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Their Algeria review – bittersweet family portrait of love and separation | Documentary films

A tender tribute to her Algerian grandparents, who emigrated to the French medieval town of Thiers in the 1950s, Lina Soualem’s touching documentary shows how the act of filming can awaken memories that have long laid dormant. Aïcha, the bubbly matriarch, looks youthful beyond her years, and can’t help but lapse into fits of shy giggles when prodded with questions about love and marriage. Husband Mabrouk is starkly withdrawn in contrast to her infectious warmth. As the couple decide to separate after 62 years of marriage, home videos of family celebrations become even more bittersweet in their fragile vibrancy.

A familiar face in French cinema, Soualem’s father, Zinedine Soualem, says with a matter-of-fact sadness that Mabrouk never complimented him on the success of his career. Consequently the documentary feels like Lina Soualem’s attempt to break a cycle of generational miscommunication and repression. Unfolding with the gentle casualness of everyday conversation, her interviews with her grandparents not only draw her closer to their personal history but also paint a vivid picture of the hardships endured by Algerian immigrants in 1950s France. Mabrouk, for example, was among countless Algerian young men employed on low wages by a cutlery factory in Thiers. The loud noises resulting from the production of shiny knives and forks would later render many of these workers deaf.

Throughout her film, Lina Soualem only appears in a tiny square on Zoom calls or as a little girl in old family home movies. Yet her presence is felt in her voice, floating in and out of conversations, and in the way she lovingly photographs her grandparents, down to Mabrouk’s white panama hat. Their Algeria not only travels to the past, it is also Soualem’s journey to discover her own Algeria.

Their Algeria is released on 17 March on True Story

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Photo by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash