The Algerian Civil War began in 1991 and ended in 2002. Known as the Dark Decade, the period began with a coup to nullify the imminent takeover of government by Islamists and was followed by 10 years of brutality, violence, and fear. With the emergence of Da’esh (or the Islamic State), we now witness contemporary scenes that feel all too familiar for those who remember the earlier terrors. As too often happens, the geopolitical lens obscures the human element, abstracting suffering into discussions about strategy and policy. Salem Brahimi’s film, “Let Them Come,” (1) takes us back to the Dark Decade, with a vocabulary and tone so reminiscent of our present moment, providing us with a poignant and at times chilling window into the lives of ordinary Algerians.
I asked director Salem Brahimi what brought him to make a film about the Dark Decade. He explained:
The dark decade was definitely something I wanted to explore. In fact, more than wanted: I needed to explore the subject. And this for many reasons. First, I remember that period from when I was a student in France: I was very lucky indeed that I had left Algeria a few years before this dark decade. But I had family there. I remember looking in total disbelief at the unfolding events. As terrorism settled in we discovered all its barbarity: death, but also fear.
It indicates a certain naiveté, of course, to talk about the tumult in the region — both now and in the recent past — without recourse to politics and imperial interventions. However, such discussions often lose track of the vast middle ground between dictatorships and Islamists, between the West and Islam. From this space emerges work that deals in the human nuance and reality of the region. Among these works, Arezki Mellal’s novel of the same name inspired Brahimi’s film. “I was putting the finishing touches to a documentary feature film I had produced and co-directed when I mentioned all this to the producer, Michèle Ray Gavras. I told her I knew I wanted to make a film like this but didn’t have the story yet. And so she remembered about this book lying on her desk and we both read it… I was immediately swept off my feet by this haunting, harsh, yet poetic tale. Intimidated too because I knew we’d have to adapt the novel heavily. But absolutely certain this was the film I had to make.”
“Let Them Come” follows the life of writer and civil servant Noureddine (played by Gnawa musician Amazigh Kateb). An ordinary man trying to do his best, Noureddine deals with his ill mother, an unhappy marriage and a challenging, yet seemingly fruitful reconciliation. The backdrop of the civil war, its ubiquitous tensions and fears, render the potentially banal trajectory of the story stark. Brahimi makes it seem like the other shoe might drop at any moment.
Within this space, the characters discuss the circumstances in which they find themselves, how Algeria arrived at this point, and where it might go. In one moment, talking about the Islamists, one character says, “These are our young men.” This perspective, although Algerian, comes to be shared by many other Arabs throughout the region when confronted by failures within their own societies. I asked Brahimi if he shares this vision, this necessity of confronting failure within Arab societies and taking responsibility for things that aren’t simply the fault of Western interference. He replied:
Yes and no. Because taking a hard look at our own responsibilities does not exclude a whole range of responsibilities that lie in the West. The world is complex enough for any given problem to have a whole range of causes that are intertwined. This being said, I feel very strongly about the part where we take responsibility for what happens in our own Arab societies, because it is both a matter of pragmatism and dignity.
The characters in Brahimi’s film convey that sense of pragmatism and dignity. Although not particularly heroic, Noureddine does his best for his family, even confronting a group of Islamists face to face in a particularly tense scene, as well as making a crucial decision at the film’s conclusion that speaks to a desire for agency and dignity. The character of Salah, an outspoken and brash revolutionary played by Mohamed Ali Allalou, perhaps best exemplifies this dignity. His irreverence, unflinching sense of humor, and irony in service of his revolutionary views constitutes an act of resistance. And that resistance comes with self-reflection, embodying Brahimi’s own view on the subject:
When a kid was born and raised in Algeria, and this kid turns into a monster, is it really absurd to be asking questions about the history, the society, the politics, the education system, and the belief system that structured this kid? Of course, Western interference is part of that history, part of the inheritance of the past we have to deal with… But still, we have to take a hard look at ourselves and ask: Where did we go wrong? What did we miss? Whatever you believe the answers to these questions are, I think it’s right to ask them.”
Algeria emerged from the Dark Decade more or less intact, and many Algerians seek ways to deal with the trauma and memory of the civil war. As with many other such conflicts, time brings a desire for something approaching “truth and reconciliation,” a move towards a national healing. The conflict claimed some 200,000 victims. A process of reconciliation has begun, but it perhaps has not gone far enough. As Brahimi explained, at the heart of any such process, lies a stark choice:
Many countries were faced with such a choice: Chile, South Africa. The terrible choice between Justice and Peace. Unfortunately, there are times in history, when you can seek justice, but it will lead to endless unrest and conflict. You can choose peace, but you will have to close your eyes to terrible things, at the cost of justice.
“Let Them Come” represents Brahimi’s contribution to healing, a vital input that looks the conflict squarely in the face, even if it hurts. “Many people say this is opening an old wound. I believe the opposite: the wound has not healed. It might infect in many ways, with resentment, with pain that will remain and won’t allow us to move on. Or at the opposite end, because we don’t acknowledge and document the past, we make the same mistakes over and over again.” This perhaps represents the archetypal role that art can play in dealing with the darkest moments of human reality. At some point, we have to delve below the proclamations of politicians and pundits, beneath the maps and strategies, and look human suffering in the eye.
When I asked Salem about challenges he faced making the film, he gave a response that speaks to both dignity and freedom from the fear of old pain.
It is a tremendous moral weight on your shoulders. You are recreating something that is so traumatic that people don’t want to see it again. Or they feel it is too soon to talk about it.
This pressure was challenging but it turned out to be the greatest strength of the film. To the magnificent Algerian crew, this was more than just another film. This was their story. And they wanted to get it right. Same for the extras: you’d be shooting a scene with a terrorist road-block and an extra would come up to you and tell you ‘don’t mess this up. My brother was killed in a road block like this.’ It was both disturbing and moving… and eventually, great personal motivation to get it right for these people.
(1) ”Let Them Come,” Directed by Salem Brahimi, Produced by Michele Ray-Gavras; K.G. Productions, Battam Films, Agence Algérienne pour le Rayonnement Culturel (AARC)