By Rashid Issa
The documentary film, Bits of Life, Bits of Dreams, for the Algerian director Hamid Benamra seems to build a story within a story deliberately. It relates the story of the Algerian plastic artist Mustafa Butajin; a resident of Paris who dedicated himself to draw portraits for leading figures in the Algerian Revolution and other revolutions worldwide. The portrait here is not just a personal one; rather, it is a story of a country, struggle, history, and culture that strive to come to light.
The camera and the paint
The film, produced in 2012 and 103 minutes in duration, doesn't avoid giving a testimony on time, even out of culture and innovation. It was not a mere coincidence for the director to choose his compatriot; the Algerian artist Butajin, as a subject of his film. The director follows the
Mustafa Butajin studied Fine Arts in Algeria and Paris where he stayed. He draws by using the Collage technique of tearing the bourgeois magazines and making portraits of committed figures. From this technique comes the contradiction between the style of artwork and the content of those magazines. Butajin was quoted saying, "Through this I relate my story with all what I see from social injustice and imperialism in general. I am committed to this message and battle in order to face and expose oppression in the world through portraits and stories."
Butajin drew portraits for Che Guevara, the Spanish Poet Federico Lorca, the Jamaican singer Bob Marley, the American author James Baldwin, Fidel Castro, Frantz Fanon, Tommy Smith, Malcolm X, Mahmoud Darwish, the African singer Miriam Makeba, and many other figures. This was in addition to several Algerians, such as Kateb Yasin, Abdulqader ‘Alula who was assassinated by extremists in Algeria, Jamila Buhraid who represented the Algerian women who were subject to oppression, torture, and assassination, and others.
One way and two narratives
If the artist wanted - with the faces of those figures - to tell stories of countries and peoples, the director also did by using his own way by including different creative works in music, cinema, dancing and folkloric arts. If the artist's work was represented in assembling the scraps of paper from colored magazine, the director's work was seen as assembling snapshots of interviews, songs, music rhythms, and old black-and-white or colored images to make his own portrait, parallel to the one made by the artist.
|Benamra, often, takes a face in Butajin's studio as a departing point to go on in his story generation and end up with more comprehensive story that could end on a country road.|
Soon the protest becomes the subject, and then the camera locates ‘Ula Yola Khalifa (wife of the Lebanese musician and singer Marcel Khalifa) among the protestors. She didn't leave without talking about both her personal story as well as the story of her country from one aspect. A talk about Algeria ends the discussion with her; her love to this struggling country, and then she concludes with a talk about the concert of Marcel there when he sang "Strugglers" followed by scenes of folkloric dancing in the streets of Algeria.
Binamra is a brilliant director indeed, not only in building a film similar to the style of Butajin, but also in his skill in creating an agile beat to the relatively-long film which turned to be extremely light. Music, especially the African one, was always present. Apart from the image itself that can accelerate the rhythm, some images acted as optical equipment, such as quickly going over the magazines used by Butajin in his Collage technique, and the passing of camera over the black stones of the road.
This was in addition to the fine taste of selected songs and musical passages, some from the Algerian heritage or Northwest African in general, such as " A Train Horned and Jumped into the Water", " The Departure", and other songs for Marcel Khalifa, Sheikh Imam, Abir Nasrawi and others.
The film also followed a drawing experience of Butajin in a dancing studio. The viewer watch the camera while following the drawing lines before it lands on the dancers' bodies in addition to a black-and-white scenes of a woman (the performer Asia Jamra) wearing the Algerian traditional costume and performing an expressive dance on the road.
The film, as a whole, seems to belong to a different time in its rational and characters. It is a kind of honoring the "struggling" world which talks about the conflict between the poor and oppressed South with the rich and colonial North. The North even after it left, it took the whole wealth of the countries, including the cultural one too. It also honors the sanctification of characters symbolizing violence, such as Guevara or Angela Davis; the communist struggler in the "Black Panthers" Movement who was charged with conspiracy against her country in 1970 then released after serving 16 months jail term. Davis had supported the military struggle against capitalism and imperialism before she became a university teacher at the University of California "without being regretful to her previous commitments."
Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) sang for the oppressed and the Algerian anthem during the film (Aljazeera)
Sanctification could have lessened the screening of this film in different international festivals. Who wants the return of that world? The director considered that up to the West that hesitate to screen such works because they don't want to see the massacres and oppressions they committed there, despite the conflict was tackled from a cultural and technical perspective.
It is a film about old dreams that became part of the past; this could be exactly what makes the need pressing for cinema that portrays and documents the world as it was. In regards to the perspective of the director's and the plastic artist, it needs a prolonged debate, but we are not sure about the share of cinema in that discussion.