Zahra’s Mother Tongue

English Title: Zahra’s Mother Tongue

Original Title: La Langue de Zahra

Country of Origin: Algeria, France

Studio: Le Mans Télévision and 24 Images Coproduction

Director: Fatima Sissani

Producer(s): Farid Rezkallah

Cinematographer: Olga Widmer

Editor: Anne Lacour

Runtime: 93 minutes

Genre: Documentary

Language: French, Kabyle

Year: 2011

Volume: African / Nigerian


Fatima Sissani’s mother, Zahra, escaped the Kabylia region of Algeria during a time of political unrest. Neither able to stay nor wanting to leave, she and her husband moved to France. She was chased from her country, without a formal education or an income, separated from the help of her family and friends. Yet, even though her daughters were raised in the French education system and her future being decided, Zahra chose to reject her new home, and retained the language, religion, and customs of her people, the Kabyle.

Now, her daughter, Sissani, documents her mother’s displacement, her time in France, and her return to the rustic Algerian countryside, visiting the gardens and homes of her ancestors. Sissani discovers how the simple domestic activities of cooking, swathing hay, watching the sun rise over the mountains are all sources of cultural knowledge. 

Sissani and her sisters share an admiration of their mother’s decision to maintain the language and traditions of her homeland that act as sources of inspiration and strength for them and their children. Yet, it is through Zahra’s own voice and her use of the Kabyle language, in the compliments she shares, the singing of songs, and the recitation of poetry that her culture is carried forward to future generations.


Two themes reoccur in African cinema: the effects of diaspora and of colonization on individuals and peoples. Yet, the issue at the center of Zahra’s Mother Tongue is that the film explores how both of these subjects lead to an individual’s displacement. For Zahra, she lives neither here nor there, but in a state of limbo, holding to a past to which she can never return.

Although the film does not explicitly state, it can be assumed that the filmmaker’s mother had to leave her homeland due to the tensions raised from the threefold effects of the war of liberation, the National Liberation Front’s rejection of French colonialism, and the effects of the Berber Spring in 1980, when demonstrators demanded that the Berber language be recognized in Kabylia. Immigration to Europe for the Kabyle was once an option, beginning prior to World War I for economic and familial reasons but when tensions escalated over the politics of identity, options were limited, and emigration became an answer.

Sissani considers this notion of displacement by shifting between her apartment in France and her mother’s journey back to Algeria. Despite a clear division between the urban and the rural, the viewers are never sure exactly where they are located. It is with an early domestic conflict in the film, the threading of a needle, that Sissani finds a metaphoric meaning as she stitches these two locations together, fastening these separate parts of the same cloth. 

As a strategy to counteract this displacement, Sissani allows for moments of pause, still life shots in the documentary without the key players. For example, rain on a window or a city street, the bustling of a park, or the light on a table decorated with flowers, not located geographically, centre the action on quiet domestic moments in space. They operate like Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu’s pillow shots, also known as curtain shots where, between scenes, he would insert carefully framed shots of the surroundings to signal changes in settings. 

What is more important though is that Sissani incorporates the language of Zahra to locate the audience. The Kabyle speak a Berber language that is unique to Kabylia. It is in these quiet conversations between mother and daughters, sisters, nieces and aunts, that the unembellished culture of the Kabyle is carried forward. By employing the language in songs and poetry, or by the sharing of stories, it is passed on. Thus, these quiet domestic moments when one is cooking, or eating a meal with family, become the important connective tissue that binds a person with their people. 

Within the politics of identity, the importance of language of one’s culture is contained in words. This notion is most resonant when Zahra tells her daughter about a man who is killed because he decides to sing. If forgetting the words makes one disconnected from their past, then to remove a person from their language is to strip them of their heritage. Zahra’s reluctance to adopt the French language and continue to speak Kabyle makes her a steward of her culture, whether she is located in Kabylia or not. Zahra’s Mother Tongue won the Prix Radio-Canada de la communication interculturelle for the best feature-length documentary at the 2012 Festival International de Cinéma Vues d’Afrique in Montreal.

Author of this review: David Gane