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Route One Algeria: Hassen Ferhani on “143 Sahara Street”

The Algerian director talks about his new documentary about an old woman’s stalwart presence running a roadside teahouse in the desert.
If ever confirmation was needed that directors make their second film in opposition to their first, Hassen Ferhani's 143 Sahara Street, his follow-up to the 2015 FIDMarseille prize-winner Roundabout in My Head, might serve as a case in point. Day for night, old age for youth, female for male, desert for capital city: every single parameter, it would seem, has been permutated for its opposite. Yet Ferhani is an auteur, as is already clear from those two films, and surface differences count for little in the face of the underlying gesture, of which his two first films only seem like two different moments: to document Algeria through its inhabitants, to set up shop in one small corner of a vast country from which, through generosity, patience, and openness to chance (and a bit of hidden craft too), a composite picture of its contradictions, its hopes and frustrations, its day-to-day miracles can emerge.
Now for more precision: Roundabout in My Head followed the work and emotional hang-ups of a handful of young (and a few not-so-young) workers in a slaughterhouse in the center of Algiers. What counted, resolutely, was the human stories (dialogues about Zidane's career in France, about the lack of hope for change in Algeria...) rather than the horror of the slaughter. Reddish hues dominated the movie, which was as much about how to film working bodies in a closed space at night, with streaks of light spilling across the screen, as it was about the state of the nation and the remaining possibilities for working-class comradeship.
The solar Yang to the previous film's Yin, 143 rue du désert (143 Sahara Street), four years later, does not follow youthful male workers but rather a single older woman, Malika, who runs a roadside teahouse on the national road leading from Algiers through the Sahara desert to Niger, which seems to welcome at one time or another almost all of Algeria through its small door. A counter, a table and a few chairs, and a menu consisting of cigarettes, an omelet, and tea or coffee, make up the whole of her commercial venture, and for the opening twenty minutes, Ferhani seems content with documenting only the exhilaration of her presence, of her openness to the world driving by and stopping for a snack or a chat. Like his previous film, 143 Sahara Street documents Ferhani's discovery of a setting and his growing ease and complicity with his character as much as it does the people who step in front of his camera.
At first, the spatial dichotomy is simple: on the one hand, the inside of the shack, where Malika welcomes a regular customer or a female Polish biker1; on the other, the desert and the road tearing through it, filmed through Malika's front door. The door serves as a classical frame-within-the-frame device that here becomes a narrative element, raising expectations as to who is coming or conferring a coda upon a visit that has just ended (every movement becomes a character study when it wraps up an encounter). It is also, in formal terms and perhaps most memorably, the key to exploring a chromatic scale of sunlight entering an enclosed space, pouring into Malika's shed and in the process of flowing upon her walls changing over from harsh desert blare to soothing pale-blue calm: arguably cinema's most therapeutic luminescence since Apichatpong's neon tubes.2
Yet once Ferhani has exhausted the parameters of his initial set-up, the film starts reinventing itself. With Ferhani and Malika now fully at ease with each other, the film shifts from progressive mutual discovery to joint narrative experimentation: Ferhani starts charting the shack from the outside; people stepping into the shack start playing to the camera, as in one scene when a regular suddenly improvises a sketch pretending to be Malika's imprisoned son, asking her to take his place behind bars so that he may walk free; Malika playfully goes along, but of course she is the one inside, while the man stands outside her window, providing another variation of the frame within the frame: Malika, it would seem, is indeed the free one, small as her tea-house may be. At other key junctures, music starts being played on-camera, with Ferhani suddenly choosing to cut to different shots while keeping the soundtrack going, a moment of collective mirth suddenly bleeding into the fabric of the film and the landscape itself. Narrative elements appear at distant intervals: a gas station is being built just down the street, threatening Malika's income. Two young men try and convince her to move and start a new life elsewhere; another claims to be looking for a long-lost brother, prompting Malika to confess to having lost her daughter, before switching claims and admitting to having lied, accusing the man of lying over his brother too. The man stands speechless, and, faced with such an unexpected emotional climax doubling down as unsettling double-play, so does the viewer: Malika evades any easy encapsulation, Ferhani seems to be saying, and his role is not to provide any closure or answer any questions. The fact of her presence, her reaction to her surroundings, count for more in the film's dynamic than the truth of her statements or the viewer's desire for biographical background.
