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Algerian War : the witnesses have bequeathed their memory to us

Algerian War : the witnesses have bequeathed their memory to us

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the end of the Algerian war, INA and ARTE are offering a documentary series entitled “At war(s) for Algeria”. A project built on the unpublished testimonies of those who lived through the conflict in France and Algeria, testimonies that the INA collected for over 2 years. Meeting with Anne Gènevaux, producer at INA and architect of the project.

Crédits : SCA Algérie/ECPAD/1955/Défense

"At war(s) for Algeria", a series by Raphaëlle Branche and Rafael Lewandowski

INA - How did the idea for this project come about?

Anne Gènevaux - It all started with a meeting with ARTE France. We discussed with them our ability to collect testimonies as we have been doing since 2016 with 1,000 witnesses for the “November 13, 2015” project. We have been aware for years now that it is necessary to collect the memories that have shaped our history. It is this conviction that led us to design the series "The great interviews" in which men and women who marked the 20th century retrace for the public their career, their work, their ideas, their experiences. On the ARTE side, they were in the middle of thinking about a documentary to be produced on the Algerian war for the 2022 commemorations, but which one? Many films have already been made but very often their story is centred on a specific aspect of the war, a precise event, or a group of populations. It therefore seemed to us that the best way to tell this major conflict of the 20th century was to do so with a diversity of voices, a diversity of memories, which sometimes can be opposed. There was, on our part and that of ARTE France, the desire not to let the individual memories of those who lived through the Algerian war disappear. They are now between 78 and 88 years old.

INA - Can you explain to us your approach to carrying out the 66 interviews, 56 of which are at the heart of the story of the series?

A. G. - It was essential to rely on the competence of historians. We naturally thought of Raphaëlle Branche since she is a specialist of the war in Algeria. We offered her not only to carry this new collection with us, but also to become co-author of the series (with the director Rafael Lewandowski). From the outset, we wanted the panel of witnesses to be as representative as possible of the diversity of experiences of the war. It was therefore necessary to begin by establishing the list of the various "profiles" directly impacted by the conflict: conscripts from the contingent, ALN fighters, French from Algeria, FLN militants, members of the OAS... With Marks Edwards (programme manager of ARTE France at the time), we also met the team of the ONACVG (Office National des Anciens Combattants et Victimes de Guerre). I knew that for 8 years, they had been leading a campaign of oral testimonies throughout France. And the ONACVG helped us a lot.

Each interlocutor contacted provided us with a short summary of the background of each potential witness. This is how we were able to make a first selection to ensure a diversity of stories. After a first contact with each of them, Agathe Gilbergue, our assistant director, went to meet them to present the project in detail and begin to complete with them a questionnaire developed by Raphaëlle Branche for each category of witnesses. This questionnaire had the major advantage of allowing future interviewers to get to know the witness who would be entrusted to them.

It is mainly to historians or doctoral students, connoisseurs of this conflict, that we have chosen to entrust the interviews. The interviewers had to be able to react to remarks that could sometimes be imprecise or “distorted” by memory. We have specially trained them in filmed interviews, over 2 days, a completely new exercise for all of them. Raphaëlle Branche explained to them the framework of the collection and the difficulties linked to the fragility of the story of memory. Rafael Lewandowski, the director, introduced them to studio shooting. What was interesting with this team of interviewers was that none of them had lived through the Algerian war. For their own research work, they had been led to re-examine this conflict. And that look was very interesting for us.

Then in June 2019, we managed to shoot 4 interviews a day. In Bry-sur-Marne in the premises of INA, the teams of Francisco Camino had set up 2 studios in parallel. We resumed filming in June 2020, shortly after the 1st confinement. It was not easy! My obsession was to protect teams and witnesses. But everyone played the game!

The interviews last on average 2h / 2h30. For us, it was not a question of doing “classic” documentary interviews, but of collecting life stories. Some witnesses told us: "20 years ago I would not have told you that", or "I am not trying to convince, I am just trying to say" or even "It was time for me to tell"... Three witnesses disappeared today. We have all been affected by it.

INA - Subsequently, there were shootings in Algeria

A.G - In the middle of Covid! Impossible for Raphaëlle and Rafael to be able to get there as we had imagined. We entrusted all the work to an executive producer in Algiers, Akham Films. They too did a real investigative job to find witnesses on the spot. Brahim Djaballah, our assistant director, criss-crossed Algeria to meet people and try to convince them. We found historians and journalists on site, whom we trained over a day, remotely. During the first phase of filming there, it was impossible to travel from one region to another because of the Covid. A large part of the interviews was carried out in a studio in Algiers. For the 2nd phase of filming, between 2 periods of health restrictions, the Akham Films team was able to go directly to film people at home, throughout Algeria. During these shoots, Raphaëlle, Rafael and I followed the interviews live via WhatsApp, which sometimes allowed us to send questions live to the interviewer.

