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26 September 2014

Rachida (2002)

Directed by Yasmina Bachir
Starring: Ibitessim Djouadi,Abdelkader Belmokadem, 
Amel Choukh, Bahia Rachedi, Hamid Remas,  
Rachida Messaoui En, Zaki Boulenafed
 The Algerian Civil War was primarily an armed conflict between the National Liberation Front, the incumbent ruling party, and the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) that was gaining in popularity; the protracted battle that began in 1991, claimed somewhere between 44,000 to 1,50,000 lives until 2002 when the FIS laid down its arms. In that interim period, the government banned the FIS and cancelled the general elections, and this led not only to the imposition of military rule in Algiers, but also to the rise of Islamist rebels who resorted to guerrilla warfare against the government and its supporters. The Algerian army began a crackdown on the FIS that resulted in a constant conflict between the Islamic activists and the government. Armed groups targetted the army and the police in the mountains of Algiers and its towns, but soon the violence turned, as it always does, against its own, and countless civilians lost their lives in the eleven years before a special amnesty disbanded the rebel forces. *

Rachida, however, is not about the conflict at all, inasmuch as it is the story of an ordinary woman during that fraught period. It is about the effects of civil war and domestic terrorism on an individual's life. How is it like to live under the shadow of death? Do you become inured to it as long as it doesn't directly affect you? What does it take to change that detachment? Does becoming the target of one deliberate act of violence affect you for the rest of your life? Rachida (Ibitessim Djouadi) becomes the face of those questions.

She is an ordinary person, a school teacher who, despite living in dark times, goes about the business of living her own life. She has a loving mother, a boyfriend, and she loves to teach. One day, on her way to school, she is accosted by a former pupil and his friends. He is now a member of the GIA, a rebel group that split from the FIS, and wants her to take a bag (containing a bomb) to school with her. When she refuses, trying to get him to think of the innocent children who attend the school, he shoots her pointblank in the stomach. 
The men depart, leaving her bleeding in the middle of the road, and the bag beside her. For a while, no one moves. They are all crippled by the fear that the GIA generate. Finally an old woman removes her chador and covers Rachida's bloody body. Other women join in, while someone else, finally, calls the emergency services. As the ambulance whisks her away, the bomb disposal squad deal with the bomb. 

An emergency operation and a stay in the ICU later, Rachida is lucky to survive. But her mother decides to leave town with her. Who knows if the man who shot Rachida will come back to finish the job if he realises Rachida is alive and able to identify him? A friend, Yasmin, offers them sanctuary in her house in the country. Quickly, and secretively, Rachida is whisked away to physical safety. Even her boyfriend is not told where they are going. 

However safe Rachida is, in the little town, the demons that plague her nights haven't stayed behind in the city. The trauma is evident, every day, all the time, as Rachida's nights and days become a living nightmare. "Where was all this hate buried? queries Rachida, when the daily news brings newer and more horrific tales of abductions and murders into their home. "This cruelty. This barbarity. These hearts deserted of all humanity."  
Her mother, loving and helpless, tries to maintain a façade of normalcy. It is in conversations with her mother that Rachida realises how difficult her mother's life had been. As a divorcée, she is seen as a fallen woman, even if she only divorced her husband because he took a second wife. It is one of the most poignant scenes in the film. "I left my home and my little fig tree," she tells Rachida, her voice heavy with sadness. Is she mourning the death of her marriage, or the sense of permanent roots that it gave her?

Eventually, trying to 'live' (as she puts it), Rachida decides to go down to the store one day to buy groceries. A chance encounter with another rebel group shatters her frail sense of safety. Terrified and literally shaking with the trauma, Rachida shuts herself in her room. She learns that the little mountain town is not safe after all. "I'm in exile in my own country," she says, when she returns home.  
When she has to go back to Algiers for a medical checkup, they very nearly run into a roadblock set up by the insurgents. Each incident only makes her relive the terror she felt when she was approached and shot. While the oppressors are not the same group who shot her in the city, they are a part of the Islamic groups that are spreading terror amongst the civilian population.  When later, the doctor asks her how she feels, she confesses that she is still scared. "I'm also scared," the doctor tells her, "the whole world is scared."
Abductions, murder, extortion are all common, and the townspeople are unwilling captives to the continual attacks by the terrorists. A man who speaks up against the terror tactics is murdered in broad daylight. A girl had been abducted by the terrorists; one day, she escapes her captors and returns home - only to face ostracism from her own father. 
He cannot bear the shame and dishonour that she brought upon the family, he says; why couldn't she have died instead? Luckily for the girl, her sister provides moral and physical support, but not without consquences.