Yet if Malika is at the center of the film, it is because she seemingly draws to herself all of Algeria and its social contradictions: an imam is the subject of withering remarks, a newspaper clipping read to her about the government granting women new rights is met with contempt (“I'm independent, I don't need them to grant me anything”), African workers traveling north are granted tea and allowed to explain the reasons for their exodus. Once again, a mosaic is drawn of Algeria from a small vantage point from which the whole world seemingly unfolds.  From this point of view, the dichotomies which form a contrast between Roundabout in My Head and 143 Sahara Street seem to fade into insignificance when faced with their common parameters: the play of light, the attention to physical presence, the art of framing and of leaving a space within the frame for the unexpected, and the desire to capture the spirit of a country, however humbly, through the exchanges its inhabitants carry out daily. Second films are always made in opposition to first films, but auteurs only ever make variations on the same film.
The following interview was carried out in French at the Locarno Film Festival. Not much more needs to be said about it, other than that I had interviewed Ferhani four years ago for his first film, and that discussing his second was one of the things to which I was looking forward the most going into the festival: Ferhani is one of the most attentive listeners, and one of the most soft-spoken, generous, and precise speakers with whom I've had the pleasure of conversing. 

NOTEBOOK: Let's start with the projection itself: at the premiere of the film, you invited on stage not only your editor and your producer, but also two other people, who then appeared in the film. Could you tell us who those people are, and why it was important to you that they be on stage? 
HASSEN FERHANI: The first is Chawkri Amari. He is the one who put me on Malika's trail, so to speak. He's a writer, columnist, and writer, and a wanderer I like a lot. He often hits the road to go wandering around Algeria. The two of us had a project for a road movie that we would write together; in one of his novels, Nationale 1 (which is the name of the road that goes south from Algiers to Niger), he mentions Malika. It's a book of stations, that mentions everything he likes along this road, including Malika. So we were wandering, and I felt the desire to meet Malika. He's very close to her, he has a very unique relation to her. He stops at her place often. They have friends in common, they exchange news. 
The second is an actor who ended up there, I don't know how. Everyone knows that Samir Elhakim is an actor, but I don't know if it's useful for me to disclose as much. What is important is what that scene tells. There's a link to that scene in the beginning: Malika sees someone hitch-hiking in the distance, and says that he's come to look for his brother. There are lots of people in the desert who are roaming about, looking for people, telling stories. I want it to remain somewhat hazy.
The scene he appears in ties in with something that's subconsciously present in the film: Malika left the north of the country to write her history in this place. Everyone who lives in this place is in search of something. We think it's empty, but it's filled with people who are roaming about, living there, looking for something... Who are writing their histories, like Malika.
NOTEBOOK: Let's get to Malika: how did your first meeting with her go ?
FERHANI: As soon as I stepped into her shack, I related to it immediately. I instantly felt good, which is rare in places one has just got to. In Malika's place, there's a certain minimalism in the setting: two tables, a few chairs, a rudimentary menu. It's enough to survive. There is nothing there that is in excess, that is dispensable. It's a place that's lived in; not just a place, but someone's abode. She is like a saint, ruling over her mausoleum, but a saint in a positive sense, not a religious sense: like an oracle. When someone steps in, she figures out that person very quickly. She accepts them or not, it's her kingdom, and she rules there in her own way. 
The other layer that aroused my interest was the people going through: all those truck drivers, arriving with their stories to tell. The place slowly becomes a democratic space: everyone finds their place, is allowed to say whatever they want, respects each other, whether you're religious, or atheist, or a writer like in Kramer's Route One USA. Malika is a vessel for all of this, and the place becomes a democratic space. I immediately found that very moving.
Malika is always sitting at her table, looking out the doorway, and she comments on what she sees. I was very quickly struck by the way that doorway worked like a cinema screen: it was possible to do magical things with it. And that device is there, but at the same time I'm always trying to break it up. 
When I stepped in, I found it more beautiful than I had imagined it. I had Chawkri's writings in mind, who mentions it all the time, and stories I'd heard from other people who had gone through her place. But my imagination turned out to be poorer than reality. I asked Malika if I could make a film with her, she agreed, and I came back two years later. I went very quickly. I went to see my producer, I wrote a ten-page treatment in two weeks, which I had a great time writing. Three hours at Malika's place, ten pages in one two-week session, and I started shooting. I left the treatment with my producer and took my camera to start filming: it was important to short-circuit the waiting process. Malika might leave in three months—or not. She might pick up her stuff and go. During those two months, I woke up every morning with Malika's image in my mind.
143 Sahara Street
NOTEBOOK: You mention the door, and it's indeed very present, especially in the first half-hour of the film. I thought the film would consist entirely of those two set-ups: Malika and the people in her shack, and the camera looking out the doorway. 
