Interview with Nicolas Rossi about his film “Made in Algeria”
The photo film “Made in Algeria” deals with a far from glorious part of French history, which still has its after-effects in France itself: the Algerian War.
We met filmmaker Nicolas Rossi and interviewed him about his film:
PonderingTime: The film “Made in Algeria” tells the story of the Algerian War from 1954 to 1962. How much is this topic subject to controversial debate in France itself? And how did that play a role for you in the idea of this film?
Nicolas Rossi: As far as the Algerian war is concerned, there is clearly very little public discourse. I myself have been “affected” in that I was born very close to Evian-les-Bains, where Algeria’s independence was enacted in 1962. Evian is one of the cleanest places in the country, gleaming on the shores of Lake Geneva and doing almost nothing to reappraise that part of history. The preservation of jet-set tourism seems to be the ultimate credo.
One must know, however, that in 1961 the French far-right underground movement OAS (editor’s note: Organization de l’armée secrete) murdered the mayor at that time, Camille Blanc. Maybe this is a kind of trauma that can at least explain this blind spot in the culture of remembrance. And yet, this health resort’s flawlessness has a strangely uncomfortable relationship with one of France’s dirtiest wars. I shot an essay film called “C’est beau ici” about exactly that in 2012.
PonderingTime: And this was followed by “Made in Algeria”.
Nicolas Rossi: When I spent three months in Marseille in 2016 and visited the “Made in Algeria” exhibition in one of the largest museums in the city, the transfiguration of history left a bad taste in my mouth. Instead of naming the atrocities, the curators seemed content to present everything mostly cartographically. I felt that they preferred visual abstraction over deeper reflection. But after all, a museum of contemporary art is often primarily a place of audiovisual experience and entertainment.
PonderingTime: The Algerian war was bloody. There were battles and terror, massacres, torture, retribution – in short, the entire arsenal of human atrocities. In the film, the exhibition on French colonial history you just described plays a role. You criticize the presentation of the events. What would be an appropriate way to portray the horror?
Nicolas Rossi: There are numerous artistic as well as documentary means. One obvious thing would be discussions with “Harkis” (editor’s note: general name for Muslim Algerians who sided with France), who tell their stories as eyewitnesses. And I find it very important that members of the second and now third generation have their voices heard as well. The interviews could be implemented in the form of a documentary, as photographs with appropriate subtitles, or as an interactive web documentary, to name just a few of the possible ways. Subjectification is hard to achieve through maps and Algerian folk art.
PonderingTime: In your film it says, among other things, that the present is the slave of the past. Surely, the events of today stem from yesterday’s events, but on the other hand, history is written retrospectively. And historians, as children of their own time, can quickly succumb to the temptation to rewrite the past from their point of view, right?
Nicolas Rossi: Exactly. The only way to counteract this is, in my view, a healthy form of reappraisal, which of course must take place constantly. However, the phrase “slave of the past” means that descendants of people who have participated in such historical turning points often feel that they can’t escape this inheritance, even if they themselves were not involved at all. Take the many young French people of Algerian descent who generally don’t have the same opportunities in the labor market in France. The precarious situation in the suburbs of the big French cities is not a coincidence, but the product of a clearly neglected problem, an evidently failed integration and an accepted parallel society respectively.
PonderingTime: In Germany, there are also a lot of discussions about integration at the moment. However, when I hear in “Made in Algeria” of places where “homeless souls” are gathered, France still seems to have problems there too, right?
Nicolas Rossi: Someone with a dual background doesn’t necessarily have to be conflicted in themselves forever. The cultural diversity in yourself should be considered a plus and a strength. In this vein, France has to view the many people who are in the country as a direct or indirect result of the former colonial wars much more as enriching. These include gestures such as those of Hollande in 2016 (editor’s note: the then French president), when he apologized for the disrespectful treatment of the Harkis in France, something that some state leaders had announced before him, but never put into action.
PonderingTime: How about yourself – do you see yourself as a German French or French German? Are you sometimes stuck between these two identities, or do you have a something like a European identity?
Nicolas Rossi: The idea of home is an ongoing topic which I have really only able been able to access by studying art and later by shooting films. Of course, issues of cultural identity have always played a role in my life, though for a long time they weren’t a matter of Franco-German distinctness but rather about determining what exactly makes one able to feel at home in one place. I have tried to dissect the subject, to illuminate it from all angles, and then to reconstruct it afterwards. And that is perhaps the essence of it: home seems to be a construction of impressions that form the basis of subjective perceptions. It is not pre-existing conditions such as buildings, nature, religion or skin color. Otherwise, I’m a European out of embarrassment, but one from the very beginning, one might say.
PonderingTime: Let’s stay with Europe. In one sequence of “Made in Algeria” I had the feeling that it was suggested that Europe is something different in the minds of (non-European) immigrants than in the mind of French, German, Italian people etc.
