Pierre Nora’s iconic Lieux de mémoire1 is a literally voluminous work that is in itself as much a cornerstone of a certain construction of French national identity as the very hexagonal ‘realms of memory’ it documents so thoroughly. The aim of the present special issue is to expand the geographical and interpretative reach of Nora’s work, and to explore its limitations, in so far as it neglects to engage with a progressive understanding of places and elements of cultural significance and potential collective memory for France’s citizens of migrant origin, many sites of which can be located, situated, or at least symbolized beyond France’s geographical borders. The theme was inspired by the recent publication of the volume Postcolonial Realms of Memory: Sites and Symbols in Modern France.2 The groundbreaking explorations of postcolonial realms of memory undertaken in that key text provide the foundation for a decentred positioning of many of France’s lieux de mémoire in postcolonial spaces that reflect the rich diversity of France’s migrant experience and the significance of its impact on the polycentric cultural identities of modern France.
In this article, we will examine the representation of postcolonial memory in French-Algerian filmmaker Tony Gatlif’s 2004 film Exils / Exiles, for which he was awarded the Best Director prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.3 The film is essentially a road movie that traces the journey of its two young protagonists, Zano (played by Romain Duris), a young pied-noir, born in Algeria to parents of French ancestry, and Naïma (played by Lubna Azabal), a young beurette, born in France to parents of Algerian ancestry, who decide spontaneously to leave their apartment near the boulevard périphérique in Paris to reverse the migrant journey taken by their families by travelling to Algeria.
The article will focus specifically on the representation of Algeria as a French postcolonial lieu de mémoire. There can be little doubt that the film’s depiction of a return to cultural origins for the film’s pied-noir and beurette protagonists resonates strongly with the personal history of the director, who, while making the film, re-entered his native Algeria for the first time in forty-three years. The film posits personal origin story as postcolonial memory, and vice versa, within the context of Algeria’s unique status in French colonial history. The constant movement that occurs in the film through travel, music, and dance reinforces the permanent dislocation of the protagonists, as they engage, at first somewhat reluctantly, with the significance of Algeria as a personal and collective lieu de mémoire. The film’s road-movie narrative represents, on the one hand, a gravitational pull away from the French Republican integrationist ‘centre’ towards an increasingly complex and diverse landscape of cultural identities linked by France’s colonial history, and on the other, a sense of nostalgia for an Algeria that no longer exists and may never have existed. In so doing, the film represents modern metropolitan France as a dynamic and polycentric postcolonial space whose lieux de mémoire can and should be positioned not only in geographical and cultural territories that lie outside its contemporary national borders, but also in the liminal spaces that characterize the migrant experience in its myriad forms, not least of which is the idealized space of an imagined cultural homeland that exists only in the mind of its expatriates and their offspring.
In line with the title of Gatlif’s film, the protagonists find themselves in a state of permanent exile, both from Algeria and from France. The liminal space imposed upon them by the migrant experience forces them to come to terms with deeply personal lieux de mémoire that, through the lack of a distinct sense of personal place in the world, have not only been internalized but also repressed. Regardless of the choices they have made and the agency they have exercised, it appears that the unease and restlessness that have accompanied them throughout their life cannot be assuaged without the catharsis of a return to cultural origin. In the process, Algeria emerges as a fundamental but nevertheless mirage-like lieu de mémoire that, notwithstanding its cultural and geographical significance, serves primarily to facilitate a deeper understanding by the protagonists of their personal and collective identity that has long been internalized in the unanchored liminal space of the postcolonial migrant journey.
The relatively unorthodox nature of the protagonists’ chosen trajectory is illustrated by a shot early in the film of the two young lovers travelling against what appears as a literal tide of global flows of migrants and refugees. It is evident from the directional juxtaposition of the protagonists against the backdrop of travellers heading from the global South to the global North that Zano and Naïma enjoy the privilege of travelling by choice, rather than by necessity, as have other pieds-noirs over the years who have chosen to return to Algeria for a brief visit, motivated by nostalgia as much as curiosity. The fact that Zano and Naïma are struggling against what appears to be an irresistible and seemingly inevitable gravitational pull towards the economic and cultural ‘centre’ of France is a reflection not only of the desperation of the migrants and refugees fleeing war, persecution, and famine, but also of the insular politics of French integrationism that the protagonists have chosen to flee, whereby France, and particularly Paris, are positioned at the centre of French perceptions of cultural identity and world order. This policy creates a hierarchy of cultural importance that refuses to acknowledge the contribution of France’s migrant communities in forming the diverse and constantly evolving collection of identities that constitute contemporary France in a globalized world.
