the continued legitimacy of that language as a medium of Algerian cultural expression, thereby demonstrating the cultural and linguistic diversity of Algerian society after the civil war. When asked about his language choice, Nadir Moknèche implied that it was an artistic decision occasioned by the fact that Lubna Azabal, the actress playing the role of Goucem, was from Morocco and did not speak the dialect of Algiers, and further justified his choice given that French is actively spoken in Algeria, and that there exists a dynamic Algerian literature written in French.18 Walid Benkhaled has argued that Moknèche’s explanation is hardly convincing, as the language of Algerian cinema today is intimately tied to the politics of funding and the politics of distribution and target audiences.19 The necessity of relying on European funds is certainly a reality for Algerian film-makers, including Moknèche, and the reasons behind the choice to film in French for any North African film-maker may well be pragmatic. Yet, while funding and distribution can impact artistic and linguistic decisions, financial and political considerations do not necessarily annul the artistic, cultural, social, and political significance of the resulting work.
Beyond film-makers’ purported intentions and presumed financial factors, Viva Laldjérie’s portrayal of liberal French-speaking characters is a political statement in that it serves to diversify and nuance the representation of Algeria emerging from the war. In this light, the progression of Arabic in the film illustrates a progressive reconciliation with the language and what it signified during a painful period in the country’s history. The fact that the film ends with Arabic used for a love song is also a political statement, because it legitimizes the use of the language in cultural and artistic practice rather than exclusively to express conservative religious messages. Yet, ultimately, no character expresses themselves in Arabic other than to repeat song lyrics. Fifi, the only character to say a word in Arabic that is not part of a song, dies. Consequently, although the film acknowledges and legitimizes uses of Arabic to sing about love, such uses continue to be strictly confined to designated spaces like nightclubs or restaurants. This indicates a cautiously optimistic outlook for an uncertain future, consistent with the optimism of the time at which the film was made. Algerian society was eager to believe that the civil war was ending, yet the threat of violence had not completely disappeared.
Thus, while Viva Laldjérie may at first appear to be entirely in French, the subtle presence of Arabic is of key importance, highlighting not only Algeria’s complex relationship to language but also the characters’ difficult relationships to the pain of the past. The language is initially in the background only, in the form of recordings coming out of loudspeakers, then progressively moves to the foreground to be acknowledged and then eventually uttered by the characters themselves. Although this Arabic presence is very subtle, the role that the language plays in the film, despite this subtlety, is crucial. Arabic functions as a narrative device that punctuates the development of the main characters, and signals to the spectator when a character is undergoing a shift in their relationship to their personal pain and suffering. Given the political, social, and cultural implications of language use in Algeria, a monolingual framework is insufficient to explain Viva Laldjérie’s portrayal of Algiers in the wake of the civil war. It is both the predominance of French and the seeming absence of Arabic in the film which aid our understanding of the characters. The complex dynamics of language in the film also remind us that the Algerian society emerging from the civil war continues to involve different languages with particular political and affective connotations.