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During the Algerian Civil War, a young school teacher tries to live her life as she witnesses violent terrorism instill fear into the community. First-time director and Algerian Yamina Bachir hits the ground running, exploring civility’s disintegration in a country otherwise filled with culture, tradition, and love. Though a bit slow in pacing at times, Rachida (2002) is both poignant and visually striking. (RMM: 3.5/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Roza M. Melkumyan
Setting her film during the Algerian Civil War (1991-2002), director Yamina Bachir follows the story of a lively young school teacher named “Rachida” (Ibtissem Djouadi) and her mother, “Aïcha” (Bahia Rachedi). The two are very close and live together in the country’s capital, Algeria, where Rachida teaches. Unlike most other women in her community, Rachida does not wear a hijab. And though her fiance would rather she let him provide for her, Rachida insists on working.
Rachida does not think much of the current political situation until it affects her directly. One day, a former student and his friends approach her with a homemade bomb to plant in the school. When an outraged Rachida refuses, he shoots her in the stomach, and the group leaves her for dead. Soon the authorities come and neutralize the bomb. Aïcha also arrives at the scene, distraught, and later waits for hours outside Rachida’s hospital room.
In the hopes they’ll be safer outside the capital, the mother and daughter temporarily move to a house in a nearby village. While Aïcha settles into their new home, Rachida feels the psychological trauma from her attack take effect. At the market, she feels uneasy being around strangers who might attack her, and at home, she shakes in fear. She says, “I’m in exile in my own country.”
Rachida is approved to teach at the village school, and her mother begins to socialize more with other women. Life for the two and in the community continues. A young man uses his change to call his love on the local payphone every day, although her father forbids a marriage. The children play out on the streets. Only when the people hear distant gunshots at night do they pause their life to allow the fear to enter. A woman recently kidnapped by terrorists returns in tatters to the village, where the women take her in and tend to her wounds. And when a wedding ceremony is cut short by a terrorist attack, Rachida again finds herself afraid for her life.
In Yamina Bachir’s directorial debut, she delivers a film rich in striking imagery and choreography. For example, when the bleeding “Zohra” (Rachida Messaoui En), having just escaped her kidnappers, sinks to the ground in fatigue, the surrounding women take off their veils and cover her with them. Their care is evident both in their actions and in the wash of blue, red, and pink hues that now cradle Zohra. After the wedding massacre, these same women stand resolute, though sorrowful, by the freshly planted tombstones of those killed.
At the film’s end, Rachida grabs her briefcase and headphones and sets off for work, pausing for a moment to take in the post-wedding wreckage around her. From various directions emerge the village children, and they follow Rachida to the school where papers lie strewn about the room. As they settle into their seats, ready to learn, Rachida begins to write the day’s lesson onto the chalkboard, then looks directly at the camera, at us, and holds our gaze to hers. It is as if she is willing us, the audience, to not only see but to feel the atmosphere of hate and terror that she must combat. Simultaneously, she demonstrates her determination, and the resolution of her students, to find both comfort and the motivation to continue in the routine of daily life.
The entire film is infused with anxiety that intensifies at moments and fades into the background at others, though it never altogether disappears. Paired with this anxiety is a sense of resignation that suffocates us in the hopelessness and powerlessness it harbors. When a woman’s son is murdered in the night by terrorists, she is furious at her neighbors for standing by and doing nothing. But how, I wonder, can one expect action from a person who has lost the will to hope, to fight? In the darkness of terror, Rachida is a small source of light. We watch with unease as we see those forces of terror threaten to extinguish her.
Considering the danger that existed everywhere in the country at the time of this filming, Rachida is a true feat. And though the pacing was a bit too slow for me at times, I can recognize the significance of this film’s creation. It certainly took courage for Bachir to film in such a hostile environment.
© Roza M. Melkumyan (10/31/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Rachida sits, afraid.
Photo Credits: Global Film Initiative
Q: Does Rachida pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Rachida and her mother discuss life and the current situation in Algeria. Women of the village gossip about other women in the village.