Rather than explore the geographical space of Algeria, and France’s often problematic and bloody historical engagement with it, all of which has been dealt with comprehensively in other contexts and scholarly works,4 this article seeks to demonstrate that Algeria’s importance as a lieu de mémoire for the film’s protagonists is ultimately internalized, despite the significance of their physical journey from France to their country of cultural origin. There is something mirage-like about the protagonists’ arrival at their apparent destination, with their cultural gaze shifting ever more inward in response to their physical surroundings and experiences in Algeria, and yet they leave transformed and rejuvenated, perhaps finding themselves more at home in the liminal cultural space that their migrant journey has afforded them, both in Algeria and in France, one which denies either location the status of ‘home’, but rather perpetuates a permanent and familiar exile. For both protagonists, the Algeria that they seek and the Algeria that they find are shifting spaces, anchored perhaps only in their internal reconstructions of personal, family, and collective memory. The journey is nevertheless a critically important one, even if it serves only to illustrate that all those embarked on the migrant journey need to engage with the full trajectory of their life story, despite the politics of integration and a cultural, economic, and social pull towards a newly identified ‘centre’, to remember their potentially repressed, dismissed, or perhaps even forgotten cultural origins.
On the one hand, as I have argued previously,5 Exils may be read as a road movie in reverse. It can be considered a deliberate shift by the director, and by the film’s protagonists, away from the traditional ‘centre’ of French consciousness - Paris - to the periphery of French national historical consciousness - Algeria. In so doing, Gatlif suggests that in order for his protagonists to arrive at self-fulfilment, they must flee the centrifugal pull of Paris, and with it French integrationism, and embark on the reverse of the typical South-to-North migrant journey, venturing on foot, by train, and by boat, often as stowaways, across borders and potentially threatening landscapes to find their centre at the periphery. On the other hand, it will be argued here that the apparent ‘reverse migrant journey’ is in fact something of a mirage, as the film represents an exile from a place in which the film’s protagonists never fully arrived. The beginning of the film places the two protagonists very clearly on the geographic outskirts of Paris, and precisely at the boulevard périphérique: the Parisian ring road which is a symbolic frontier for cultural and social exclusion separating the centre (Paris) from its immediate ‘other’ - the banlieue (suburbs).
The road-movie narrative traditionally represents an evolution in the character of its protagonists as a direct consequence of a transformative physical journey, frequently visualized on screen through physical movement as an allegory for psychological displacement. While predominantly an American movie genre, the European take on the genre favours a geographical representation of the inward journey at the core of the protagonist’s being, to his or her place of birth or cultural origin, in an attempt to make sense of an identity confused by the shifting social parameters of Western Europe. The ‘return’ theme is a trope frequently cited in relation to Gatlif’s work. For example, Neil Archer has suggested that in Gatlif’s films ‘journeys are structured around a specific site of memory or identification (family, a country or community, music) that, however over-determined this may prove, suggests a form of return on the part of the traveller’.6 Sylvie Blum-Reid asserts that ‘Gatlif’s entire work constitutes a personal journey of return to the country of “origins”, Algeria in Exils, or the extraterritorial musical country that the director, as a Roma, inhabits’.7 This latter observation falls in line with the notion that the ‘place’ to which the protagonists return is less a geographical space than a psychological construction. Archer takes this line of thinking further in his discussion of Gatlif’s use of photographs in Exils ‘to allude to spaces and a time that persist as images and figures of identification’.8 Michael Gott claims that ‘[t]he road movie has become an increasingly popular vehicle for filmmakers attempting to come to terms with the complexities of contemporary identity within “New Europe” and a postcolonial world’.9 Gatlif’s penchant for statelessness and the construction of identity through mobile means, whether it be through music, languages, dress codes, or cultural rituals is in keeping with Gott’s observation that ‘a nationally based conception of citizenship can be supplemented and perhaps replaced by layered subjectivities that incorporate both transnational and regional elements’.10 Wendy Everett suggests that the European take on the road-movie genre represents postmodern identity as essentially ‘fluid and migratory’.11 To this extent, the film says as much about the internalized identity issues facing young French citizens of varying diasporic backgrounds living in France as it does about any concrete or collectively identified lieux de mémoire to be found or experienced in voyages back to the territory of the originating homeland, which may be as immediately unfamiliar to the returning migrant as to any other first-time traveller to that geographical place.
