Translated by David Bell
Never had I felt such a sense of suffocation watching a film by Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche.1Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, born in 1968 in Beni Zid, Algeria, is a Franco-Algerian filmmaker, scriptwriter, producer, and actor. He has made six films that have won numerous prizes, including the Louis Delluc (2001) and Jean Vigo (2011) prizes in France, and, internationally, the Leo Sheer prize (Belfort Festival, 2001), the Prix de jeunesse (Cannes Festival, 2006), the Ecumenical prize (Berlin Festival, 2015), and the Geneviève McMillan Award from Harvard’s Film Study Center (2011) for his four films made before 2011. His latest film, Le gang du bois du temple, selected at the Berlin Festival (February 2023), is forthcoming in theaters. The poisoned atmosphere of Terminal Sud (2019) recalls the atmosphere of the Algerian War (1955-1962) and that of the decade of darkness (1991-2002) in that country. The filmmaker chose not to make a historical film, however, but rather a dystopia that fuses together periods and places. The story appears to be contemporary, in a country bathed in the colors of southern France, apparently in the grip of all the violence that French and Algerian memories are nowhere near forgetting.2This is amply demonstrated by the recent events surrounding the tense exchanges between the leaders of France and Algeria following the publication of the Stora report on the memory of colonization and war in Algeria. See a synthesis of reactions to the report, published in January 2021, by Dider Monciaud: “Le ‘rapport Stora’: un premier débat sur les enjeux mémoriels,” Cahiers d’histoire. Revue d’histoire critique, vol. 149, 2021, 1 July 2021, http://journals.openedition.org.calarts.idm.oclc.org/chrhc/16509. Bandits wearing combat uniforms, policemen wearing outfits sporting an acronym that strangely resembles one used by Islamist Algerian groups,3GIU, an abbreviation for “Groupe d’intervention urbain” in the film, instead of GIA, “Groupe islamiste armée,” disbanded in 2002. and generals evoking the French putschists of 1961 all fight against each other—ransoming, threatening, kidnapping, killing, and torturing the local population. Meanwhile, out in the countryside, guerrillas (maquisards4This very term appears in the film’s credits.) try to care for their dying leader, like North African freedom fighters (fellagas) were doing before them, and this in turn evokes French Resistance fighters in the 1940s. The film’s work on confused memories, which, according to Thierry Kuntzel, is related to the condensation, overdetermination, and displacement of dreamwork, transforms being out of breath into a symptom that hounds the doctor, played by Ramzy Bédia (“Inhale…Exhale…Inhale again…Hold your breath…Exhale”), a state of the world in the form of a trap that threatens to suffocate him—and launches the quest for a filmic poetics of calm through the pairing of breaths.
Peeling façades with tightly closed doors, lowered metal shop shutters, narrow and tense streets: the doctor, his wife Hazia, and their family slip outside in fear of kidnapping and gunfire, climb up stairs breathing heavily, anxiously await by the window, their bodies obscured in starkly contrasting shadows cast by glaring light, hug each other with endless sighs. As they share their grief, they have barely enough breath left to sing to the memory of someone who has disappeared,5The tenuity and fragility of their voices make us forget that the romance they hum–”je crois entendre encore“–is taken from Georges Bizet’s youthful opera, Les chasseurs de Perles. as if after an argument, when everything has been said and all that remains is a strangled sob serving as last farewell.
The film opens with an attack on a minivan used for public transportation: bandits, who could be soldiers, steal everything from the passengers and driver. The doctor sees his patients in a rundown hospital, treats a woman whose breathing is raucous, her voice taut with anxiety, and who speaks about the disappearance of her husband. Back home, he finds anonymous letters containing death threats and, to calm down, he searches for his breath by taking a deep drag from a cigarette and a swig of whiskey. “I can’t take it any longer, I can’t even stand up, I can’t do anything, I’m at the end of my rope, I’m tired […] Is that what our country has become?” he confides to a friend several hours before losing, in the emergency room, his wife’s brother, a journalist assassinated in front of his house. “Stay with me,” he says as he runs beside the stretcher calling for help, “Breathe, breathe.”
