I’m not sure if it’s widely-known that the opening sequence of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece Battle of Algiers, features the execution of the man who’s at the center of Said Ould-Khelifa’s Zabana! – Algeria’s selection for the Best Foreign Language Oscar category.
While Pontecorvo opts not to identify the man by name, what transpires in that opening sequence will most certainly be familiar to those who are well-informed of Algerian history, especially the events that lead to the country’s battle for freedom from French colonial.
Starring Imad Benchenni as the title character (Ahmed Zabana), Nicolas Pignon, Khaled Benaïssa, Laurent Gernigon, and Abdelkader Djeriou, Zabana!, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, is what I’d call a heartfelt, candid account of the short life of Algerian freedom fighter Ahmed Zabana, whose execution in 1956 by French colonial rulers inspired what would become the most salient phase of Algeria’s struggle for independence that would lead to its independence – a period that was thoroughly and rivetingly documented in Pontecorvo’s film.
Zabana!’s 2012 public debut marks the 50th anniversary of Algeria’s independence, and serves as a tribute to one of the earliest heroes of the struggle for liberation, executed (beheaded) on May 19, 1956, at just 30-years-old, by the French administration as a warning to other Algerian freedom fighters. The well-known story of his beheading tells us that the blade stopped twice, before it decapitated the Algerian revolutionary in a sharp stroke.
The film’s closing sequence tells us that Zabana was the first Algerian martyr to be executed by the guillotine, after the French government, with Francois Mitterand as the then minister of justice, approved its use.
As noted, Algeria submitted the film for Academy Award consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It’s worth noting that the country has submitted films for consideration since 1969. Over that multi-decade period, 5 Algerian films have been nominated in that category:
– 1969, Costa Gavras’ Z
– 1983, Ettore Scola’s The Ball
– 1995, Rachid Bouchareb’s Dust Of Life
– 2006, Rachid Bouchareb’s Days Of Glory
– 2010, Rachid Bouchareb’s Outside The Law
And of those 5 instances, only Costa Gavras’ political thriller Z won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Also worth noting, if you’ve seen the last 2 films by Bouchareb, you’ll notice that a common theme in both is the relationship between Algeria and its former colonial power, France. This year’s submission, Said Ould-Khelifa’s Zabana!, certainly continues that trend.
Here’s its trailer (not subtitled):