The Béjaïa Meetings, a pool for independent Algerian cinema
Djamila Ould Khettab / Algeria
Djamila Ould Khettab / Algeria
In 15 years, the Béjaïa Film Meetings became a key event for both film-lovers and professionals. The festival flourished while a new generation of Algerian directors have blossomed.
The ring resounds as far as the 1st November square, which is still called “Place Gueydon” by everyone. It has a panoramic viewpoint overlooking the industrial port of Béjaïa. In a rushed gesture, latecomers pay their bills, leave the crowded cafés and race toward the stairs that lead under the square.
It's here, under the buzzing city, in front of the peaceful waters of the bay and a mountain range delineating the horizon, that Algerian film-lovers have been gathering each year for the past fifteen years.
In 2017, the Béjaïa Film Meetings took place between 9th and 15th of September in the Kabyle city. During this week, no less than thirty movies were projected in the unique room of the municipal film library where up to 300 people can seat. As usual, the program was very diverse: documentaries, fictions, short and feature movies coming from every corner of the globe.
But Algeria have not been left behind. For this fifteenth edition, Algerian creations made up one third of the whole selection. It's worth mentioning that Karim Moussaoui – the leader of this talented generation that brought a breath of fresh air to Algerian cinema – had the privilege to open the Meetings with his first feature movie “En attendant les hirondelles” (Waiting for the swallows). Picking the Béjaïa Meetings for his national premiere wasn't a random choice. Alike many other directors, his career is closely linked to the festival history .
In 2002, a group of four friends, all members of a theater troupe in Béjaïa, decided to take up a new challenge: putting aside comedy to create the country's first independent event dedicated to cinema. It was a very ambitious aim for the time: “we wanted to give an opportunity to watch what was done elsewhere to Algerians who wanted to pursue a career in the film industry”, says Abdenour Hochiche, the cofounder and former president of the Béjaïa Meetings.
At this time, Algeria was exiting a decade marked by terrorism. Movie theaters were still remaining closed, internet wasn't democratized and private TV channels took a long time to be opened. In this context, the Béjaïa Film Meetings were seen as a real boon for amateurs of the seventh art and youth who wanted to devour films.
“It's mostly in 2004 that the Meetings took off. This year, we had an exceptional selection which included Lyes Salem's short movie “Cousines”, a film that received the 2005 French César award in its category”, says Abdenour Hochiche. The festival is organized since then by Project’Heurts, an association that promotes cinema in this coastal city of Algeria and runs a cinema club.
The Béjaïa Film Meetings are organized by a team of more than twenty volunteers, all members of Project’Heurts, an association that aims to democratize cinema.
Since 2004, the Béjaïa Film Meetings team pulled it off. Both the festival and a new generation of directors have flourished. Their names are Lyes Salem, Karim Moussaoui, Hacène Ferhani, Mohamed Tati, Yasmine Chouikh, Djamel Kerkak, Bahïa Bencheikh-El-Fegoun, Mounès Khemmar, Amin Sidi-Boumedine, Lamine Ammar-Khodja… They are below 45 years old and are starting to make a name for themselves abroad. Their common point is that they all came previously to the Meetings, be it as a volunteer or as a spectator. They are now behind the camera and some are starting to receive awards at international festivals. But this new generation doesn't forget its roots. Between the rows of blue seats, it's not unusual to meet a director, an actor, a film writer or a producer with a familiar face.
Lyes Salem, an Algerian director and scriptwriter, a regular of the Film Meetings.
However, at the Béjaïa Film Meetings, there is no award, no prize to win. There is solely the immense pleasure of screening your film and interacting directly with the audience. “The Meetings are not a cinema festival but a moment of sharing dedicated to films and cinematographic creations. People don't just come to watch movies, they come to discuss them”, says Hakim, a volunteer wearing a straw hat, who has been coming for 13 years.
Thus, each of the screened movies is represented by a member of its technical team. Each performance is followed by a debate with the audience about the artwork. The discussion even continues the next morning during “ciné-cafés” organized by the city theater. On average, some 4000 people attend the festival each edition.
Djamel Kerkar, here next to director Rami Aloui, chose the Bejaïa Film Meetings for the Algerian premiere of his documentary “Atlal”.
For volunteers, it is unthinkable to change the formula. “I think that the Meetings have a huge potential as it is the only cultural event of this kind. We went further away from any spirit of competition in order to create an event for professionals that contributes to the audiovisual production”, explains Abdenour Hochiche.
In 15 years, this cultural UFO for Algeria never encountered any serious issue. Only one time, the Meetings team gave in to political pressure by cancelling the screening of an Algerian documentary. “We did it as a precaution. We finally preferred not to screen “Vote Off” by Faysal Hammoun, a movie that was recounting the boycott of the 2014 Algerian presidential elections. We wanted to protect the event”, says the former president of the Film Meetings.
In 15 years, only one film screening was cancelled at the Béjaïa Film Meetings due to political pressure.
However, the future of the event is threatened less by political intrigues than financial asphyxiation. Even though the Meetings shine well beyond the Mediterranean region, the funding to organize it remains scarce. “Since the beginning, the organization of the Film Meetings is uncertain. We are walking on a fine line and we are never sure to balance our budget. Sometimes we didn't succeed. It was the case for example in 2016, we had a deficit until the opening of this edition”, says Hakim.
The Meetings live thanks to the support of some local private sponsors and meager subventions. “We always managed to keep the budget below 10 million dinars. This is quite a feat for this kind of notorious event that has been going on for 15 years. But with such a tight budget we can't afford to select films from directors living on the other side of the globe because it would be too costly to organize their stay in Béjaïa”, says Abdenour Hochiche.
The prospects are not bright. Affected by the economic crisis, the government tries to save money. The ministry of culture is one of the main victims of austerity plans. Its budget was cut by one third. It felt from 25 billion dinars (190 million EUR) to 16 billion dinars (less than 120 million EUR) between 2014 and 2017.
Despite this worrying trend, people working for the Bejaïa Cinematographic Meetings want to remain confident. “Before, locals were asking me each year if the Meetings were going to happen. Now, the question has become: when are the meetings going to be held this year? This means that the festival now belongs to the cultural landscape of the city, may be even the country. Let's hope that it lasts.”Tweet