FERHANI: The edit follows the shoot: that's how it happened. I write at the same time as I shoot. The writing almost serves as my location-scouting. In the first part, you're absorbed in the meetings, the discussions, you get to know Malika, along with the drivers. Then, after that Brian Eno song comes on at night, the film changes, and I start having fun, trying out things. Malika also has fun. At that point, we're trying to break up certain codes. I look for things which are hard to express : things to tell, ways of building a certain mise-en-scène, ways of filming. That's what's happening in the shot where we go round the shack, or in the parlor sequence, in which Chawkri pretends to be in jail. Chance brings something unreal in all of this. And then reality resurfaces, with the gas station across the road. But something happens with that Brian Eno song. It's a song built around Quranic verses, put into song by Brian Eno. What I like about the song is akin to what I like about Malika : it's simultaneously pagan and religious. It goes back to the idea of democracy. And there's something intuitive about it : that music fits that moment.
NOTEBOOK: But the song is first heard on Malika's radio. So you edited the sound to make it sound like it was coming out of the radio, but you actually chose it yourself ?
FERHANI: Yes, the sound was in fact manipulated to make it sound like it was coming out of her small radio, with all the static. Malika hears more static than actual sound, because she's so far from everything. It works well in the final cut. The music starts in the previous shot, and is then used somewhere else, for another shot. It's something I do elsewhere in the film, when the drummer starts playing his drum and it plays over the shot where I drive around Malika's shack. The idea was to trace circles around the house, which comes from something I'd read about certain mausoleums in Algeria: custom demands that you walk around them three times before entering. I found that very striking. I read it somewhere, and I used it in that shot. Because the music that he's playing, that drum called the bendir, is played at mystical celebrations called Zaouia, and that drummer has just come back from one of them.
Malika has a very different relationship to religion, to feminism, to life. The guy who's reading the newspaper tells her that they're going to come and give her more rights, and she answers: “I don't care about their rights, I'm independent.” Nobody tells her how to live. But then there is the threat of the gas station across the road, which might take away her customers. It's a narrative thread I use in the film, because a threat always creates a narrative dynamic in a film. It's like a fiction film, but that's written not with a script, but rather during the shooting and the editing.
NOTEBOOK: Let's talk about the editing and the shooting a bit. How long did each of them take? Did you go back to shoot multiple times, or did you stay for a certain period and then leave? Is the editing mostly chronological ?
FERHANI: There was only one shooting session. We set up camp for a certain period, I couldn't say how long exactly, but the time necessary to get a feel for the place, for that suspended perception of time, that passes very quickly at her place. The editing took six months. That's a very long time, and I worked with two different editors. The main difficulty was what to reveal without revealing too much. I wanted to keep certain aspects of her in the dark. I didn't want to disclose why she had left the north, for instance. Then we had to find a balance between Malika and the drivers, and to find a place for the gas station. The first version was two hours and twenty minutes long, and my producer wanted us to keep that version. Usually it's the opposite ! But it would have led us to another time frame, different from this one. It ran the risk of losing the audience, and it was very important to me that my aunt, for example, who lives in a small village, be able to watch the film to the end.
Editing was the hardest stage. When we were filming on the road, we were at risk of being run over every day, but it was an immensely pleasurable process. We lived in El Menia, and we drove 40 miles there and back every day. We didn't stay with Malika in her shack: not only because we needed amenities, to reload the batteries after a day of shooting, for example, but also because we needed to leave Malika a bit of space, a bit of time off shooting.
There's something of the order of a zen retreat at Malika's place. You sit and observe the world from its center, and the world comes to you. People come to you, and you don't need to move. Hence the idea of a reverse road movie, rather than a motionless road movie. It is a road movie: there is a road, 40m away. And there are characters: the drivers. All this led me to set up my camera at her place. And she understood the film I was trying to make. It was fascinating to see how Malika, and almost all the drivers, would immediately find their way into the scene, fit in with the set-up.
143 Sahara Street
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of the drivers, how did you approach them, or welcome them when they came in?
FERHANI: There were no rules as to how to speak to them. Almost all of them were welcoming to us. The idea that these two guys would be interested in this old woman... Malika is both something of a milestone and of a living legend. I ran into a guy who told me that Malika had been dead for years: she's entered into legend, she's a living legend.
NOTEBOOK: I'd like to ask about the light, though I'm not sure how much of it is work and how much is intuition, or sometimes sheer luck. But both of your films are almost painterly in their use of light, for lack of a better word: in Roundabout in My Head, it's red hues, with streaks of light tearing across the screen. Here, it's a much more subdued light, even though it takes place in the desert light. It's a very welcoming, easy kind of light, almost sheltering. 