Yet, amidst these attacks, the townspeople strive to live a normal life, even though they are acutely aware that it is only transitory. People fall in love, they meet and play cards in cafes, there are weddings and funerals, and Rachida and her mother try to make a place for themselves within this seeming normalcy. With her mother's support, Rachida even pushes herself to apply for the position of a teacher in the local school. 

One day, Rachida and her mother are at the wedding celebrations of a neighbour's daughter, when a random attack leaves the family shattered - their daughter is abducted. Rachida, hiding in the bushes see the men shoot a man, and overhears them talking about kidnapping all 'the pretty women' including the new schoolteacher - her. 
She spends the night in terror, and discovers the next morning that the village has been looted; and there are new graves, many of them. This is when her mother finally breaks down. Where can they be safe? If they leave this place, where can she and her daughter go? Watching her shatters Rachida's emotional detachment. Her mother, who divorced her husband when he married a second time, had lived with society's contempt. "It is always the woman who is blamed," she says. It is a matter of fact statement. She has never quite lost her sense of humour, and she's brought Rachida up to be her own woman, and chart her own life. 

And even now, it is fear for Rachida that is tearing her mother apart. It stokes Rachida's anger at the circumstances where no one is safe even in their own homes, and gives her the strength to protest. In her own way. To give voice to the questions that a population resigned to their fate dare not ask. To voice the protests that need an outlet. To show the world that terrorism cannot quieten the voice of a conscience awakened. To let in a ray of hope to light the darkness that seems to be spreading faster and deeper. "Only nightmares are free in this country," says one of the characters.

Determined to overcome her own fears, and carve out as normal a life as is possible under the circumstances, she goes to work that morning, and there is a sense of purpose about her. And slowly, the children come in. One, two, three... Not everyone of them, but enough for a new beginning. 
Rachida (the film) takes a deep, compelling look at what it is like to live in a war-torn country, not knowing who the enemies really are. Rachida (the character) seems to be a personification of Algeria - suffocated by years of strife, cowed by archaic and paternalistic traditions, but pushing forward with a will to survive.

This is Yasmina Bachir's debut film, and she does not shirk from showing the deep and gashing wounds that have been left on her native country. According to her statement in the Director's Cut in the DVD, the suffocating atmosphere in her native country left her wanting to "embed in rolls of film, the helplessness of ordinary citizens, up until then, considered nothing more than faceless casualties amid the atrocities. A people held hostage between a violence that was said to be justified and one that was obviously barbaric, and a youth who had lost all points of reference, who was humiliated and ready to join any extremist faction."

And she does so, dispassionately, even pointing a sly finger at the government's culpability in this violence. When army officials come to question the kidnapped girl who escapes her captors, the girl breaks down. "They wore the same uniforms," she tells Rachida and her sister, in tears. Reports out of Algiers during that period had blamed the army and government forces for some of the atrocities that were laid at the feet of the insurgents.

The film, shot on location, and with dialogues in Arabic and French, is a vivid portrayal of a country exhausted by internecine strife. "Aren't we miserable enough already?" screams Rachida's mother, when she learns that Rachida has been shot. "What is this religion that allows them to kill people?" Short, but deeply disturbing, Rachida chronicles the devastation that terrorism leaves on the psyche of a nation and its people, who are but helpless pawns caught in a devastation not of their own making. It also, subtly but decisively, chronicles the effects of such terrorism on the country's women.

This is not just Algeria's story. It is the story of any country that is torn apart by war, from within or without. It is the story of people, ordinary people, who live and die without peace. It is the story of disenfranchised youth who, without hope of employment or a better life, are perfect fodder for being co-opted into terrorism. It is the story of you, and me, and of people and circumstances that we are all familar with. It is about living and dying for an ideology, and how that ideology can be corrupted. It is about the world around us, shrinking each day, yet still so far apart that the closer our proximity to each other, the farther away we seem to be from understanding one another. It is about a common humanity, or its lack thereof. 

