Violence historique, argumentation visuelle

"Ali au pays des merveilles" de Djouhra Abouda & Alain Bonnamy

On the occasion of the program “Creation is a political protest. The cinema of Djouhra Abouda and Alain Bonnamy” on January 30, 2022, Nicole Brenez presents an unpublished text in french about the film Ali au pays des merveilles (1976).

Ali au pays des merveilles, a musical pamphletary essay about immigration in France in the 1970s, describes systematic violence. Its opening sequence factually documents the bloody nature of racism, with a long and terrible summary in the form of rolling titles listing the thirty-one Arabs murdered in 1975, the year Marcel Bigeard (an officer accused of torture during the Algerian War) was appointed to the post of Secretary of State for Defence. Against a backdrop of xenophobia, figurative defamation and a lack of fair representation, Ali au pays des merveilles initially works to establish the facts, to describe situations and living conditions, to show the images a society doesn’t want to see, to overwhelm the perception and intellection of data that are sensitive and logical at the same time. Workers emerging from the hole in ground created by the demolition of the old market of Les Halles, then a building site, like earthquake survivors, navvies embedded in their trenches, while busy middle-class shoppers pass by… the film offers many realistic and symbolic motifs that exhume bodies and make them visible.

In order to reproduce the structural violence and the violence of singular situations, the film systematises the visual and sonic forms of the conflict. Not only does the film engage the images in a struggle with dominant representations, but it makes full use of all the possible cinematographic resources to juxtapose the images:

- parallel editing, here the simplest manifestation of the brutality of the class struggle;
- split-screen, the spatialisation of the conflict, which objectifies it a bit more;
- flicker effect, which takes it to the pinnacle of sensitive violence;
- double exposure and, more generally, the visual tools of remanence that allow old images to surface like an echo, in the way a commonplace ID check in the Goutte-d’Or neighbourhood violently takes us back to the images of the massacres of 11th October 1961[1] and the French massacres in Algeria;
- frame within a frame, here a sort of natural split-screen which brings together two worlds inside the same shot, like the fencing which separates the Parisian passers-by and the navvies who don’t even notice one another, as if it sufficed to frame the world in the right way so that the struggle between the classes and history could be analysed within it.

The conflicts between text and image, between sound and image, between the sounds, between the images, culminate in a return to the same shot: the Champs-Élysées at the start and end of the film. From a topographical snapshot when it first appears, transformed, illuminated, put into perspective (the shanty towns 3 kilometres away), enriched, fraught with conflict, it eventually returns in the form of a screen-image that we now have all the means to tear up.

Ali au pays des merveilles is part of a writing about trauma. Here the essay refuses to engage in self-diagnosis and thus contribute, even in a salutary fashion, to any form of reparation, conciliation and control. Its violence is a howl proportionate to the violence of the oppression of:

- the dispossessed: Algerians who have been deprived of their land by colonisation, and forced to emigrate;
- the exploited: the anonymous drudges of the Thirty Glorious Years, exhausted workers on the Paris Metro in the early hours of the morning, refuse collectors picking up the rubbish with their bare hands;
- the trampled: racist headlines from the French fascist daily papers which – I have seen this for myself – disgorge their hatred on the front of every newspaper kiosk in the country;
- the destitute: populations cooped up in the muddy shanty towns on the outskirts of Paris (Nanterre, La Courneuve…);
- the lonely: a final dark silhouette walking alongside an inhuman motorway on the outskirts of town, deprived of everything, even brotherhood;
- the anguished: a young girl rebelling in advance against the miserable career that awaits her (a vocational training certificate in dressmaking);
- the frustrated: groups of men gathered in front of the doors of brothels, sinisterly famous for operating like a production line;
- the banished from view: bodies put to work who are dotted all over town like so many other little figures nobody considers;
- the repressed: victims of the Algerian War, who have been denied, forgotten and sometimes defamed (the French term ‘guerre d’Algérie’ was then forbidden in France) as well as a State crime committed in Paris in October 1962;
- the dead: gravestones of Muslim soldiers who were snatched from the colonies and fell at the front “for the homeland”.

Just like the shots, these categories are attached to one another, segued and overprinted. We clearly see that each protagonist, each extra, each silhouette could embody several of them; they merge in a certain way into the dark figure at the end, both documentary and allegorical, solitary and collective, locally situated and representative of a real and ghostly global condition reserved for Third-World peoples. Djamel Allam’s Kabyle song, “Mara d'yughal/When he returns”, describes what an emigrant son’s parents will give him when he returns to the country (“We will give him a horse so that he can cross the counties / We will add a rifle so that he can hunt partridge…”) lending a spirit of protest and radiant dimension to the terrible melancholy that reigns in these rainy, urban shots.