INA - Did the witnesses speak easily?

A.G - The subject is still sensitive today. Memory competition is still raging. But in the case of this collection, it is important to understand that these people, who all have extremely different backgrounds and experiences, took part in this process, knowing that they were writing their story in a choral story where certain points of view could be completely opposite to theirs. I believe that the fact that this project was carried out by INA, a public institution, renowned for its role in heritage preservation, and ARTE, very watched in Algeria and rather with confidence, played a big role. The witnesses have bequeathed their memory to us in a way.

INA - On a personal level, what do you retain from these interviews?

A.G - We all have many clichés about this war, often due to a lack of knowledge. All mine have been swept away. All the prejudices that I could have have fallen away. When we listen to the story of an experience, when we listen to it in the light of the context in which it is situated, that of a war, which is moreover a colonial war, our gaze is attached to the person who surrenders. We are not immersed in the middle of a history lesson, but in the heart of a personal story, the journey of an individual whose life has been turned upside down. The choices that some have made or the events that have imposed themselves on them, we no longer observe them in the same way. This war was violent and if we do not excuse the violence, we manage in any case to understand it. Here all the experiences are different, sometimes very opposite, but all of them have gone through the same years of extreme violence. The choice of the title of the series, and of the heritage collection, "At war(s) for Algeria", was chosen on purpose. Everyone fought FOR Algeria, for their country, for HIS vision of Algeria. And this war was not only a bilateral conflict. There have been wars in what is called here in France "The Algerian War" or in Algeria "The War of Independence". One of our initial intentions with ARTE was to try to get out of this straitjacket of memory competition.

INA - What archives did you use?

A.G - We called on more than 60 different archive collections: French archives and foreign archives, professional collections but also many amateur collections. In the INA collection, we even unearthed amateur films that private individuals had entrusted to the INA as part of the “Shared Memories” operation. Everyone we asked allowed us to use them. We tried to have access to the Algerian archives but even today, I am still waiting for news… The 66 witnesses also lent us their personal archives. There were amazing things! In total, more than 200 hours of archives (excluding witness documents) were delivered to the director and the editing team. Not to mention the 198 hours of interviews. Before even starting the editing, we had to spend more than 2 months derushing and sorting.

INA - What versions are planned?

A.G - It was important that this collection be shared with as many people as possible, regardless of the 6-episode series for which we only used excerpts. The 66 interviews will therefore be made available to the public, in their entirety, on the INA Major Interviews platform from March 1, 2022. Gradually, the synchronized transcriptions of each interview will also be put online by INA.

INA and ARTE have decided to publish the series on DVD. We worked on the bonuses that will accompany the 6 episodes, including an interview with the authors, Raphaëlle Branche and Rafael Lewandowski and additional archives.

ARTE France and Tallandier editions, in partnership with INA, have designed a beautiful book that follows the same approach as the series: the coexistence of experiences. 15 witnesses, 15 stories, 15 memories. Raphaëlle Branche coordinated this work and presented it.

The INA is also proposing a podcast, focusing on "The Algerian War as told by women". It is quite rare to hear women talk about the war. And in the collection and in the series, the women are incredible! The idea is to reconstruct each episode as a dialogue. 1 episode, 1 interview of about forty minutes.

France Culture will use the interviews of Algerian witnesses to design an LSD program “The Documentary Series” (4x59 minutes) to retrace the conflict through the eyes and paths of Algerians.

ARTE is developing several modules for social networks mainly aimed at a younger audience, based on the idea of ​​the transmission of memory.

Our collection gives birth to a number of initiatives, which, I hope, will give each of us the possibility of re-examining a conflict which belongs to our common history and which has left traces in French society, as in Algerian society. . As comedian Lyna Khoudry (the series' narrator) says at the end of the last episode: The stories of these witnesses are our heritage.

INA - What role does the INA play as a heritage media in the constitution of this memory?

A.G - It was quite logical for INA to lead this project. Holder of the memory of French public broadcasting, the Institute was legitimate to collect these memories, preserve them and transmit them. We started working on this project, well before the submission of Benjamin Stora's report to the French President of the Republic on "the memorial issues relating to colonization and the war in Algeria". In it, the historian recommends the collection of the memory of the last witnesses to transmit it in the most transparent way possible. I think we got there a bit.

At war(s) for Algeria, a documentary series in 6 episodes by Raphaëlle Branche and Rafael Lewandowski, directed by Rafael Lewandowski and narrated by Lyna Khoudri. An ARTE France and INA co-production.

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