Guest post by Joan Hawkins, Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at Indiana University.
Based on a book written by Simone de Beauvoir, Pour Djamila recounts the story of Djamila Boupacha, an Algerian woman and National Liberation Front Activist who was arrested by the French in 1960, accused of terrorism and tortured. Under torture, she confessed to planting a bomb in an Algerian café. If found guilty of the crime, she would be executed. Attorney Gisèle Halimi agreed to defend her, but also knew that at that time (the Algerian War) the public would need to be mobilized or Boupacha would not stand a chance. Halimi organized a support committee, chaired by Simone de Beauvoir, which alerted the public to the dirty secret of confessions obtained through the use of torture and rape. Despite Halimi and de Beauvoir’s best efforts, however, Djamila Boupacha was sentenced to death on June 29, 1961. She was given amnesty in April 1962 under the provisions of the Evian Accords, the treaty that was finally signed by France and the Provisional Government of Algeria.
The French publishing house Gallimard published Beauvoir’s book, Djamila Boupacha: The Story of the Torture of a Young Algerian Girl, in 1962, after amnesty had been granted. Beauvoir had written the book as part of a larger campaign to rally public opinion and to put the government itself on trial for violating Article 344 of the French Penal Code, which forbids the use of torture. But what is really remarkable about the book, especially in the present context, is the way Beauvoir used Djamila’s case to question the idea of a “French Algeria.” What can such a term even mean, she asked, absent the military? Djamila Boupacha became an important text in the immediate post-liberation era, and it remains a striking anti-colonialist document. Further, through their collective efforts, Beauvoir, Halimi, and Boupacha became lifelong friends, committed to the anti-colonialist struggle and international feminism.
Pour Djamila is told from Gisèle Halimi’s point-of-view and has what can only be described as a very intimate feel. Tightly framed compositions and refracted light give the sense of enclosure, entrapment. But under Caroline Huppert’s direction, it also conveys what strong women can achieve even when their movements and power are constrained. Directed by a woman, with a screenplay written by a woman, based on a book written by a very famous woman, the film interrogates an important aspect of post-World War II French history and also documents a kind of female friendship and solidarity that’s rarely represented in cinema. While Beauvoir, Halimi, and Boupacha spend a lot of time talking about men in this movie, it’s not because they are enamored — they talk about men in order to strategize the best way to bring down certain aspects of the patriarchy.
Warning: while most of the film takes place in courtrooms, prisons, and offices, there are several disturbing scenes of violence, torture, and rape. Huppert believed it was important to render torture and rape less abstract to remind the public what is at stake when the government wages a dirty war.
Join us on November 11 in the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room for a virtual screening of For Djamila, which will include an introduction and interactive Q&A with the Center for Theoretical Inquiry in the Humanities. This event is sponsored by the Center for Theoretical Inquiry in the Humanities, the Center for Documentary Research and Practice, Black Camera, and The Media School.
This event is offered in conjunction with the Center for Theoretical Inquiry in the Humanities Reading Group’s reading of a new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Learn more through the Center’s website.
Joan Hawkins is a professor in Cinema and Media Studies in The Media School. She has published extensively on horror cinema, the avant-garde, and French arthouse cinema. She is currently teaching courses on French National Cinema and Production as Criticism, and she is convening this term’s reading group for the Center of Theoretical Inquiry in the Humanities, which is reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. She is currently compiling two anthologies on 1968, with special attention to Mai 1968.