Against all these aporias and defamations, the film is brimming with visual, sonic, rhythmic, figurative, logical energies. Those of:

- the sometimes torrential eloquence of the speakers, particularly “M”, the main one (Djouhra Abouda refers to him as such in an interview from 1978[2]);
- the diversity of languages and accents;
- the speed differentials (still image/speeded up/slow motion, short edit/long take/jump-cut/flicker effect), which makes the very principle of the orthonormal sequence vanish;
- the angle, focal and lens differential (unusual extensive use of the fisheye) which makes the very principle of an orthodox vision vanish;
- the hand-held camera or tracking shots that seem to dive into a world that will never be sufficiently described and put it back in motion;
- the music tracks that ironize (the rearranged Marseillaise) or deterritorialise the images;
- the faces and gestures whose vibrant presence pulverises the denials, oblivions, denigrations.

“All the images have been filmed like a series of punches,”[3] Djouhra Abouda explains. But this plastic, rhythmic and agogic work serves a visual argument that plays, with a virtuoso’s skill, the processes of deduction and induction. They maybe culminate in the “play on images” – just as one would say “play on words” – whereby a racist-newspaper headline – “Our streets taken over by the Arab underworld” – is derided, crossed out and discredited by a shot of an immigrant worker’s hands carefully laying cobbles in a Parisian street. Ali au pays des merveilles creates a counterimage that is as sensitive and sensual as it is rational, on the one hand, due to the explicit information emanating from the words and figures that come from everywhere, in numerous guises and, sometimes, all at once (vertical and horizontal rolling titles, oral tirades, dialogues, chants…), and, on the other, due to the wealth of implicit meanings that we are invited to deduce from the conflicts organised by the edit. But the film’s most indisputable truth certainly stems as much from the events shown and the motives described as the virulence with which they crop up in their depiction, in the way the roughness of a scream[4] attests to the intensity of a pain.

In the face of such a flagrant example of historic, economic and social injustice, fiction and documentary films multiplied in France in the second half of the 1970s.[5] Among the most important and noteworthy, which specifically dealt with immigration, were the magnificent drama films by Med Hondo (Soleil Ô, 1967, Les Bicots-nègres, vos voisins, 1973), Sidney Sokhona (Nationalité : immigré, 1976, Safrana ou le droit à la parole, 1978), Daniel Julien (Mohammed Diab, comment et pourquoi on tue un travailleur algérien 1974), the super-8 films by the Collectif Mohammed, and also –perhaps the one that is visually closer to Ali because of its use of tracking shots backed by Arabic music –, Peter Nestler’s documentary Fos-sur-mer (1972). But rage has never looked so beautiful and brilliant and a pamphlet has never taught us so much about violent acts of denial, the force of descriptive affirmation and the power of cinematographic conflict as they do in Ali au pays des merveilles.

Here are a few factual comments to end with.

- In their 1978 interview, Djouhra Abouda and Guy Hennebelle said that Ali au pays des merveilles had an original running time of 75 minutes. “And indeed, a feature film would not have been too much to illuminate the political landscape with its flamboyant acuity. In the absence of this long version, we need to thank the Talitha association for its restoration of these 59 minutes and putting them back into circulation. They hark back to their present and to ours just as well”.
- Thirty years later, when Djouhra Abouda and Alain Bonnamy’s masterpiece had been completely forgotten and was unavailable for viewing, another film-maker and musician drew inspiration from Ali au pays des merveilles to unpick the police violence of his day: the rapper Hamé, in his short film La Disette du Corbeau (2008).
- We can’t help thinking that, if film critics, historians and programmers had done their job as well as the Kabyle construction workers or the Malian refuse collectors, or, in other words, if the admirable films by Djouhra Abouda and Alain Bonnamy, by Sidney Sokhona, or even René Vautier’s global essay Déjà le sang de mai ensemençait novembre (1985) had become the cinema classics they should have been, maybe a transactional field to foster potential dialogues would have been established, maybe the culture gap wouldn’t have continued to widen, maybe we wouldn’t have had a racist far-right knocking on the doors of power and, to all intents and purposes, dominating today’s political debates in France with all its triumphant toxicity. Maybe, of course, I’m certainly dreaming in the land of images.

By Nicole Brenez


[1] These are Élie Kagan’s photographs, which Jacques Panijel used in Octobre à Paris (1962).

[2] Guy Hennebelle, “Djouhra Abouda : l’émigration est bleue comme une orange !”, in “Cinémas de l’émigration”, CinémAction n°8, summer 1979, p. 130.

[3] Id., p. 131.

[4] “The presence of roughness in the acoustic signal leads to an increase in cerebral responses in the amygdala, the sub-cortical region involved in reacting to danger.” Luc H. Arnal, “Le cri humain : une niche acoustique particulière”, Med Sci (Paris), Volume 32, n° 6-7, June-July 2016,

[5] Cf. the inventory carried out by Guy Hennebelle in his Guide des films anti-impérialistes, Paris, éditions du Centenaire, 1975, chapter “Les immigrés en Europe de l’Ouest”, pp. 10-35.

11 January 2022