Returning to the origin story of the film’s director, Tony Gatlif was born in 1948 as Michel (Boualem) Dahmani in Algeria, then, importantly, part of France, to a Kabyle father and a Romani mother. Gatlif emphasizes in interviews and in the film’s press kit that Algeria is the place of his birth, thereby reinforcing the notion that the film represents either a return from exile to the place of his cultural roots, or a voluntary exile away from integrationist France. At the same time, Gatlif seeks to render his marginal status perpetual and permanent by rejecting the Western notion of identity linked to place of birth in his declaration that he is a filmmaker ‘from everywhere and nowhere’:12 ‘Je m’exprime par le déplacement, le voyage. Je suis un metteur en scène itinérant. J’aime être nomade’.13 In refusing to anchor his identity in a particular geographical location, but rather in a perpetually imagined and mobile periphery, Gatlif maintains a permanent otherness that is potentially aimed at his predominantly bourgeois Western audience, which arguably reassures them of their position at the ‘centre’, whilst simultaneously allowing them to delight vicariously in a tantalizing dismantling of Western social norms via exuberant displays of unbridled emotion and uninhibited sexual expression in his films. Gatlif’s willingness to position himself, and to be positioned, at the periphery also guarantees his perpetual exile, a phenomenon that is as auto-referential as the ‘return’ of Zano to his native Algeria, and Naïma’s voyage of (self-)discovery in a cultural homeland that she had not only, until then, never experienced first-hand, but had also long denied as a part of her identity. In both cases, we see very little of present-day Algeria, nor do we engage at all with Algerian political, economic, social, and cultural issues beyond the experience of our protagonists, both of whom are driven first and foremost by a quest for identity and a sense of nostalgia for the multiplicity of imagined constructions of Algeria that make it one of France’s most significant postcolonial lieux de mémoire.
Critical responses to Gatlif and his work are consistent with the manner in which the director defines his self-appointed role as spokesperson for marginalized peoples such as the Romani (often derided as ‘Gypsies’). The realism of his filmmaking style is frequently interpreted as documentary filmmaking, a phenomenon aided by the fact that Gatlif works with mainly non-professional actors of the cultural background he explores in his films, whether it be the Romani of Central and Eastern Europe, Andalusia, or Algeria, and that he shoots his films in chronological order, thereby literally taking his protagonists - often the only professional actors in the film - on a journey of discovery that he is able to capture ‘as it happens’. There is little in the way of special effects or artifice that might distract the viewer from the premise that he or she is witnessing an ‘authentic’ travel narrative.
Critical and scholarly writing on Gatlif’s films has often deployed the essentialist rhetoric of the culturally empowered ‘ethnic’ filmmaker, whose works open an ethnographic ‘window’ to the Western viewer on the director’s little-known culture by blurring the lines between documentary and fictional feature filmmaking. Typical of this take on Gatlif and his work is Dominique Borde’s review of Exils for Le Figaro, in which he asserts that ‘Exils est un vrai film gitan où le désir de voyage l’emporte souvent sur la destination’.14 This would seem to support the notion that, instead of the classic road movie, or indeed of the road movie in reverse, which would suggest a clearly defined departure and an arrival at a particular destination, the film portrays the lot of the contemporary migrant as one of perpetual movement, constant travel, and indeed permanent exile.
Exils begins with nakedness - one of Gatlif’s signature elements in his films, whereby he literally strips down the bodies of his protagonists to the core of their humanity and their identity. Such nakedness is often sexualized for the entertainment and perhaps the envy of his Western audience, representing the lack of sexual inhibition of his ‘othered’ protagonists. In this case, the function of the camera’s slow reverse tracking shot of Zano’s naked body as he faces out the window is to clearly differentiate him from the object of his and our gaze through the window, namely the built environment of the Parisian periphery, with its seemingly endless expanse of low-rent and government subsidized high-rise apartment buildings once destined to be home to the up-and-coming Parisian middle class, but now resembling more closely a ghetto for the sons and daughters of France’s culturally and socially marginalized migrant community. In a single shot, Gatlif isolates his protagonist and shows him as alienated from the environment in which he finds himself, before even a word is spoken.
