Though structured in a rather uninteresting way, Lina Soualem's film shines in its interviews with her infectiously funny grandma
When making a deeply personal movie, there’s a fine line between capturing moving individual experience and simply feeling self-indulgent. It’s a line that French-Algerian director Lina Soualem’s documentary Their Algeria sometimes stumbles on to the wrong side of, as she examines the divorce of her grandparents after 62 years of marriage, learning about her family’s history in the process and trying to come to terms with her own split identity. Yet, through the sheer charm of her subjects, Soualem does keep Their Algeria just compelling enough.
The film's presentation is, inescapably, a little dull, comprised as it is almost entirely of straightforward interviews with Soualem’s grandmother Aicha and grandfather Mabrouk during the process of their separation. Luckily, Aicha in particular makes for great company, bubbly and funny whilst also holding on to the past in a way that is painful but necessary. It’s in her interviews that Their Algeria is at its best, especially when she’s sharing the screen with her son/Soualem’s father Zinedine (himself a recognisable face of France’s arts scene). They bounce off each other in a lovely way, and their shared laughter is infectious.
Mabrouk is far more reserved, his scenes carrying a melancholic sadness and regret, and though this does serve as an occasionally moving counterpoint to Aicha (who seems to be handling the separation much better), there do come some points where watching an old man silently shuffle around a museum and drink tea gets a bit taxing.
Alongside the family dynamics, Their Algeria is also an exploration of the still-strong effects of French colonialism in North Africa. Aicha and Mabrouk’s memories of Algeria are bittersweet at best and downright traumatic as they recall how the news of Algeria’s war for independence reached them in France, leaving much of the Soualem family as people without a real home, violently ripped from Algeria, but treated as a disposable underclass in France.
It adds some heft to this very brisk film (it barely clears a 70-minute runtime), but these moments of true sadness don’t quite have the punch you feel they should. As a loving and heartfelt portrait of one’s grandparents, though, Their Algeria is hard to dislike.
Their Algeria is released on True Story on 17 March.Where to watch