Part I: War Without Images
The title of Mohammed Soudani’s film War Without Images- Algeria, I Know That You Know carries the unintended irony of being as forgotten and inaccessible as its subject matter is supposedly non-existent, given that the existence of the photographs that the film is about are negated by its title. Listed on none of the major film databases, I was very lucky to stumble upon this film while searching YouTube for documentaries about Algerian history. Given the film’s title, it is also hardly surprising that it was one of the first and only relevant results for my search, as most of the history documentaries I did find talked about the country’s Ancient, and not Modern, history.
On the surface, this is a documentary that tells the story of Swiss photographer Michael von Graffenried’s return to Algeria to find the people he photographed during the Civil War. The resulting images were published in a book that would make him internationally known. The first few scenes show landscapes of Algeria taken from the window of a moving car, and von Graffenried approaching groups of men to show them his book of photography, as they try to work out whether they recognize anyone in the images. Von Graffenried stands in a khaki jacket that gives him the air of an explorer, with hands on hips and a panoramic camera around his neck. However, underneath this subtle guise of documenting an explorer’s quest, this is a film about superimposing narratives onto other narratives. The title is significantly superimposed onto the documentary’s main narrative thread, suggestively denying the existence of the very photographs and photographer that the film appears to be about. In reality, the title has been copied and pasted from the subtitle of the photographer’s famous book, Algerie: Photographies d’une guerre sans images, but the shift from subtitle to title, the lopping off of the first words, and the addition of a new subtitle change the meaning entirely.
While von Graffenried talks about his photography and shows off his images (to the Algerian people and the audience of this film alike), superimposing his view onto the reality of Algeria and its civil war, Mohammed Soudani superimposes his views of both von Graffenried and Algeria onto the narrative, through his footage and the way it is edited together. Von Graffenried mentions repeatedly how he travelled back and forth to Algeria throughout the Civil War, and explains that while the market did not generally like his black-and-white, strangely-formatted work, they wanted his work on Algeria because "there were no pictures on Algeria." Meanwhile, the Algerian Soudani, who trained as a filmmaker in Paris and has lived in Switzerland since 1972, and who remains little known internationally (at least as far as the internet would have me believe), only mentions his long absence from his country once. This occurs near the very end of the film, as his brother drives them through his hometown and he mutters that it has changed a lot in the decade that he has been away. Yet, ultimately, Soudani subtly, silently, upstages his friend and travel partner with a sense of humor and a touch of much-needed cynicism, in a colorful, bustling visual essay that is given words by the wide range of Algerians whom the filmmaker meets.
After several scenes of von Graffenried playing adventurer – talking to a group of men in a café; looking for their friend, a factory worker whom the photographer once captured at a protest; asking everyone in a village whether they know a certain girl (he points at her photo), and then sitting with the young woman and her family as they recount a terrorist attack in which many of their family members were killed – Soudani begins to spice things up, refusing to let the talk of the traumatic past block out the lively present. Suddenly, we cut to boys running back and forth in a room for an exercise class, an impossibly crowded beach covered in people in swimsuits and rainbow-striped parasols, a nightclub full of energetic dancers. Then we are back to von Graffenried, who, on a train, talks to the camera this time, telling us that everyone at home thought he was mad to keep travelling to Algeria, and would tell him that he would get killed, to which he would reply, "There’s a life [there], and an entire people which lives." As if bored by the photographer’s self-heroizing, the camera moves on to listen to a passenger talking about his relationship to fear, and then to some playful images of a man’s larger-than-life hand gestures as glimpsed from between the seats, capturing the same life that von Graffenried seems to be blind to even as he talks about it.
Unlike von Graffenried’s photography, this film is anything but black and white. Not only do Soudani’s shaky handheld shots – of a Miss Algeria catwalk, a group of old men playing a very fast game of dominoes in a café, a man adjusting the satellite dish from his balcony – seep into every snippet of the film, but equally he refuses to draw any particular conclusion about von Graffenried or his work. Soudani’s images instead enter into a dialogue with von Graffenried’s.
While eating lunch with a family, one man explains to von Graffenried that they are able to interpret an image he has taken of a football stadium, framed by the edge of a Kalashnikov, because they know that the person holding it is a security guard, but to someone who doesn’t know the context it looks as if the gun is in the hands of an ordinary spectator. If at least this photo were in color, they say, it would be possible to make out the guard’s uniform. So Soudani films everything in color.
Soudani also draws contrasts between von Graffenreid's photographic methods and his own. When von Graffenried is sitting in the sleeping cabin of a boat, describing how it has always been important to him to have the permission of the person he is photographing because he sees photography as a collaboration, but that he had to abandon this rule when in Algeria because every time he asked permission to take a photo, the potential subject would refuse, Soudani responds in two ways. Firstly, when a man enters their cabin, sees that they are filming and apologizes, Soudani says that it is no problem, that he may interrupt, and keeps filming him as he offers them both a haircut and then breakfast. Secondly, a few scenes later, he shows a pious Muslim whom von Graffenried once photographed reading from the photography book the lines, "I’ve travelled in Sudan, Syria, Israel, Palestine, and I don’t know a country where photography is as badly considered as it is in Algeria." The man slaps the book with the back of his hand and says he doesn’t understand. He explains to the photographer that photography is highly regarded, but that he came during a war, when people were getting killed for having their image appear in certain places, so of course they were suspicious of being photographed. The same man then tells Soudani not to film him. Soudani keeps the camera on but pointed at the man’s stomach, covered by his intimate white vest. When a woman talks to Soudani about how she had admired von Graffenried until she saw his photos, appalled to find images of bearded men with severe expressions, women in chadors and violent protests, with no trace of women protesting or of women wearing makeup in the streets knowing that they might be killed, Soudani follows this scene with a shot of the same woman talking at the Woman’s Association to a room full of women of all types. He then shows several of von Graffenried’s images, including veiled women leading a protest, and severe bearded men, at once disproving and corroborating the woman’s claims.
Above all, Soudani calls into question the singularity of von Graffenried’s quest to return to the past, by nudging the film’s focus towards the future. A woman who lost her leg in an explosion and whom von Graffenried photographed in a hospital is given the space to talk about her suffering and the difficulty of her daily life. The most intimate moment with her, the one that stayed with me after the film, is an extreme close-up of her eyes, lost in contemplation before she looks skyward and smiles, saying, “I have so many dreams.” In another moment, Soudani asks a boy working in a cafe to translate the lyrics, in Tamazight, of a Matoub Lounès song. Still grinning, the boy responds to Soudani’s follow-up question about the future, saying that there is none, at least not here in Algeria. This is the first in a series of young men to give similar responses about what the future might look like: they laugh about it. Soudani shows people’s sense of humor in times of difficulty, the humane response to dire situations, of which media reports almost always deprive us. Meanwhile, an angry man refuses to look at the photography book after a quick glance, saying the images disgust him, that the West always wants to demonize Algeria, that they should show the reality, not tell lies. When von Graffenried asks the man, who is already walking off, pushing his way out of the crowd surrounding the book, "Then what is the reality?" the man replies, "This is." This being what Soudani is showing.
"Why did you leave paradise?" asks von Graffenried, lying on a mattress on a terrace at Soudani’s family home, in the final shot of the film. "Since 1961-" begins Soudani, and von Graffenried interrupts. "Since 1961-", he repeats, several times. Then he gives up as the photographer admires the fruits growing on vines directly above his head. "Algeria, I know that you know," winks the director, silently.