English Title: Rachida
Country of Origin: Algeria
Studio: Ciel Production, Arte France Cinéma, Ciné-Sud Promotion
Director: Yamina Bachir Chouikh
Screenplay: Yamina Bachir Chouikh
Cinematographer: Mustapha Belmihoub
Editor: Yamina Bachir Chouikh
Runtime: 93 minutes
Genre: Drama, Fiction
Volume: African / Nigerian
Rachida, made in 2002 by film editor Yamina Bachir Chouikh, is the first Algerian fiction film shot by a woman in 35mm. Set in 1996, within the specific historical moment of the rise of religious movements and terrorism in Algeria, it is the story of Rachida (Ibtissem Djouadi), the eponymous young schoolteacher working in Algiers. When a former pupil of hers flanked by several other youngsters force her to take a bomb to her school, Rachida refuses. She is shot in the abdomen and left for dead, the activated bomb beside her. Rachida survives her ordeal and moves to the countryside with her mother Aïcha (Bahia Rachedi). There, the young woman attempts to overcome the trauma of her aggression in the capital, and resumes her teaching. Although centred on Rachida, the narrative also presents us with a myriad of strong and colourful characters, proposing an intimate and at times humorous glimpse of the small village community where mother and daughter have sought refuge. However, their hope of finding a safe haven is soon crushed, as the presence of terrorists amongst the villagers brings more fear as well as more bloodshed.
Yamina Bachir Chouikh began her film career in the 1970s, working as a scriptwriter and editor on several feature films (by directors Mohamed Chouikh, Okacha Touita), before embarking on her directing project. Though primarily focused on women’s experiences in her exploration of the life of a mother and daughter, Rachida offers a plurality of characterisations, illustrating incursions of physical, moral as well as emotional violence.
In an early and pivotal scene, Rachida is shot. The use of specific cinematic techniques such as the presence or absence of diegetic sound, slow motion and ellipsis, converge to elicit a particularly strong empathy from the spectator by reflecting a similar disorientation, fear and confusion to that of the lead actress. The combination of character identification and distanciation carries with it an effective jarring feeling reminding us of our own subjectivity, producing shock as well as distress at the vivid potential loss of life. In a masterful mise-en-scène, Bachir Chouikh succeeds in justifying the (only) presentation on-screen of an appalling physical act.
Throughout, the director will continue to expose the various modes of violence encountered by women. Aïcha divorced her husband many years previously after he had taken a second wife, yet it was she who paid the heavy price of social exclusion and rejection. The weight of societal judgment also weighs on Rachida’s shoulders. Fearing that her scar will be mistaken for a caesarean, she refuses to join her mother and new neighbours at the Hammam. Another example of violence, both physical and emotional, is that of a young woman abducted and raped by terrorists. This victim of rape is rejected by her father who considers her forcible violation a disgrace to their family. In this rejection of a daughter, the director depicts not only a father’s desertion, but how societal values can prove equally restrictive for both genders: here, a man unable to transcend an archaic sense of honour, despite his daughter’s innocence
Similarly, young men try to force Rachida to plant a bomb in her school, yet in the village where she begins a new life we are introduced to Khaled (Zaki Boulenafed), an unemployed and endearing youth whose sole preoccupation is trying to speak to the woman he loves, but who is promised to another. The youths in the capital are caught in violence, whereas Khaled is consumed by unrequited love. His lack of means bars him from marrying his beloved, crushing his hope for happiness. On catching him in a public phone booth with his home number written on Khaled’s hand, the father of the bride-to-be comically loses his temper and assaults Khaled. It is an older friend who pacifies him, pointing out that Khaled is a young man genuinely and desperately in love.
It is important to note that the various protagonists are portrayed to be Muslim believers. A fellow teacher who wears the Hijab excitedly shares Rachida’s headphones to listen to Raï, the controversial Algerian popular music genre considered subversive, whose singers openly and often crudely speak of their malaise, and of love, loss and alcohol. In the countryside, when Rachida is challenged by a female colleague as to why she remains unveiled, she defends her choice by citing a verse of the Qur’an, proving herself as erudite as her colleague. The core concern is therefore not men or women pitted against Islam per se, but the way in which it is adhered to and practised by ordinary people in a predominantly Sunni Muslim country.
Algeria earned its democratisation process through the violently repressed Algiers riots of 1988, with the population making demands of dignity, improved standards of living, access to employment, democracy and government transparency. In the late 1980s, the Algerian religious movements, whose rise had been phenomenal, demanded these changes, yet few expected the horror that was to follow in their battle for political power. With Rachida, Yamina Bachir Chouikh intimates difference and moral ambiguities in a moving and multi-layered account of the suffering and aspirations of human beings in times of political and civil unrest. In the concluding sequence, Rachida and her mother survive a vicious and terrifying attack by terrorists in the village. In spite of her mother’s resignation to moving again, Rachida stands her ground. She defiantly returns to the devastated school, intent on imparting to her young pupils knowledge, as well as hope.
Author of this review: Rosa Abidi