Nicolas Rossi: At least that’s the impression you get when you look at recent critical documentary films. For example “Les Sauteurs – those who jump” by Abou Sidibé, Estephan Wagner and Moritz Siebert. But I would make a distinction between those who are coming only now or are planning to come, and those who have been living here for years or who have even been born on European soil. I feel that the latter don’t see their roots as being in Europe, and consequently for them Europe is often an abstraction that doesn’t really affect them directly. For the refugees of recent years, however, this Europe is a glorified place for which they yearn. Many now know that it is not paradise on earth, and yet it is certainly safer than their own home country. And there is another point, though not related to Europe, but it fits in well: When I came to a school in Upper Bavaria at around the age of 7 from France, I did not speak or understand German. I quickly learned that the French, Italians, and Spaniards were then viewed as “noble foreigners” of a sort, while Turks were the ones who were a burden. From the beginning this seemed to me an incomprehensible and often unconscious differentiation of people, where “the other” meant something else: ignorance, which is a failure. Since I also have Italian ancestors and have more of a dark skin type, people could never be sure if I was a Turk. And so I got to know all the perspectives that certainly shape me to this day.
Nicolas Rossi is an artist, filmmaker, essayist and author. Born in France and raised in Germany, Rossi uses film, video and modern media technologies as a tool to apply critical theory to artistic practice. Besides “Made in Algeria” he has worked on further film projects and is currently working on his doctoral thesis. – www.rossinicolas.com
PonderingTime: If someone in Germany forms a sentence with the word “integration”, it almost certainly contains the word “Islam”. What role does Islam play in integration in laicist France?
Nicolas Rossi: It is difficult to understand what is discussed in the major newspapers: The developments of recent years with all the media anxiety about refugee flows has, of course, also played into the hands of populists in France. Marine Le Pen even clearly called for the “return to laïcité”, and Macron strongly defends the principle of laicism, as he says. And laicity is part of the French identity. I wonder if it really is in so much danger as is always claimed. One thing I regard as fundamental is that laicity also means the protection of all religions from the state and the state from all religions. However, my in-depth competence here is certainly limited.
PonderingTime: Let’s go back to the movie. Towards the end, the perspective changes, and the focus is on a woman in two time levels. What role does she play? Whom does she represent?
Nicolas Rossi: The woman represents me, both as a child and as an adult. When I visit my family, I always go to that part of the lake and look across the river to Lausanne. It is the gaze of the schoolchild whose ability to learn is maximal, but whose ability to differentiate is not yet very well developed. And then there is the gaze of the adult, whose experiences and impressions often obscure their view of the essential. Specifically, this is about the parts of history omitted from textbooks, and about an adult in life who, if they hadn’t been sensitized at the time, would often not develop an understanding of things or an awareness of them.
PonderingTime: The story is presented as a photo film. Why this method?
Nicolas Rossi: First of all, it is a challenge to tell stories in still pictures and thus slow down the video image. I like to focus on a picture and think about how it could be read and to decipher the different readings. My method is to pick out a frame that I initially captured with my camera as a 4K video image. There is a conceptual difference to photography here because I can choose exactly the right picture. Furthermore, I am influenced by Chris Marker, whose main work at least in France is “La Jetée”, which is also a photo film. The genre of photographic film, which has only been illuminated relatively briefly in film studies, is at least closely related to the essay film, which itself is often very textual.
PonderingTime: What was in your imagination first, the pictures or the text?
Nicolas Rossi: Good question – clearly the pictures at first. I proceed here the same way as when doing collages, but I always realize afterwards that my stories were written in my head long ago, even if not concretely. My role as an artist, as a filmmaker, is that of filtration, and the artwork or film a result of this.
PonderingTime: Can our readers watch or buy the movie somewhere?
Nicolas Rossi: Since it is still being shown at film festivals, it can still be watched in 2018 but unfortunately only overseas.
PonderingTime: What’s your next or current project?
Nicolas Rossi: Currently I am working on a film as well as on my doctoral thesis. The dissertation deals with essayism as a possible tool in the age of hybrid moving picture formats. “About the Attempt of a Critique ” is again an essay film which also tries to gain an understanding of essayism. In a nutshell, you can say that the point is to examine the contemporary relevance of the essay on the basis of essayistic forms or to work out where a film has essayistic features, for example.
PonderingTime: If you look back at your previous work, what do you see as the common thread running through everything?
Nicolas Rossi: As a matter of principle, I question everything, be it an environment or a habit. If something was once a hindrance to progress in life, today it is a real – and not an artificially self-imposed – advantage. This guarantees an almost limitless drive for my creative work, which manifests itself not so much through the help of a certain cultural technique or medium, but is rather adapted to the subject and theme of the work. But you can say that the text has played a fundamental role for a very long time.
Thematically, I have been working – and not only since the assassination wave and its canonization in the media– on integration and neo-colonial phenomena in society. For many years I examined these using the example of French Guiana. I always found it astonishing to see the attitude of native French people living in the previous “overseas departments”, often lacking the willingness to integrate, and how the quiet resistance of the local population took place. Eventually a wave of dissatisfaction swept the country in 2018, and has also been heard worldwide. In New Caledonia, there have recently been similar movements as well, although here the potential separation from France is being discussed.
PonderingTime: We finish with a small association game. I’ll give you five terms, and you simply answer with the first thing that comes to your mind.
Nicolas Rossi: Much quoted, but true: The true home is childhood.
Nicolas Rossi: A constructed word that is so overused that it no longer has any relevance today.
Nicolas Rossi: Is part of me…
Nicolas Rossi: Germany, and the world, are also part of me.
PonderingTime: The future
Nicolas Rossi: Remains the foundation of our dreams, whose mortar you can determine yourself.
PonderingTime: Thank you for taking the time for us.
Nicolas Rossi: You’re welcome.