Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Early on in this deeply personal meditation on family and adolescence and history, early enough that there's still some hope for it, we are told that "Northern peoples won't understand." The suggestion is that there is a particular Mediterranean temprement, a cultural commonality to those countries that abut the sea named "the middle of the world". There may well be, but it's lost under what feels like an exercise in navel-gazing insolence, a film with a tone that's either disappears in a haze of unfortunate connotative weight or is deliberately contemptous, contemptible.

"It's unusual to buy an 8mm camera and film banality," is an opening shot - over footage of his parents, much of it shot by his mother, writer/"director" Oliver Py assembles a narrative that is accusative, uncomfortable, that feels unfair. It may be that there's some key to unraveling this film that is not readily found, but it's hard to imagine - at one point he talks of the men his great-grandmother seduced and that's hard to walk back from.

Copy picture

There are other odd touches - Py narrates over the assembled film, but at times we also hear footsteps. There's a sequence of film that's double exposed, and while it's interesting to look at he does not seem to consider the possibility that this juxtaposition is accidental. There are moments where the young people on screen appear to be being condemned for not knowing what the future holds - these provincials, these Provencal pieds-noirs, asking "Why film what is most visible?" from a different bubble of privilege. There's 1968, of course, but we don't see it, because as with any revolution there is rioting in the streets and there are declarations and manifestos, and elsewhere the sheep must be shorn and the sun will still rise and scales and observations are different.

There's some good translation - "blonde Venician" becomes "Titian locks", and that transliterated touchstone makes it all the more unlikely that the rest of the film is being misread. Every small moment is given portent with the benefit of foreknowledge of consequence - in the overweening pretention there is perhaps import in a yawn, in a look away, but for all that there's apparently to be a divorce, sometimes a look is just a look.

Noting the difficulty those French who returned from Algeria will have had with adjusting to the Mediterranean being a Southern rather than a Northern neighbour is intriguing, but this is not a film about them as much as it's one about perceptions of history. Hindsight is only 20/20 through spectacles that are not rose-tinted, and in truth these lenses seem ground like an axe.

The footage itself is of some interest but Py's narrative grates over the top. To recontextualise it, to talk about the histories that are unobserved, how the literally quotidian is differentiated from the remarkable, to present underneath these home movies the snowballing tide of history, any or all of these might have saved this film from a hectoring heaviness. At one point it's suggested that "the Cold War simplified politics", and that seems even harder to justify from a French perspective - Indochina and the Force du Frappe, NATO and Israel and all that.

Perhaps it's just that the Auld Alliance, Scotland wi' France an a' that, our court and theirs hiding out during rebellions, revolutions, that those shared elements are not enough - that your correspondent is of too Northern a people, one for whom the sea is an implacable coldness, more baleful than balm. If that is the case then why not try to explain? More to the point, if these were innocents, then why not let them play? This seems a familial equivalent of original sin, a condemnation rather than a lamentation for a paradise lost. This seems mean-spirited, miserable, misbegotten and best missed.

Reviewed on: 25 Jun 2012
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A documentary portrait of an Algerian family settling in France, made using old Super 8 films.

Director: Olivier Py

Year: 2011

Runtime: 32 minutes


EIFF 2012

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The Battle of Algiers