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“We Are All Children of Algeria”

Visuality and Countervisuality 1954-2011

Nicholas Mirzoeff, Author
Frantz Fanon, page 4 of 4

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J’ai huit ans: analysis

The film was attributed as being “prepared by Frantz Fanon and R[ené] Vautier,” despite their earlier disagreement. It was the product of a new therapeutic strategy of visualization that Fanon was experimenting with in his clinical work with Algerian refugees in Tunis. Perhaps the best known of these patients was the writer Boukhatem Farès, who became an artist as part of his therapy, and created a series of works called “Screams in the Night,” in the Tunis hospital. Farès later recalled that Fanon had told him to “visualize” what was troubling him and gave him a book on Van Gogh to help advance his artistic ideas.

By 1961, when the film was made, there were 175,000 Algerian refugees in Tunisia and another 120,000 in Morocco, many of them very young. At the children’s house in Tunis, Fanon asked the refugees to work through their experiences, in writing, speech, or drawing. Paper and crayons were distributed to the children refugees, who thereby created an extensive archive of the war in the rural areas. Later published and translated into Italian by Giovanni Pirelli, a sympathetic wealthy Italian, the children’s accounts range from those of aerial bombardments to those of ground warfare and torture. For example, a line drawing by Mili Mohammed shows a French soldier whipping a man who is shackled by the arms. Ahmed Achiri produced a detailed drawing showing soldiers attacking a village, torturing men with fire and rounding up women and children.

While not all the works are attributed, at least two drawings were by girls, identified as Fatima and Milouda Bouchiti, showing veiled women with children. Anonymous cutouts depict a man being shot and another man being whipped. A drawing shows the corpse of a man being carried through a village by cavalry horses. So, if the torture and violence of the war were in some sense a “secret” in France, although one preserved more by denial than by actual secrecy, they were well- known to the young people of Algeria. Perhaps unsurprisingly, children were all politically radicalized as a result. One sixteen- year- old stated that France wanted Algeria for its oil, while an eleven- year- old dated the outbreak of the revolution to the massacre in Sétif in 1945, six years before he was born. Another eleven- year- old, an orphan, said that his ambition was to return to an independent Algeria. Collectively, these documents form the archive against which the famous case study in Fanon's Wretched of the Earth, describing the killing of a French child by two Algerians, should be judged. In the period, it seems that Fanon or others realized the dramatic potential of these accounts, leading to both the book's publication and the film. According to the titles of one version, René Vautier was responsible for collecting the images for the film. J’ai huit ans was made when the war of liberation was eight years old, thus memorializing the war itself, as well as the children seen in the film.

It began with a minute-long sequence of filmed head-and-shoulder portraits of apparently eight-year-old children looking straight into the camera to the percussive sound of gun fire (see header image). The sudden cut to black-and-white pictures of violent scenes comes as a surprise, even a shock, enhanced by the speeded-up gunfire. A narrative voice over by children speaking Algerian French, in seemingly deliberate monotones, describes attacks on the villages by French troops, and the subsequent rescue of some of the children by FLN forces, illustrated with a series of the drawings, often seen in close- up. Tanks and machine guns are accurately depicted. One French soldier appears with a tail. One drawing is signed by “Hadim,” another by “Madjid.” As the film progresses, a variety of voices and stories are heard, which all contribute to the theme of conflict and loss. A child says that a plane “looked at me,” and then it proceeded to fire, while she hid under a large stone. Music has been added. The guerillas led them to the border, cut the fence, and they find refuge; one child even finds his parents. Suitably happy images follow to the sound of a chant for an independent Algeria.

These visualizations of the hidden realities of the war became a form of accusation, in the classic format of Zola’s “J’accuse.” Short as it is, the film contains a range of potential looks to counter colonial visuality that were not allowed expression in the colonial context. From the opening shot of the children facing the camera, the central focus is the look of the child, usually ignored in such contexts. Now we are so inured to repeated displays of impoverished children in underdeveloped countries that these images have attained a new invisibility. In the period, they were both striking and a riposte to the idea that this was a war for civilization. The children’s story also made visible the French soldiers, who would rather not have been seen at all, and the torture chambers, whose existence was officially denied until a former general admitted to them, in 2002. In the period, those taken in for interrogation were known as the “disappeared,” attesting to the importance of invisibility for, and as a means of, torture.

These looks became visible by means of the children’s drawings, which were both a means for the children to work through their own traumatic experience and, by the very fact of their authorship, an unimpeachable source for the violence being carried out by the French. Finally, and counterintuitively, the war itself uses the film, as it were, to claim an age and the right to be seen. By emphasizing the duration of the conflict, the film reminded metropolitan viewers, who might have been trying to forget, that the war persisted; to the Algerians and their allies, it showed that the full might of colonial power had not succeeded in repressing the resistance.

Realizing that this apparently humanitarian content was also a history of the war, French police seized the film at least seventeen times over many years. The French government replied by arranging some 7,500 showings of its own propaganda films in venues such as rotary clubs and other such institutions in the six months following the United Nations debate on Algeria during September 1957 alone. J’ai huit ans was banned in France until 1973, whereupon it won a prize for best short film of the year. This little-remarked collaboration between Fanon and Vautier marked a critical intersection between radical psychiatry and activist cinema. Together with the other depictions of children in activist cinema of the period, it shows how the claim of a right to look opens new possibilities for visualized media at the levels of both form and content.
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