Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Colonial past, today

AFRICA / An exploration of rare archival material that unveils the significance of Algeria's fight for independence and its implications for modern-day Africa.

It rarely happens that a documentary is before its time. Even more so if the film is mainly composed of archival material and its focus is on the events from the past. Yet Ciné-Guerrillas: Scenes from the Labudović Reels, created in 2022 and displaying rare footage from the Algerian War for Independence (1954 – 1962), is indispensable for understanding the dramatic situation in Africa in the summer of 2023.

Ciné-Guerrillas: Scenes from the Labudović Reels Mila Turajlić
Ciné-Guerrillas: Scenes from the Labudović Reels, a film by Mila Turajlić

Struggle for Independence

On July 26, the military performed a coup d’état in the Republic of Niger. The ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) Heads of State have threatened to use force to reinstate the deposed President Mohamed Bazoum if the coup plotters refuse to do so within seven days. On 6 August, this ultimatum will expire. Niger, a former French colony and today one of the poorest African countries was for a long time a French ally against its more rebellious former colonies in the region. The putschists denounced all military agreements with and suspended uranium exports to their former colonial master.

The USA and EU introduced sanctions against Niger, and France openly encouraged ECOWAS to carry out their threat. African countries are much less enthusiastic. Burkina Faso and Mali are openly opposing the use of force, and so are the citizens of Nigeria, the most populous black African country, Niger’s neighbour, and the strongest ECOWAS member (meaning they would be the first to engage their military if the ultimatum was to be carried out). Even ECOWAS chairman, Nigeria’s president Bola Tinubu, who is seen by the opposition as representing «the interests of the West», has initiated negotiations with the putschists during the past week, expressing his concern for democracy and peace in the region, declaring «We don’t want to hold briefs for anybody.»

A great majority of African countries gained their independence during the 1960s, but their struggle for liberation from the domination of colonial powers continues. In Ciné-Guerrillas, the director Mira Turajlić conveyed that what we see now in Africa can only be understood as part of a long and complicated process. This has some immediate practical consequences, such as the urge to verify the circumstances under which the deposed Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum has been elected. But it also reveals that the denial of this broader picture is part of the process. Not different from what Yugoslav President Tito said in one of his speeches at the UN general assembly, shown in the film when he addressed «the war in Algeria» as «the most urgent colonial problem» – it «has been before us for more than five years. If we do not find a way to resolve it democratically, we will be legalising the use of force in preventing a people’s legitimate aspirations.»

It rarely happens that a documentary is before its time.

Visibility

The actual situation is far more complex, of course. The visibility, however, is a significant part of this complexity, and «em»Ciné-Guerrillas«/em» is very skillfully deliberating on it. Visibility was the problem then. Tito sent Stevan Labudović, a cameraman for the Yugoslav Newsreels and his personal cinematographer to Algeria’s National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, FLN, in film ALN) to help Algerians counter the information provided by France. The visibility is also a problem now because the rich archival heritage Labudović created during this almost four years stay with the ALN is stored in a cellar in Belgrade where the seat of the Yugoslav Newsreels archive is. All metadata related to this material is in Serbian, written in Cyrillic. Hardly accessible by all means. In the title of her film, Turajlić defined this material as «the Labudović Reels.» She made two films about and with it. Non-Aligned: Scenes from the Labudović Reels highlights the Non-Aligned movement as the broader context in which Stevan Labudović, a talented, persistent, and courageous journalist and cinematographer, created the reels. Ciné-Guerrillas: Scenes from the Labudović Reels is a more narrow, case-based presentation of the importance of the Non-Aligned Movement and, in particular, the cinematic support provided by the founding members such as Yugoslavia to other members in documenting their struggle for independence from their perspective.

Ciné-Guerrillas: Scenes from the Labudović Reels Mila Turajlić
Ciné-Guerrillas: Scenes from the Labudović Reels, a film by Mila Turajlić

Seeing a People Struggle

The film itself is also divided in two. While the first part is filmed in Belgrade and presents the archives and the man in person, the second is dedicated to Algeria. We see how, even today, the people in Algeria cherish the legacy of Labudović, who actually helped establish the cinematography of the country. But we also get a rare opportunity to see the Algerian war for independence as we never saw it before. Labudović was stationed at the ALN headquarters. He was even engaged in the movement’s political commissariat and was able to shoot whatever he desired, from their everyday activities to military actions. This footage has never been seen before, except for the material that ended up in the newsreels or rare propaganda films such as Djazairouna (Our Algeria, 1960).

The director neatly combines archive material with original footage and interviews with interesting witnesses. A New York-based activist who lobbied the UN for the country’s independence, for example, remembers how people would come to their office to watch films like Djazairouna. They were curious about what the Algerian army looked like, what Algerians looked like, their armament, and their camps. «It was a way of seeing a people struggling for independence.»

The Algerian War of Independence was not completely absent from the world public. Franz Fanon, the celebrated political philosopher and psychiatrist, an open supporter of the Algerian independence from France, and a member of ALN, worked in French and Algerian psychiatric hospitals in Algeria during the war and reported about this before he died in 1961. In 1966, Italian film director Gillo Pontecorvo made a magnificent fiction film about the Algerian struggle, The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri). And Michael Haneke, in his 2005 psychological thriller Hidden (Caché), denounced the brutality of French authorities during the Algerian war on their own ground.

Sadly, these are honourable exceptions. The struggle for independence from colonial powers has been constantly obscured, so Ciné-Guerrillas seems to be a document about how our present has been hacked by the past. Labudović’s words from 1960, «The Great Powers of the old nations must choose between outdated colonialism and friendship with the young nations», have long lost their idealist attraction. The Great Powers obviously did not have to choose to this day. But Ciné-Guerrillas is bringing back the hope that the not-so-young nations will make them do it one day.

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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