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Review: Said Ould-Khelifa’s Zabana! (Algeria’s Submission For Best Foreign Language Oscar)

Review: Said Ould-Khelifa's Zabana! (Algeria's Submission For Best Foreign Language Oscar)

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.

Azzedine Mihoubi (who penned the script) is said to have interviewed Zabana’s relatives and close friends, and conducted extensive archival research in Algeria and France in writing the screenplay for a film which I’d praise for its minimalist documentary-style precision.
The film tracks his awakening to the injustices suffered by Algerians under French rule and his growing into a leader of the movement. It further details the tactics of the revolutionaries and the evolution of resistance.
A graphic, straightforward, realistic and at times thrilling re-enactment of the events that gave birth of the battle that would lead to independence, it’s a dedicated effort with importance as a documentation of an important period of time and a man, giving face to several other Algerian heroes who are rarely represented on screen (like Ahmed Ben Bella and Bakhti Nemiche, and others), making public these little-known but extremely important, darker chapters (especially the violent conflicts between the different groups that were clammering for control of the liberation fight) in the history of France’s colonial rule over the North African country.
The strengths of the film are its star Imad Benchenni as Zabana, as well a script that steers clear of what might be an expected didacticism or hagiography, intended as a piece of agitprop for the cause of anti-colonialism, instead presenting a human portrait of a man, fragile and determined, driven to fight for both his own dignity and that of his people.
Some knowledge of Algeria’s struggle for independence would help here, as the film seemingly assumes that you’re already somewhat familiar with the country’s colonial and post-colonial history. If there is one flaw in it, that would be it. The audience is immediately thrown into activity, not entirely certain of who all the players are and what their relationships are. There are moments of respite, but Zabana! moves along almost as steadfastly and decisively as the man whose story it tells.

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):

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