The opening shot of Naïma, on the other hand, naked on the bed as she delights in eating her dessert in a highly sexualized manner, is more typical of Gatlif’s depiction of his female protagonists, in so far as it reflects a familiar, lustful male gaze upon the female actor (Lubna Azabal). However, the character that she plays, Naïma, experiences, at least in the diegetic space of the film, a form of empowerment and agency that is independent of the male gaze, with an awareness and an exploration of her sexuality which can be read, at least within the narrative of the film, as her own. This is not an abdication of Gatlif’s responsibility as a director deploying and appealing to the male gaze, but rather an acknowledgement of the relative narrative autonomy granted to a sexually empowered female protagonist ‘performing’ first and foremost for herself, rather than submitting to the desires of a male, or to even more traditional social expectations of restraint and passivity. The nakedness also establishes the physical and intimate connection between the two young lovers as they are poised to embark on their journey, with the intention of returning to their cultural origins in the hope of experiencing some kind of self-realization that France seems unable to grant them. The seemingly out-of-place physical nakedness at the beginning of the film is a precursor to the emotional and spiritual nakedness experienced by the protagonists at the end of the film in the form of a traditional Sufi dance consisting of fifteen dialogue-free minutes of trance-like music and spiritual, rather than physical, transportation. The confrontation with the other, therefore, proves circular rather than linear, with the primary ‘other’ encountered along the way and at the perceived destination being a confrontation with self.
An interpretation of these two young French protagonists embarking on a journey of self-realization by abandoning a Paris in which they never fully ‘arrived’ and heading South towards the land of their cultural origins allows critics and commentators to grant the film a particularly timely and contemporary political dimension. By staging the point of ‘departure’ in Exils at the Parisian periphery, from which the protagonists head away - contrary to the centrifugal narrative drive of most French films towards Paris - Gatlif appears to be suggesting the failure of French integrationism and showing a repositioning of the source of cultural meaning for migrants and French citizens of migrant background towards the periphery. This is a radical departure in the context of such a centralized cultural and political system as France’s, and certainly in terms of Nora’s original hexagonal conceptualization of France’s lieux de mémoire. Instead of heading towards the centre of French cultural gravity in order to seek self-realization by embracing all the economic, linguistic, and cultural wealth of le patrimoine, as described in such detail in Nora’s work, Gatlif portrays a new generation of sons and daughters of migrants and pieds-noirs who quite literally abandon Eurocentric notions of French, and particularly Parisian, cultural significance to ‘find themselves’ deep in nostalgia for the traditions, cultural values, and potential lieux de mémoire of another country - in this case, Algeria, or at least an idealized imagining of that place and what it means to them.
The political dimension of the film is therefore significant. The protagonists turn their back on French integration, and in so doing, threaten the bourgeois illusion of stability arising from the fantasy that all migrants to France strive to ‘become French’, thereby abandoning the traditions, values, and indeed the collective and personal memory of their culture of origin. Through such government institutions as the French national education system and subsidized housing in the banlieue, the fantasy extends to the notion that French society puts in place the means for such a transformation of cultural identity to occur. The journey of the protagonists flies in the face of this idea, illustrating the failure of the system to successfully integrate the disenfranchised youth of migrant origin, who are often identified as the cause of the lion’s share of social problems in France rather than as the victims of seemingly perpetual marginalization that sees them seeking, relating to, and even creating lieux de mémoire elsewhere. In banlieue cinema, the narrative drive typically focuses on the unrealized desire of the films’ protagonists to be at the social, cultural, and economic ‘centre’ rather than be relegated to the periphery. Here, the protagonists choose exile by venturing beyond that metropolitan periphery and abandoning France, and with it the French integration project, completely.
Conn Holohan observes that the film’s protagonists benefit from the ‘spatial privileges’15 enjoyed by French citizens whose border crossings are more likely to constitute an adventure holiday rather than a forced migration. Despite the exoticism of the ‘arrival’ in Algeria, and the presumed personal rebirth brought about by the prolonged spiritual dance sequence, the significance of the mental and physical spaces created at the end of the film is a construction that stems from the protagonists themselves, and from traditional cultural practice, rather than from any intrinsic cultural value in the geographical locations depicted, or deliberately not depicted, in the film.
