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Arts & Culture

Film Review: 'Pieces of Lives, Pieces of Dreams'

Filmmaker Hamid Benamra and Collagist Mustapha Boutadjine
promotional still
Filmmaker Hamid Benamra and Collagist Mustapha Boutadjine

Documentary Screening At 3rd Annual San Diego Arab Film Festival

The Algerian documentary, "Pieces of Lives, Pieces of Dreams," screening at the Third San Diego Arab Film Festival this week, celebrates art as a way of resistance.

Many people think the Arab Spring started with the protest and self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, an under-employed Tunisian street vender, but in reality, the Arab Spring is the second phase of the wave of resistance that spread over North Africa from Morocco to Tunisia in reaction to French colonization in the 1950’s.

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Of all of the resistance movements, perhaps the fiercest was that of Algeria, which waged a bloody war for independence from 1954- 1962, seeking to end 130 years of French colonial rule.

In fact, the Algerians officially launched their resistance in November, making the Algerian documentary, “Pieces of Lives, Pieces of Dreams" the perfect film to observe the 60th anniversary of a movement that fed and inspired other movements from South Africa to the Southern U.S.

Algerian director Hamid Benamra turns his focus to Mustapha Boutadjine, a charming, mercurial collage artist in Paris whose very work methods embody resistance, and celebrate those who work to liberate others.

Boutadjine creates his portraits of Third World artists such as Miriam Makeba, and Algerian figures such as Assia Djebar from pieces of paper torn from high end fashion magazines and other, glossy, glitzy publications. Using this material is as much an act of rejecting bourgeois standards, which are often anti-North African in France, as much as elevating these figures and making them the social and visual standard against which we should judge ourselves, not the runway models of Chanel.

It’s clear from Boutadjine’s portraits as well as Benamra’s camerawork, that both see art as as a witness to and a catalyst for change.

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Boutadjine joyfully flits from piece to piece, pointing out the pantheon of activists he admires -- this one for politics, this one for bravery in writing, this musician for working in multiple music styles, this athlete for declaring solidarity with Third World struggles.

Benamra follows him through, often stopping for fascinating interviews and moments with some of the Third World’s greatest artists and activists. The outspoken Algerian writer Kateb Yacine is there with the well-known Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Miriam Makeba stops by to sing, Marcel Khelife, the legendary ‘oud player to play a concert.

And then there are the Algerian artists, writers, activists, and resistance fighters whose stories of the Algerian resistance are woven in and out of Boutadjine’s tour through his work.

All this is footage that Benamra has shot over the years, documenting on film many of these same people Boutadjine documents in his portraits.

Theirs is the story with the greatest resonance because the story of Algerian resistance to French colonization has reverberated down through the Third World resistance movements, through Makeba’s songs, into Darwish’s poetry and across the American South, and up through the upraised fists of Tommie Smith, the Olympic athlete, and the fiery Angela Davis.

As Boutadjine puts it, it is a resistance that has inspired other resistance movements and its spirit lives on in those who seek to help others liberate themselves from occupation, and economic and racial oppression.

If “Pieces of Lives” has a flaw, it is in the execution and structure. Benamra seems to be borrowing a page from Boutadjine’s tear and paste technique. Some shots, which would be interesting to really see, flash for a tantalizing moment although they are actually essential to the story being told. Other threads seem to be a little too like Boutadjine himself- bouncing around, almost haphazard in their shifting from one person to the next.

But what the film lacks in editing structure, it more than makes up for in almost unbridled joy at being able to share moments spent in friendship and creativity with some of the greatest activists artists the world has seen.

For those without a background in 20th century resistance to colonization and post-colonial history, the film may be somewhat inaccessible. However, to those who have lived through or studied these movements, to see great writers such as Kateb Yacine, to hear Miriam Makeba sing, and Mahmoud Darwish recite in a such an intimate way, is both a joy and an affirmation on this, the 60th anniversary of the Algerian Revolution, that echoes down to our days, that the sacrifices, struggles, and outpouring of art and words really can produce great things and great people.

For this and other films screening as part of the San Diego Arab Film festival, please see http://sdaff.karamanow.org/ for times and ticket information.