Djamila Sahraoui (b 1950) Algerian born director, now living in France was 41 when the thirteen year civil war erupted in Algeria.  The FLN had been in power since winning independence from France. In 1991, when elections showed that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was going to take power, the army stepped in, banned the FIS and arrested thousands of its members.  Armed guerilla insurgency began in the mountains and the cities.  By 1994 the insurgency had split, with the city based Armed Islamic Group (GIA) declaring war on FIS as well as the government. It’s motto was “no agreement, no truce, no dialogue.”

Movies Enough AlgeriaHaving made several well-received short documentaries on Algeria and especially the war of independence, by 2005 she was ready for her first feature length film, Barakat! [Enough!] set in the civil war of the ’90s.  Set in, because it is not about the war, its origins, its participants, its effect on society or its resolution.  What it’s about is two brave women, Algerian, a generation apart, both well educated, and both intrepid.  They survive direct threats of death and many smaller stay-in-your-place intimidations from men on a road-trip in a war zone, overcoming their suspicions of each other to find friendship and a new and warm relationship with an older, recently widowed, rural man.

Amel, played by Paris born Rachida Brakni, is doctor in a small sea-side village of Algeria, western trained but living in a small compound with other families. As the film opens a neighbor child is suffering from acute appendicitis.  She says he must be taken to the hospital.  Fear of armed groups on the roads makes the father hesitate. Amel herself, with the veiled mother make it through a withering moment at a check point and the child is saved.  When she returns home, however, her husband, journalist Mourad is missing. 

A neighbor tips her off several days later that he is being held by militants in a distant, mountain village, for the article he had written about them.  The authorities are not only unhelpful but obstructionist.  Amel takes off in her car with Khadidja [Fattouma Ousliha Bouamari] a co-worker from the hospital.  Along the way we find out that Khadidja had been a militant in the fight against France, sometimes armed, and that one of her comrades from that time is now involved with the group thought to be holding Mourad.

As they drive to the village, depending on their female force we imagine, to get him away, the scenery is remarkably like that of Marin County, California, the same Mediterranean scrub on similar green slopes.  They could well be driving up Mount Tamalpais, which adds an eerie overtone t0 the story: brutal civil war takes place in land much like ours, among people much like us.

After being released by the gun waving group and forced to walk down the mountain bare-foot, the two women encounter a solitary, older man, dignified and quiet.  He is a recent widower it turns out, and father to two sons he has been seeking for two years.  “I don’t know if they’ve been killed,” he says, “or are killing people.” In the nice chemistry of movies, and sometimes of life, the three join together and continue down the mountain behind his worn out horse in a wagon even more worn.

Brakni is terrific as doctor Amel, combining unflinching nerve in a stern face with the soft flowing tresses of a great beauty.  She is a standout in a cafe scene when the men begin too vocal a noticing.  Khadidja is a great companion, older and probably even tougher, but softened by age and experience.  They move through some angry moments to become friends, sturdy against the dominating men and making a small place of peace in a warring world.

The scenery is lovely. The interior shots unfolding the narrative are smoothly done. The proportion between close ups, middle distance and panoramic shots is appropriate to the story being told — no overuse of extreme closeups to underline emotion (a pet peeve) for example.  Tension building is very well done, several times and dialog –even in sub-title– realistic and not too explanatory.  There is, for some, too much quietness. Sahraoui favors, as many non-western directors do, the long take, letting us observe faces, small gestures, passing landscape.  On the whole I like films with such time to absorb; I will admit that sometimes the observational moments could be trimmed.

A few narrative clues are too subtlety done. An early visit by Khadidja to Hadj Sliman [Mohamed Bouamari], her war-time comrade, could have been made a shade or two sharper.  The sub-title “G.I.A” went completely unexplained until I could research it afterwards.  Though it pretty clearly referred to a fighting group it was not clear how it related to those kidnapping Mourad, or indeed to the government forces.  In fact, investigations and allegations abound in France and Algeria to this day that some of the extreme killing, attributed to Islamic groups during the years of war, were in fact done by government forces, or Islamic groups sponsored and armed by the government to spread fear about Islam in general. [Here and here.]

Sahraoui, rightfully, doesn’t take a stand.  Her story, after all, is of two women, non-combatants, and health-care workers, trying only to rescue those they love. Even so, clarity might have been served by a few lines or scenes revealing the incredible chaos and shifting allegiance of the time — making their search even more fraught.

The ending, particularly, is not only ambiguous (often a good thing,) but baffling.  Amel gains entrance to a locked garage, rushes into the dark and calls her husband’s name.  Cut. She is looking out the beach with a Mona Lisa sort of smile apparently watching Khadidja frolic modestly in the waves with the older man who had helped them, tenderness blooming.  We have no idea what happened to Mourad, the reason for their quest and endangerment.

As a small, quiet story about strong women, Barakat! is worth the time of watching.  The final gesture, a incautiously carried and used pistol thrown into the sea, as the man shouts ‘barakat!” is a nice ending, symbolic of the weariness of war felt throughout the country in its closing years.  Formal resolution came –after deaths estimated between 44,000 to 200,000– with a 2004 Presidential election and a 2005 “Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation.”

Barakat! won several awards, including one for the music which was wonderfully played on what I take to be a oud, a stringed instrument with tuning and melodies perfectly fitting the quiet, the danger and suspense of the film.  It has a 73% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and 6.3 at IMDB.

Moveis Barakat si-oud-lrg

Personally, I’d like to hear from her about the title translation.  Barakat! became Enough! in English and Basta Ya! in Spanish.  From what I can tell, however, Barakat is the plural form of Barak (yes, that fellow’s name) which is literally “Blessing.”  So, perhaps there are regionalisms that have it meaning ‘enough.’ or perhaps filmmaker or distributor felt that non-Arabic audiences wouldn’t get it when a man throws a gun into the ocean while shouting Blessings!  (Any help on this?)

The film was distributed by the Global Film Initiative, which from the several films I’ve seen, is the go-to place for well done, socially conscious movies.  Check out their catalog.