By way of example, Zano discovers that the space of his encounter with his past, namely his parents’ home in Algeria, is one that is (re)constructed only by his presence there, and with the assistance of the family photographs that are brought out and shown to him, prompting an emotional response from Zano that suggests a long-awaited ‘return home’. In reality, his family ‘home’ no longer exists. The house in which he sits now belongs to another family. The photos that have remained in the house have no resonant meaning for their new owners outside Zano’s interpretation of them. This reconstruction of the past takes place squarely within Zano himself, with the geographical space serving only as a trigger to his self-awareness.
The journey of Naïma is particularly telling. She is at first cynical about the trip and is perhaps typical of her second-generation French/Algerian migrant origins in that she prefers not to be associated with her culture of origin. This is most obvious as she refuses to speak Arabic and rejects the suggestion that her name is of Arab origin: ‘C’est Naïma, quoi’, she declares. Her character gives voice to the notion of being, as Gatlif sees himself, ‘une étrangère de partout’, suggesting a permanent exile that remains unresolved despite the catharsis of her dance at the end of the film. The scars on Naïma’s body and her determination to live in the moment suggest that the narrative of her life is inscribed into and upon herself, rather than to be found in any particular geographical location identifiable as a lieu de mémoire. Despite the epic scale of the journey to Algeria, Naïma ultimately finds herself in the dance, spinning around and gyrating in a deeply spiritual and empowering trance that effaces her connection with her surroundings and therefore denies the significance of a sense of connection with the geographical space of her destination.
We can therefore argue that the film’s ending does not represent an ‘arrival’ in a particular geographical space, nor even in a collective spiritual space outside the protagonists’ own individual inner world. The journey they have embarked on has covered significant geographical ground, but the transformation and the discovery of self is an entirely individual process brought out from within themselves, albeit generated by their physical journey away from France. Travel has facilitated the continuation of their personal narrative beyond the stagnation represented by the interior sequence in the apartment on the Parisian periphery, but their ‘arrival’ brings them no closer to anchoring an identity in Algeria, nor to a reconciliation with their identity at the margins in France. Rather, as Cécile Mury observes:
Tout converge vers la scène de danse soufie, explosion cathartique. Filmée à l’arraché, avec ferveur, cette séquence où les corps s’emmêlent, au rythme des chants et des percussions, raconte en elle-même une histoire de liberté, de douleurs et d’abandon, de désir et de mouvement. Une histoire de voyage.16
Indeed, the final shot of the film is of the two protagonists setting off on foot again from what was until that moment their desired destination. The title of the film is branded upon them in capital letters, and across the expanse of the screen, like yet another scar on their bodies and a marker of the space around them, as though what had been forgotten, or repressed, about their identity has now been rendered undeniable. It represents the perpetuity of the cultural exile in which they find themselves, in France as well as in Algeria, in which their lieux de mémoire lie within.
While the physical journey of the protagonists from France to Algeria is key to the awakening of the significance of their complex postcolonial identity, they discover that their shifting, constantly evolving identity derives primarily from the liminal space in between the two geographical, cultural, and linguistic spaces of their cultural origins. The importance of the postcolonial spaces and places that remain in tangible form beyond France’s national borders is without question; however, one of the most refreshing and enlightening characteristics of Gatlif’s film is that the protagonists discover that the true essence of their cultural identity lies first and foremost in the deeply internalized liminal spaces of the personal and collective realms of memory that they, like all those embarked on the postcolonial migrant journey, carry with them throughout their lives.
The internalization of postcolonial collective memory that Gatlif represents in his film takes nothing away from the significance of the physical lieux de mémoire that lie beyond France’s borders in places like Algeria; on the contrary, it imbues those geographical spaces with a postcolonial significance for France, and for the collective French consciousness, that transcends the passage of time as well as the political and social actuality of either country. Much like the widely recognized monuments to hexagonal French national identity that featured in Pierre Nora’s original conceptualization of lieux de mémoire, so too may France’s postcolonial realms of memory situated beyond its borders be considered an integral part of the construction and interpretation of what is ultimately a multiplicity of dynamic and constantly evolving French cultural identities.