The spasmodic breathing of Ramzy Bédia, provoked by the fear, effort, and pain that define his character, intensifies as the film progresses. He barely breathes in the car taking him to treat the rebel leader; he is running out of breath beside the leader’s bed as we hear the death rattle and as Bédia shouts to the leader’s comrades, “Give him some air, everyone get out!” Later, one of the policemen standing guard at the entrance to the hospital will be mortally wounded by a kamikaze attack and will die on the operating table despite the doctor’s exhausting reparatory manipulations. Asphyxia will ultimately directly threaten the doctor after his arrest. Tied to an old bedspring, he will be tortured by electroshock,6“A la gégène“: a slang term used in the military during the Algerian War designating the electrical generator used in electroshock torture. will attempt one last time to justify himself to a soldier who wants to know everything about the rebel leader the doctor has treated, and will nearly suffocate in his own tears, snot, and blood, all under the watchful gaze of an “angel of freedom” drawn on the wall by a previous prisoner—a prisoner who actually did time behind the bars of the decommissioned prison that Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche chose as the scene’s set, exactly as he chose a wing of an abandoned hospital in which to film Ramzy Bédia. Reality nestles in fiction, as is always the case in cinema, and particularly in Ameur-Zaïmeche’s films. One need only think about the sad state of French prisons, repeatedly denounced by the European Court of Human Rights, about the closing of French public hospitals, about the street patrols organized by the national anti-terrorist plan, which slip toward a dystopia that reminds us of the Algerian War and the dark decade. This descent “into hell” provokes an atrocious tightness in my chest. I am not attempting, any more than Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche does, to propose analogies between countries, situations, and histories. I simply see ghosts everywhere—and endless suffering.
A Film that “Gallops”
In Camargue, a landscape of marsh and wind, in the hut of a smuggler, who will dress his wounds and watch over him, the “doc” slowly recovers after having been left for dead on a trash heap. A friend comes to get him, but they are pursued by two masked men. The “doc” kills them before they can kill him. Then, he panics. He is panting in his friend’s car, who cannot calm him. He endlessly repeats that he has become a murderer. He, a doctor! Only when he is on board the immense red tanker that carries him out to sea will he finally calm down. Leaning against a railing, he inhales the marine air—and he exhales amidst spurts of laughter that mingle with tears of relief. For Ameur-Zaïmeche, this ending emerged as essential during the shooting of the film. In the initial version of the script, “the doctor,”7He remains unnamed in the script. We hear his name a single time in the film, spoken by those who arrest him, but nearly inaudibly. attempting to flee by car, gave up his last breath in the dust and rocks of a fatal accident. Thus Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche resisted his own script—and the violence that was sucking the breath out of his film. In rare moments of peace, which I have latched onto as I would a life raft, moments inhabited by animals—a flock of herons above a tree-lined valley after the operation on the rebel leader, flamingos pecking peacefully in the marsh, white horses galloping into the frame and surrounding the doctor—the camera nonchalantly follows their flow, almost regretting that it must leave the shot. In an interview given to YouTube’s The Festivals Channel, when Terminal Sud was shown at the Toronto festival in 2019, Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche insisted that he does not like to shoot a film simply to illustrate a script; rather, the shooting anticipates the gifts that life will bring to the film; it is a way of encountering the world. He also speaks of film editing as a moment when suddenly the film “begins to gallop.”
