Kamel Dehane

Societies in crisis

Presented during the last edition of the International French-speaking Film Festival in Namur, Les Suspects, an Algerian/Belgian co-production was released in Belgian cinemas a few weeks ago. It is Kamel Dehane's first feature film. He is, first and foremost, a director of documentary films, and his work is mainly centred on the intellectual figure Yatb Yacine, an Algerian militant , but also on the plight of women in the country today. With Les Suspects, he examines Algerian society in the 80s, the traumas of the Algerian war, the ferocious battle of wills and the women's struggle, concluding with a portrait of the breakdown into violence of Algeria in the 90s.

The Suspects is adapted from the novel Les Vigiles by Tahar Djaout, who was assassinated in 1993 by Islamic terrorists.
Kamal Dehane: He was assassinated practically in front of his three children for having written novels, poems and newspaper articles. He could have gone into exile in Paris – he was given the chance to go there after he received the death threat – but he didn’t want to. Being neither a soldier nor a policeman, he didn’t take the threats seriously. He had written four novels and some poetry, which were actually edited by a Belgian publisher in the 70s. At school, he was always top of the class. He devoured all the books on the library shelves. He was already really gifted even then. He became a journalist but started writing novels and poems at the same time. He was a born pacifist.

A film, if ever there was one, that is a tribute to friendship, but that has Kamal Dehane’s fingerprints all over it, this time in fictional format : your revolt, your sense of humanity, the criticism you level at the overriding hypocrisy.
It’s a return to everything I’ve ever held dear, but it’s not a documentary. The only difficulty with documentaries when you’re respectful of the people you’re filming is that, at any given moment, out of a sense of decency, you cannot ask them to go any further. It’s a matter of respect. But in fiction, if something comes into my head, I can ask the actors to tackle it as it’s not their own lives they’re lifting the veil on. If, in a documentary such as Women of Algiers, there’s a girl who tells me that she was raped at her workplace, I respect her anonymity during filming. But in a motion picture I can show her face, QED with Les Suspects, where a young female worker is raped by her boss, a doctor : someone who takes advantage of the power he has over her.

One could be forgiven for thinking that Nadia Kaci is none other a more rigorous version of Kamal Dehane, and a counterbalance to the character of the old man, who bears the psychological scars of his past. The development of their relationship is a joy to watch.
I couldn’t at first decide whether I was going to use an actor or an actress. At first, the Nadia Kaci character was going to be a male role because I identified with the part. However, I had second thoughts and decided that it would be better to use a female. The women have nothing more to lose in their battle. Besides, this character doesn’t exist in the novel. My contribution to the adaptation of the novel is Nadia’s character, which I created myself. She’s the vehicle for the story; in the book there’s only the inventor and the old man.

The inventor is in some ways the doppelganger and antithesis of the old soldier!
Reading the book, you feel that it’s the same character split in two. The author himself admitted as much to me. At the start, only the inventor fought back. The old man treads almost the same path as the young man, but he rehabilitates himself, discovers his true self. He was, however, traumatised and very much under the thumb of Sander Brik, an ex-member of the Resistance who has since joined the ranks of the fundamentalist groups. Thanks to the Nadia Kaci character, one of them breaks free, whereas the opportunity passes the other one by.

You pull no punches in one scene where one of the characters is heard to utter: "cover up your breast", you know what it says in the Koran... When you think of how modest Islamists are...
Yes, just to show it is shocking, but it had to be done. What’s wrong with showing something so beautiful? Nadia Kaci is beautiful, too, and she wasn’t grossed out by it. In a way, she epitomises desire, and that’s what upsets even the inventor.

How did you go about creating Nadia Kaci’s character, which wasn’t in the novel?
There were only guys in the novel. At one particular moment, the inventor says that he’d been to see a girl and that it had done him the world of good. I remembered that, that’s all he says. And I wondered: what if he met this girl more regularly? The idea of the psychiatrist was inspired by the old man’s interior monologues in the book. I didn’t want any voices off ; I’m not Alain Resnais, that’s not my style. He had to have someone to speak to. Why not a shrink? And what if the psychoanalyst then became the inventor’s girlfriend? Just seeing her makes him feel better. And what if the old man felt better, too ? She enters the life of both characters.

It’s quite a violent film, but the violence is muted...
The mechanics of it are what interest me. It’s perhaps a little bit pretentious on my part, but I can’t get a quote of Fassbinder’s out of my head, something he said when asked why he depicted Germany the way he does, "I just show people". In other words, mechanics are a means to an end. I don’t want to talk about what’s on the surface. If I made the violence visible, people would say that it’s a film about a lot of other people being killed in Algeria. It’s more interesting to show parallel events. Violence has social roots: people being kept under surveillance, the cop and his stupid cross-examinations...

You adopt a lighter approach in this film, which affords the audience some breathing space in comparison with the events themselves, which are quite overwhelming.
There is some humour. I wanted to keep the tone slightly tragicomic. Sometimes, in really tragic circumstances, you just can’t keep a straight face. That’s perhaps humanity’s saving grace. It’s not burlesque, it’s tragicomic. At the same time, I think that this kind of contradiction makes the characters human and stops you judging them.

Future plans ?
A work of fiction and another documentary, which might be made more quickly, about the women sentenced to death during the Algerian war : young girls who had gotten involved in the struggle for independence and who are now almost 70 years old. I want to do a film with them, and find out how they now see us. They sacrificed their youth for us, and I’d like to know what they expect from us. It’ll be a film about memory.

Rebiha Akriche