FERHANI: It is partly intuitive. I work a lot with a fixed lens. It helps, in a certain way, but I try every time to find a camera that is fit for the specific shooting. I tried a few for this shooting: a Sony Alpha 7 II goes into another color spectrum, for example. For the other shooting, the Panasonic was good for warmer hues, but here, I needed something colder, more metallic, greyer, flatter. I shot in flat mode, which makes everything greyer. And it enables more space for maneuver in post-production, more than the other camera. I was specifically looking for a camera that could take in very high luminosity. That was very important to take into account. The most important, shooting in this desert blare, was to never be over-exposed.
As to how the light falls within the frame, to be honest, the intuition of how to place the camera comes relative to what you're shooting : the off-screen space, of course, but also patches of light. In Malika's place, there's only one source of light, which shades away from the doorway when I film Malika. It's like a natural projector during the day: I just need to work the aperture and the frame, without messing up the focus.
NOTEBOOK: That shading effect also probably has a lot to do with the color of the wall.
FERHANI: It does. That blue was very soothing to me. But I had also thought of a crazy sequence  in Skolimowski's Deep End, there's a scene when the woman repaints the whole swimming pool in red. And I almost brought in a painter to repaint Malika's shack in that hue of blue, and have that as a directed scene. Those are ideas that I play with, but that I don't always carry out. You go home, you look at the day's images, you write down things... Your whole life is on hold, you only think about the film. 
NOTEBOOK: I'd like to come back to the question of time, which you mentioned about the editing and which is particularly interesting. If we go back to that shot in which you drive around the shack, while the bendir is heard on the soundtrack, I thought that was the ending of the film. And then when it doesn't end, you have to readjust to this new beginning, readjust to the rhythm of time passing by. 
FERHANI: You touch upon a sequence that was very problematic for us. We had a lot of trouble finding its place, precisely because it looks a lot like an ending sequence: the light, the movement, the music... At that point, something new happens, with her lying down in the sand, and the crazy story of Samir coming to look for his brother. It creates something new.
As for the other version... It was longer, more settled into this rhythm of time going by within the shack, in the same manner. There were other choices to be made: some of the drivers would come back and appear a second time in the film, the gas station took up more screen time. During the last phase of the editing, we had to tighten it, go straight to what was essential to the film.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of the gas station, one of the ladies in the audience yesterday asked if Malika was able to survive, and the answers you and Chawkri gave had to do with the way she lives in the desert. I think she asked that because the final shot of the film is the gas station, and as you said, you've framed it as a threat over the course of the film. 
FERHANI: Ah... You're right, we misunderstood the question. Partly because I was very scared of some of the audience questions. In France, because of the historical relations between France and Algeria, questions are often taken over by left-overs of history. They become condescending, with this very smarmy way of looking at Malika. I was happy not to get that kind of questions here, but when that question came up I immediately grew defensive. What Chawkri said, about the difficult conditions Malika lives in, and the fact that she's able to live, not just survive, is true, but it doesn't correspond to my vision of the film. Some film-makers (I won't give any names!) go to Africa and film the women's feet, to show how poor they are because they're barefoot. For me, it's not that her life is tough that is important to me: her life is there, as it is, but I'm trying to say something else. I'm trying to talk about her philosophy, the way she relates to the world, what she exudes, what makes her different.
Coming back to Chawkri: he's a writer, a columnist. He wanders about, travels, meets people. In the scene in which he appears, he was coming through. I like his place in the film a lot, it's the same scale as the other drivers, he doesn't take up more screen time, but it's more intimate. You can tell that Malika inspires Chawkri a lot, and that he has a specific way of looking at her. As she inspires him, he respects her a lot but he plays with her, he has fun with her. And she's relaxed, because she knows that he has already written about her. I get the impression that everyone who walks into her place has a different relation to her.

1. To use an adjective not often brandished as a worthy superlative in criticism, Ferhani is one of the luckiest filmmakers alive in terms of the sheer incongruity of what takes place in front of his camera—those who have seen Roundabout in My Head will remember one of the greatest, most improbable alignment-of-the-stars shots in the history of cinema.
2. Whoever wants to know the full effects that the right kind of blue can have on the eyes and mind of a traveler should, in addition to watching Ferhani's film, read Nicolas Bouvier's The Way of the World—something which should be done regardless of interest in that particular question, of course.

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