Moïra Chappedelaine-Vautier, Paola Scarnati (Aamod) e Zineb Sedira
René Vautier was a filmmaker-combatant and the director of the first anticolonial French film (Afrique 50); between 1956 and 1957, he made a documentary about and with the National Liberation Front during the war that would ultimately lead to Algerian independence in 1962. After meeting Frantz Fanon, and having ensured he was to be granted freedom of expression, Vautier immediately headed for the border between Tunisia and Algeria. The deal with the FLN was clear: Vautier would shoot for free alongside the maquisard, with 16mm Kodachrome film provided by the Algerians; the footage would have to be screened by the Algerian authorities, not for reasons of censorship but to ensure that the itineraries of the combatants were not disclosed.
The film depicts acts of resistance during wartime (the images of female soldiers are priceless) and in everyday life, as well as documenting the tragic massacre of Sakiet Sidi Youssef. Film processing took place in France and Germany but the film was printed in East Berlin; in order to avoid censorship, Vautier used the pseudonym Willi Müller. Three versions were produced, in French, German and Arabic, and the film was widely distributed (also thanks to the fact that the rights for the whole of Eastern Europe belonged to DEFA), but it was first shown in France only ten years later, in the Sorbonne during the student occupation. The film cost Vautier physical injuries and a long spell in prison, but he had no regrets. He would always claim that Algérie en flammes was a necessary film, for both France and Algeria, and that “the film camera is a weapon – not a weapon that kills, but rather an instrument of peace”.
Cast and Credits
René Vautier. Prod.: Front (algérien) de libération nationale. DCP. Col.
Restoration promoted and funded by Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory. In association with AAMOD – Archivio Audiovisivo del Movimento Operaio e Democratico, Casbah Entertainment and Cinémathèque algérienne. The restoration minimized the red and green halos caused by the misalignment of the Technicolor strips during printing and to restore the original black and white of archival footage shot on color stock. The Eastmancolor portions of the film, on the other hand, suffered strong decay and it was not always possible, during grading, to recover the original colors.
I came across Les Mains libres while researching my project Dreams Have No Titles for the Venice Biennale, centred around militant cinema and co-productions between Algeria, France and Italy. Although this title was often referenced, very little detailed information was provided. Produced by Casbah Film (who would later back Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers), Les Mains libres was shot by Italian filmmaker Ennio Lorenzini in 1964 – only two years after Algeria’s independence from the French coloniser – and it is the first international Algerian production. As time went by, I became more and more interested in this film, that had not been seen for 57 years! A few articles in the newspaper “Alger républicain” and in “Cahiers du cinéma” confirmed that the film premiered in Algiers at the Cinéma l’Afrique and was followed by a sidebar screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1965. Several months into my investigation, a 35mm print of Les Mains libres showed up at AAMOD and thanks to the Institut français’ partnership with Cineteca di Bologna I was able to see the film, which was later restored.
It touched me greatly to discover, not only the newly created Algerian state in colour, a rare sight at the time, but also a multifaceted nation, away from the simplistic view created by the French press and army. For the first time, it was possible to see footage sweeping the entire Algerian territory and witness the richness of the landscapes and the diversity of its traditions. Using the aesthetic of militant cinema of the time, Les Mains libres displayed a rich array of archival material from the Algerian war: rarely-seen photos, footage, press clippings. Was the abundance of surviving material related to the presence of Italian reporters?
Les Mains libres is a discovery, a p litical and militant testimony to the enduring traces of colonisation and of the talks to come once a country has newly gained freedom.
But one question remains: why was the initial title Tronc de figuier (literally “Fig Tree’s Trunk”) – a rather racist nickname used by French settlers against the Algerians – eventually changed into Les Mains libres?
Cast and Credits
T. alt.: Tronc du figuier. Scen.: Ennio Lorenzini, Giovanni Riccioli. Commento: S. Bagdadi. F.: Claudio Racca. M.: Mario Serandrei. Prod.: Noureddine per Casbah Film Alger. DCP. Col.
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