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March 2 - March 4, 2012

The 2011 Geneviève McMillan Award: Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche

Each year, Harvard’s Film Study Center awards the Geneviève McMillan-Reba Stewart Fellowship to a Francophone filmmaker from Africa or of African descent. The latest recipient is Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, the French filmmaker born in Algeria in 1966. The Harvard Film Archive is welcome to host a retrospective of his work, with Mr. Ameur-Zaïmeche in attendance to receive his award.

Spontaneity is the watchword of Ameur-Zaïmeche’s cinema. His films seem to arise out of the interactions between the figures onscreen, unfolding without any apparent overarching narrative thrust. They are carefully observed portraits of communities, with plot taking second place to the detailed delineation of characterization and atmosphere.

In a parallel fashion, the filmmaker’s career has progressed in stages. Each of his four films has won prizes internationally, and each has marked a new course for Ameur-Zaïmeche. After a liberal arts education, he embraced a lifelong love of cinema by setting up an independent production company in 1999. His debut, Wesh Wesh, qu’est-ce qui passe? (2001), is a low-budget affair shot in the housing project in the Parisian suburb of Saint Denis where he grew up. The film was immediately hailed as a revelatory addition to the growing cycle of French films about disaffected urban youth. Rather than risk being pigeonholed, Ameur-Zaïmeche made his next film, Back Home (2006), in his native Algeria. His return to France with Adhen (2008) marked a departure from slice-of-life realism toward political allegory tinged with humor, while his latest work, Smugglers’ Songs, is a surprising foray into historical drama, yet handled with great freeness.

Though Wesh Wesh is an eye-catching debut in large part because of the breathless immediacy of its handheld camera, Ameur-Zaïmeche’s subsequent work is calmer and quieter. These films reveal themselves slowly, taking hold of the spectator with strikingly composed, highly detailed shots. Ameur-Zaïmeche gives a performance in keeping with his style as a filmmaker: relaxed and understated. – David Pendleton

Presented in partnership with the Film Study Center, Harvard. Special thanks to this year's selection committee members: Dominique Bluher, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and David Pendleton, as well as to Ernst Karel, Heidi Carrell and Cozette Russell of the Film Study Center and to Sarah Sobol of Sarrazink Productions.


Special Event Tickets $12 - Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche in Person
Friday March 2 at 7pm

Smugglers' Songs (Les chants de Mandrin)

Directed by Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, Appearing in Person.
With Jacques Nolot, Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, Christian Milia-Darmezin
France 2011, digital video, color, 97 min. French with English subtitles

Ameur-Zaïmeche takes an unexpected turn into period-film territory in his latest work, a film in praise of banditry. Louis Mandrin was a notorious mid-18th century France smuggler who became a folk hero for setting up thieves’ markets where stolen goods were sold without the extravagant taxes levied by the royalty. Smugglers’ Songs is a fictionalized account of his confederates’ activities after his 1755 execution. They attempt to carry out their utopian vision of an alternative society based on a barter economy, collective living and a libertine spirit, with song and poetry flowing freely. Although the film is an ensemble piece, Jacques Nolot steals the show as a noble sympathetic to Mandrin’s men, who helps them publish a collection of ballads written or inspired by the brigand.

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Special Event Tickets $12 - Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche in Person
Saturday March 3 at 7pm

Adhen (Dernier maquis)

Directed by Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, Appearing in Person.
With Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, Abel Jafri, Christian Milia-Darmezin
France 2008, 35mm, color, 93 min. French and Arabic with English subtitles

A portrait of contemporary French Arab masculinity, especially in relation to class and religion, Adhen takes place at a warehouse and truck yard in a desolate industrial zone. When the workers there begin to chafe at their low wages, their boss, known as Mao, tries to placate them by installing a mosque onsite. An example of forthright political filmmaking, Adhen propounds its point about religion as the opiate of the working class through straightforward allegory and gentle humor. After establishing himself as a subtle and charismatic leading man in his first two films, Ameur-Zaïmeche here contributes a slightly broader performance as Mao. The film takes full advantage of the visual possibilities of its setting, using stacks of industrial pallets as semi-abstract backdrops, painted an arresting red.

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Sunday March 4 at 5pm

Wesh Wesh (Wesh Wesh, qu'est-ce qui passe?)

Directed by Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche. With Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, Ahmed Hammoudi, Brahim Ameur-Zaïmeche
France 2001, 35mm, color, 83 min. French and Arabic with English subtitles

Ameur-Zaïmeche’s debut is a sterling example of the banlieue film that first emerged as an important genre in French cinema in the 1990s. (French for “suburb,” “banlieue” in this context refers to the Parisian working-class suburbs with largely immigrant and French-born Arab populations.) Although it abounds in incident, it largely eschews the overheated dramatics that made Matthieu Kassovitz’ La haine (1995) such a success. Wesh Wesh was a truly independent production shot on DV with a cast of non-professionals. Ameur-Zaïmeche stars as a young man who returns to his home in the housing projects after five years in prison and two in exile in Algeria. Wesh Wesh incorporates some oft-seen plot elements – the ex-con looking to go straight, tensions between the police and housing-project residents – in order to renew them with scrupulously detailed, impassioned realism.

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Special Event Tickets $12 - Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche in Person
Sunday March 4 at 7pm

Back Home (Bled Number One)

Directed by Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, Appearing in Person.
With Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, Meryem Serba, Abel Jafri
France/Algeria 2006, 35mm, color, 100 min. French and Arabic with English subtitles

The international success of Back Home confirmed the promise announced by Wesh Wesh. In that film, Ameur-Zaïmeche played an ex-con named Kamel, just back from two years of court-ordered exile in his native Algeria. In this quasi-prequel, the filmmaker also plays a Frenchman named Kamel, a young man deported to Algeria after a prison sentence. As he encounters the country as both insider and outsider, Kamel discovers the pleasures and discontents of life in a land torn between tradition and modernity. Particularly in his interactions with women in his small home village, Kamel comes face to face with the differences between his secular life in France and the prominence of Islam in Algeria.

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