A few curious faces emerged from the windows of a quiet alley in the lower Kasbah of Algiers. “Rolling, silence on the set, action!” an assistant director shouted, after having placed extras. Sitting in front of a door, actress Aida Ababsa, tried to sell jewelry to passers-by. The scene was brief. “Cut!” yelled Mouzahem Yahia, the director. On that day, he was shooting the last episode of the flagship series for this year’s Ramadan in Algeria: Al Dama (Checkers).
The series, produced by the Algerian national channel EPTV and broadcast during Ramadan, ended on April 17, with more than 4 million views per episode on YouTube and on air. It tells the daily life of Algiers’ neighborhood of Bab-El-Oued in the form of a social tale that addresses the ills of Algerian society amidst poverty, trafficking and the desire to succeed.
Its success, according to Yahia, shows at least one thing: “Algerian viewers want stories that relate to them, in their language.” A boon for an Algerian film industry that many see as devastated.
Will series save the sector? The director of Al Dama believe so. With the modernization and evolution of sound and image equipment, “making a series is making movies for the general public,” he said. “For us, directors and technicians, it’s the same work of directing. What changes is the number of viewers.”
Ensuring a salary
Algerian film production, hit by a crisis that began with the termination, two years ago, of the only fund financing the industry, is in tatters. As a result, only three films have managed to be released in theaters so far in 2023. Among them, The Last Queen by Adila Bendimerad and Damien Ounouri, will be released in Algeria in May.
According to film professionals, Ramadan series have become a means of subsistence. Outside of the holy month, no contemporary Algerian film is scheduled on private or public channels. “After two difficult years related to Covid-19 and the lack of filming, this period is an opportunity to ensure our actors receive a salary and to be able to work, in financial security, on film projects during the rest of the year,” said Fouad Trifi, co-founder of the casting agency Wojooh.
“In recent years, technicians have mainly worked for television programs, commercials or series, which has allowed a circulation of skills,” according to Karim Moussaoui, a director who tried himself these new formats after presenting Waiting for the swallows (Until the Birds Return) in 2017 at the Cannes film festival in the selection In some perspective.
Shot in Bou Saada, southeast of Algiers, his series Ain El Djenna (“The Source of Paradise”) stands out from the sitcoms because of its clean aesthetic. The dramatic comedy tells the story of a woman who returns to her native village after decades of absence. She discovers, upon arrival, that she is a candidate in the municipal elections against her will.
Although they have the merit of allowing those who conceive them to work, these Ramadan series are not flawless. “We are currently shooting an episode that will be aired tomorrow and we are not sure we have the budget to finish it, even though the script has been validated for more than a year,” a technician said. “Every year, it’s the same thing. It’s like they’re not sure Ramadan is going to happen.”
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Difficult filming conditions are often coupled with censorship before airing by the television channels themselves, which can confuse the narrative. The reasons given for such cuts, sometimes lasting a number of minutes, include respect for morality, family values, religion and the national narrative. In some cases, it is to abide by the higher interests of the nation.
Such practices are a burden on creators. Discussions between film and audiovisual professionals and the Algerian Ministry of Culture are ongoing in anticipation of the upcoming adoption of a draft law on the film industry.
In a statement issued in late March, however, an association of Algerian Filmmakers (CCAA) said it refused to engage in “any discussion about this legislation as long as the articles providing for such vague censorship and prison sentences are not permanently removed.”