Waiting for Omar Gatlato: Introduction



“Thinking thought usually amounts to withdrawing into a dimensionless place in which the idea of thought alone persists. But thought in reality spaces itself out in the world. It informs the imaginary of peoples, their varied poetics, which it then transforms, meaning, in them its risk becomes realized.” — Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation 1 I was at a party, a small gathering, in the Sacré Coeur neighborhood of Algiers late one evening in March 2016. Djalila Kadi-Hanifi, an author and professor of mathematics, handed me a book bound in thick white paper stock that had been very simply printed in 1979. En Attendant Omar Gatlato (Waiting for Omar Gatlato), price 25 dinars, written and edited by Wassyla Tamzali. It is an early sourcebook on Algerian experimental cinema, focusing roughly on the period from the end of the 1960s through the late 1970s. Stills from a handful of films, shooting notes, production documentation, and interviews with individual filmmakers make up the bulk of the volume. It aims to constitute the existence of Algerian cinema despite the challenges of everyday life and the struggle to establish infrastructures for culture after the war. En Attendant Omar Gatlato posits that in the mid-1970s, the filmic representation of the Algerian everyman replaced heroic and mythologizing war movies. “Today we must leave the common ground of ‘film born in the flames’ (films that rise out of and are devoted to the War of Liberation) in order to support filmmakers, to take part in their efforts,” Tamzali writes in the book’s preface. She identifies the transition, and then articulates the responsibility it imposes on its public: “We must let go of the astonishment, of the indulgent joy in the existence of film in Algeria. We must analyze Algerian films in order to measure the road already traveled and that which remains to be traveled.” 2 En Attendant Omar Gatlato expresses the exceptionalism of the 1970s in the country, which historian James McDougall describes as the era of a “new, young and profoundly transformed Algeria.” 3 The book, an excerpt of which has been translated and is included in this volume, takes its framing metaphor from Merzak Allouache’s film Omar Gatlato , an extraordinary cinematic portrait of Algerian youth released in 1976, fourteen years after the end of the War of Liberation. For Tamzali, Omar Gatlato was not only paradigmatic of a period saturated with the claim for subjective emancipation, it inaugurated an awareness of that freedom: “Now we know. We were waiting for Omar Gatlato . Merzak Allouache clasps the old mummy that film had become, and plunges Algerian cinema into a pool of tenderness and rebellion.” 4 “Waiting for Omar Gatlato” is an exhibition conceived in response to Tamzali’s insight and to the film of which that insight is born. This layering of thought has provided a curatorial framework ambivalent enough to encompass a survey of artworks by artists from Algeria and its diaspora in Europe. It also allows for a full acknowledgment of the impossibility, both political and aesthetic, of representing an artistic context that is at odds with its own national

1  Edouard Glissant, Poetics of

Relation , trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), 1.

2  Wassyla Tamzali, “Eloge au cineastes, ” in En attendant Omar Gatlato: regards sur le cinéma algérien (Algiers:

En. A.P., 1979) n.p. Translation mine.

3  James McDougall, “Culture as War by Other Means: Community, Conflict and Cultural Revolution, 1967–81,” in Algeria Revisited: History, Culture and Identity , eds. Rabah Aissaoui and Claire Eldridge (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), 243.

4  Wassyla Tamzali, “The Birth of a

Cinematographer: Merzak Allouache’s Omar Gatlato ,” page 27 in this volume.

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