‘Here is the house which used to be a café where Julien Duvivier shot the famous scene which sees Jean Gabin, by the counter, drinking, mourning the loss of his friend’, recounted the superin- tendent of the Casbah, the improvised guide on that day of June 2013. He was pointing at the refurbished Moresque arched door of a carpenter’s workshop, and at the inside walls of a long crum- bling room that was allegedly erected at a later date.
Universal cinema did indeed give birth to some memorable legends of illustrious film sequences filmed in Algeria. In fact, very few films have been shot in the Casbah during the French colonial period, let alone in Algiers. With the greatest respect to the police officer, the Casbah of Duvivier’s seminal film Pépé le Moko (1937) is known to be a meticulous studio recreation of the natives’ neighbourhood of the historical citadel of Algiers2. Algiers is a legend of its own. Literature and cinema have rightly turned the Casbah into the metonymy for the capital of Algeria or a negation of post-1830 Algiers. Actually, before the French colonisation, the Casbah was Algiers.
Sketches of Algiers 1 is the first attempt of Amina Menia to ex- plore the representations and interpretations of the city of Al- giers in Cinema. The installation consists in the recreation or deconstruction of significant visual cinematic codes, which were used by director Julien Duvivier as temporal and spatial signifi- ers of authenticity. Viewers are physically invited to pass through a Moresque arched door to walk the slopping streets of the Cas- bah and to penetrate its shaded domestic space.
Are we transported back to the late 30s? Are we contemplating a contemporary view of the roofs of the old city?
By exposing in the white cube props of uncertain ages and territories, two-dimensional trompe-l’oeil paintings and disclosing lighting usually off the camera, Menia breaks the ontological rules of cinema: the cinematic realism requires ‘fiction to be the closest possible to sensitive reality’3. Cinema requests filmgoers not only to acknowledge that Pépé le Moko is set in the real Casbah, but also to physically experience it. Sketches of Algiers 1 challenges the audience providing the tools and access to the techniques commonly used at times when film studios reach its peak whilst unveiling little-known aspects of this unique architectural vernacular.
Sketches of Algiers 1 defies what is still considered one of the most influential French films of its time for being at the forefront of the poetic realism movement and a pioneer of film noir. It is worth mentioning that the neighbourhood of the Casbah was the selling point of Pépé le Moko4. Only a year after its release in France, Hollywood invited the American audience to ‘Come with me to the Casbah’ in Algiers, John Cromwell’s remake of the acclaimed gangsters movie5.
Although Pépé le Moko was originally directed to a French audience, yet it might have been difficult to convey to an audience unfamiliar with the North African colonial context. How is the indigenous architecture of Algiers reproduced and translated by outsiders? Algiers’ voice over of the introductory description of the Casbah sets the tone:
It’s only a step from the modern city, the Casbah, but when you take that step you enter another world, a melting pot for all the sins of the earth… the Casbah’s… like a crawling anthill, a jungle of homes, a laby- rinth of narrow passages and winding alleys, rotten with vermin and decay, the filth of centuries… Forty thousand inhabitants from all over the world have been settled here for generations. […]The Casbah rises like a fortress from the sea: colourful, sordid, dangerous.6
Menia’s immersive installation makes its way between the different layers of translation of the discourse of alterity and power relations circulating through the process of Pépé le Moko’s remakes. The juxtaposition in the installation of the Victorian- like wallpaper next to the colourful ceramic – which consists in the only Algerian ‘realia’ – interrogates the asymmetrical and uni- directional notion of exoticism which has long determined the roles of objects and subjects. The British audience is therefore confronted to the uncanny fading carnation flower pattern covering the Victorian wallpaper which seems to say with Jean- Paul Sartre: ‘Here are black men standing, looking at us, and I hope that you – like me – will feel the sensation of being seen. For three thousand years, the white man enjoyed the privilege of seeing without being seen. […] Today, these black men have fixed their gaze upon us and our gaze is thrown back into our eyes’.7 Sketches of Algiers 1 points out as well how much colonial exoticism has affected the gaze, the self-representation, the formulation and formativity of contemporary Algerians imaginary. The artist has addressed these issues in the previous works through the scope of the concept of re-appropriation. By imitating the allegedly authentic sources of Duvivier’s film, Sketches of Algiers 1 displays the film set of a very personal remake of one film’s sequence and transfers to the exhibition space the spectacular apparatus of the cinema. It is now another Casbah, one of the thousand that many painters depict everyday in Algiers with women draped in white climbing the steep picturesque alleys of this emblematic neighbourhood.
Yasmina Reggad, October 2013