INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Faces Fatwa, "100% Arabica" Causes Fundamentalist Stir
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/6.26.00) –Making movies has never been easy. What director hasn’t encountered the wrath of antagonistic critics or angry investors — but how many could say they face death threats? Well, at least one: Algerian director Mahmoud Zemmouri had a “fatwa” (or death warrant) issued against him by Islamic fundamentalists upon the release of his 5th feature film, “100% Arabica,” which opened in New York last Friday.
The film is a harmless, euro-campy bad Muslim vs. good Muslim story set in the Parisian suburbs and to the beat of Algerian pop music called Rai (pronounced rye). But Rai music is a source of contention among the fundamentalist community. Just so you know they’re not kidding around, one Rai star, Cheb Hasni, was assassinated in 1997 under the order of religious extremists. And many of the leading Rye musicians live in exile for fear of persecution.
At first, Zemmouri’s filmmaking struggles were far less egregious. After he wrote his first feature script, “Take Your 10,000 Francs and Get the Hell Out” in 1979, the Algerian Ministry of Culture refused to give financial support to the film. “As a result, I had to wait and be more ‘creative,'” Zemmouri writes in an e-mail from Paris. “A year later, I presented a made-up script that was more ‘politically correct’;” he then made the movie he wanted to make. Though Zemmouri had gone back and forth between France and Algeria, he realized, “My love for films and free speech pushed me to stay in France instead of going back to my native country where one had to work under the constraints of the official censorship.”
In September 1988, however, Zemmouri returned to Algeria to begin shooting his third feature “From Hollywood to Tamanrasset.” But two weeks in, “a popular rebellion ignited the country,” he explains. “From that moment on no other authority could enter the popular neighborhoods, particularly Boufarik, which is where I was born, and the place where I was shooting the film.”
After long negotiations, filming resumed in his hometown, but it wasn’t easy going. “We then had to shoot under rain of rocks thrown at us, constant death threats, the burning of several sets. All that pushed us out of that neighborhood and towards other villages further out that were less under the control of Islamic fundamentalists,” he writes.
While shooting his next film in Paris “The Honor of the Tribe” (1993), he and the author of the book on which the film was based both received written death threats. “A flyer was handed out to people in Barb