But it is about hope amidst despair, and courage under seige. It is about finding a voice, and the strength to survive. It is about finding that light at the end of a dark tunnel, and making your way towards it, stumbling on the way perhaps,  but pushing doggedly on. And it is about the quiet triumph of the human spirit over adversity, even when that victory comes at a great price. 

*From the Director's Cut on the DVD.


  1. Anu,
    This is a wonderful review. What I find striking is that the film seems to be taking a very clear position about the dark side of terrorism. Most films and books try to take a 'balanced' view of the 'cause', and see the commitment of the rebels/terrorists. In most Indian films, I can think of, the main protagonist is 'misguided' and has an endearing side. If he is not reformed, he is killed, which purges him of all sins.

    Women's suffering because of being 'women' is so universal in any strife.

    Congratulations again!


  2. Thank you, AK.

    Yes, I agree with you about films usually looking at terrorists from the 'human' angle. Rachida is very unequivocal about how terrorism feeds into fear and is a multi-headed hydra. Perhaps it is because it is directed by a woman director? And has a woman protagonist who is not a terrorist? Perhaps it is because the film is focusing not on the terrorists, but on the effects of terrorism on a country.

    This is a stark film. And by focusing on a young woman, as it does, it pushes the issue of how terrorism specifically affects women into the forefront. (Not that it doesn't affect men or children. It does.)

    If you can get your hands on this, do watch it.

  3. Have not seen the film. Agree however that the emphasis on "balance" often has had an obfuscating effect, and is used as a deflection mechanism by the apologists of some of these terrorists. That isn't to say that these situations aren't complex, and that these terrorist organisations/militias evolved in a vacuum. But don't these 'poor misguided' 'brainwashed' 'boys' have brains of their own? I think that the blood curdling barbarism of the ISIS, for example, will seriously shift the liberal discourse on some of these issues. There are the misguided liberals and in the region I live in (the middle east) you have quite a few shameless apologists. They don't condone the the actions of the ISIS, but they don't hold ISIS responsible; it's all some conspiracy! I am not even kidding; it's a place where conspiracy theories abound. Some people are outright hypocrites when it comes to these issues (it's all America's fault is the predictable trajectory) and many aren't hypocrites but are just grossly ignorant.

  4. Silver, I didn't know you lived in the middle east. I hope you are safe, and remain so. At this point, it is scary to think of being in that general area.

    The question of how terrorism raises its head and how people, specifically young men, are sucked into it is a complex one. They are brainwashed - not because they do not have brains of their own, but because the people who recruit them know exactly which buttons to push. They are usually poor, have no prospects of employment, are marginalised, and this - terrorism - is an escape. It offers rewards in the here and the thereafter. It is also their 'revenge' against what they see as a very cruel society.

    As for conspiracy theories, we here in the US are not far behind. If you get a chance to watch this, do.

  5. I don't think I'm going to be able to bring myself to watch this one, Anu. It sounds too violent, too disturbing. Perhaps I'll just need to be in the right frame of mind... that said, what a well-written review, and those last couple of paragraphs had me nodding my head in sorrow. It's the same all over, isn't it? Whether it's Kashmir or the Middle East or wherever, the problems are too horrifically similar to be ignored.

  6. Madhu, apart from that first scene where she is shot, there is no overt violence in the film. But yes, its implications are there, saturating every scene. It is disturbing, but not because it is bloody.

    And yes, it is the same anywhere. When you fight a war against your own people, how do you know who is enemy, who is friend? When the war is within your own borders, I think you pay a bigger cost.

  7. Excellent, excellent review. I am travelling therefore was unable to log on to the net. I found a little time now and
    believe me I was totally engrossed. The dialogues, "I left my little fig tree" and "I am in exile in my own country" really touched my heart. It is really nice to learn about films from different parts of the world.

  8. Thank you, Shilpi, both for reading amidst your hectic schedule, and for the appreciation. :)


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