A Story of Immigrants and Identity
By Livia Alexander
Born in France to Algerian parents, film director Yamina
renown for her penetrating cinematic treatises on gender issues related
to the North African immigrant community in France, including the documentaries
Women of Islam (1994), Immigrant MemoriesThe North African Inheritance
(1997) and The Perfumed Garden (2000).
Livia Alexander interviewed Yamina during her recent trip to
New York to present her debut feature film InchAlla Dimanche (2001)
as part of Lincoln Centers annual festival Rendezvous with
French Cinema. The film compellingly, though sometimes heavy-handedly,
tells the story of Zouina who arrives in France following the 1974 family
reunion law allowing Algerian women to rejoin their husbands working
in the country. Her husband, Ahmed, fearful for his wifes honor
in a new and foreign society, grants her only limited liberties at
the house. At the mercy of her ill-spirited mother-in-law, Zouina quietly
but forcefully stakes out her own independence.
As Benguigui testifies, she herself came from this same background,
which she knew absolutely nothing about. France didnt recognize
us or talk about us; the countries which we came from didnt talk
about us and knew nothing about us; and our parents were silent, told
us nothing. If I were asked in school to draw a family tree, I would
find it hard to go back even as far as my grandparents. I realized that
in France we had this first generation, this first wave of immigrants,
who were slowly dying out and vanishing, and it was important for me
to stop and capture them, to transcribe their experiences. I am certain
that a male director would never have made a film like InchAlla
Dimanche and wouldnt have been interested in this work. So as
the daughter of immigrants, it was important for me that even before
moving into fiction, I wanted to capture this memory, and to work with
Are Muslim women involved in their own oppression? In your film
Dimanche Zouinas character seems complacent, while her mother-in-law
imposes the patriarchal order.
In the first image of the film you see Zouina as she is, you see that
shes from the countryside. This isnt a feminist; the women
who went to France at this time, these werent the intellectuals,
but women who were joining husbands who came from rural societies (shepherd
families), women who obeyed tradition and who were forced to follow
and obey their mothers and mothers-in-law. Thats really the rural
tradition. To me its very important when [Zouinas] mother-in-law
tells her to go bring the vegetables and she throws them down in anger;
that was symbolic of her first rejection of the order. But something
that you have to realize is that shes from this traditional society,
and in Algeria a woman like this wouldnt have been so isolated.
She would have come from a social structure; she would have been surrounded
by friends and family in her town. In France, shes in prison.
Its at the end that we see Zouinas true face, her true
identity. What the film depicts is her first tottering steps towards
her own liberation.
What makes Zouinas story unique?
This is the story of immigrants, of immigration; obviously the situation
is completely different for a woman who stayed behind in Algeria. They
wouldnt have known the problems that the film represents, the
problems that were those of our mothers in France, and even the problems
that I experienced myself. These women who remained in Algeria remained
in the structure that was there. They led their own struggles; they
evolved in a different rhythm, and achieved different things. But in
the story of immigration, these women were not able to take their place
in French society and at the same time, they were also cut off from
their homeland. So they didnt advance as fast as the Algerian
women did. Algerian women were very combative. They gained access to
schoolingin Algeria today there are huge universitiesbut
still, today, women in Algeria have problems, even if they are not
These immigrants never saw themselves as becoming a permanent part
of French society; they were always there for a finite period of time
would go back to Algeria. So children werent supposed to integrate;
they were supposed to leave, but in fact they never did.
One finds only a few women in the Arab film industry. Was becoming
a filmmaker a difficult or unusual choice for you?
Yes, it was extremely difficult for me. One price I had to pay was
that I had to be willing to cut myself off from my father. My father
not willing for me to follow this career, and its only recently
that Ive been able to reestablish contact with him.
Because youre cut off to some extent from French society, you
have to really impose yourself, you have to really fight to be able
to work on subjects like this, subjects and realities that France isnt
necessarily willing to acknowledge. Its a constant struggle, and
youre constantly juggling several different hats: the hat of a
woman, a director, the daughter of immigration. Its not easy.
Why did your father object?
You have to understand that my father was one of the important political
leaders of the MNAthe first nationalist movement out of Algeriaand
he was willing to sacrifice everything to meet his goal. He was living
underground; he spent three years as a political prisoner in France;
two of his brothers were assassinated
theres this incredibly
heavy family history.
And so you have this hard-line nationalist who was willing to die for
the nation, and everything had to be for his country. And then you
me who comes along saying, as an individual, No, my needs are
different, Im going to leave the group for that, and that
involves banishment. Theres no common ground; you cant talk
about it, you cant discuss things, noit means banishment
for life and you need three lifetimes to make up for this fault. But
I hope that hes proud of me today. I think he is, and one of the
reasons is that Im one of the few directors that Algeria publicly.
Six months ago I established contact with my father again, and I saw
that he had all the press clippings about my films, that he was proud
of mebut only because Algeria was proud of me.
For more information about The Perfumed Garden (France, 2000), contact
First Run Icarus Films, 32 Court St., 21 Fl., Brooklyn, NY 11201, (718)
488-8900, or email@example.com.
Livia Alexander holds a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern and Cinema
Studies and currently teaches at SUNY Binghamton. She lives in Brooklyn.