Does Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s cinema have an intimate connection with breathing? I remember breathless races in his first films: Kamel running with children to go fishing, and dashing into the woods to flee from the police who ultimately shoot him in Wesh, Wesh, qu’est-ce qui se passe (2002). In Bled number one (2006), I remember Louisa running around the small rural mosque seven times, a penitence imposed on her, and savoring a moment of grace with her cousin afterwards while she catches her breath. I also recall, in Dernier maquis (2008), a nutria that appears unexpectedly on the movie set (immediately integrated into the story). The animal falls into a pit in the garage, and the mechanics decide to carry it back to the river after they perceive the animal’s fear in the way it is breathing. In Histoire de Judas (2015), the wind exalts the soul of Judas, whom Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche portrays as Jesus’ most faithful companion, when Judas sees him, so beautiful, in his pearly white and ochre djellaba, on the summit of a hill, and declares that he is indeed the “son of light.” And then there is the “great wind that comes from the desert,” which scatters the petals and lifts curtains, accompanying Suzanne’s voice when she consoles her daughter (the adulterous woman) and evokes the day her daughter was conceived in her “in a room flooded with light.” In Les chants de Mandrin (2011), a young woman on horseback rides through the sequence in the smugglers’ encampment. She will not say a word—her link to the gang remains unexplained.8She was, in fact, the owner of the horses that are seen in the film and gave Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche and the actors riding lessons. The film accepts her presence, a silhouette in movement, the noise of hooves, for no other reason than to welcome within itself the precious image of such a convergence.9 When the sensations of the horse and its rider resonate, “on parle alors d’isopraxie (même gestuelle) (Barrey et Lazier, 2010; P. McLean, 1990) et d’isoesthésie (même sensibilité). Cette résonance, conséquence des neurones miroir (Rizzolati et Sinigaglia, 2008), permet une communication extrêmement fine et immédiate et explique la tendance du cheval à s’accorder au bouquet de sensations dues au corps à corps avec le cavalier (Barrey et Lazier, 2010).” [“we can speak of isopraxia (matching gestures) and isoesthesia (matching feeling). This resonance, created by mirror neurons, allows an extremely detailed and immediate communication, and can explain the tendency of the horse to match the bundle of sensations caused by the closeness of the rider.”] Watching her go by, we seek from afar to match our breathing to that of the woman and her mount. Even the film itself, which has interrupted the flow of its own narration to make room for her, thus appears to be allowing itself a moment to catch its breath.
The Camargue and its herds of white horses, the noise of their hooves on the sand, the warm air of their nostrils that one can almost feel on one’s skin just looking at them, the final shot of the sea: Terminal Sud transports me back to Crin Blanc (Lamorisse, 1953), to a memory of both childhood and breathing. The quivering respiration of Folco, the little hero of the film who lives in the marshes, when he sees the stallion for the first time; his suspended respiration when the stallion escapes the herdsman by breaking down the door of the enclosure that held him prisoner; and how Folco holds his breath to approach the horse through the grass, while the wind blows through both his ragged clothes and the horse’s mane; how his respiration meshes with Crin Blanc’s as he rides through the dunes to escape their pursuers, at one with the animal’s body. But also, my own respiration, which is interrupted when Folco, gripping the horse’s mane, disappears into the tumultuous waters of the delta to escape the herdsmen. Even as the voice-over says that the white horse is carrying Folco “to a marvelous country where horses and men are always friends,” this does little to console the child viewer that I am. They are going to drown, I am suffocating. How can I accept the fact that death is the only country where one can be saved from human wickedness? I’m angry with the filmmaker and the scriptwriter who want to sell me such rubbish.
When he presented his film at the Toronto festival, Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche said he was “moved and outraged” by a violence that was rotting the world. Ransom, threats, attacks, murders, torture everywhere. Whatever the case may be, the difference between isolated attacks, precarious equilibria, and rapid tipping points is lessening. From that point of view, Terminal Sud fits the moment. Then he explained that his anger was “positive.” In fact, his film takes us out of hell without pretending to deliver us from it. He simply offers a way of “catching our breath” by interrupting the mechanical causality of the chain of acts of death that compose his script. He is trying to incarnate something else, perhaps the animus/anima that causes the swerving of atoms according to Lucretius—and which sees to it, distributed in every desiring and thinking being, that they do not crash into and annihilate each other. Elizabeth de Fontenay reminds us that anima and animus come from the Greek anemos, “wind current, air, breath, vital principle” (167). Animus designates the “spirit” and anima the “soul” (168), which animate all bodies, including animals. She adds that in Lucretius, the horse serves as the metaphor that expresses them. For Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, it is a film which gallops toward the sea.
Terminal Sud does not end with an image of death. Nor does the sea embraced by the filmmaker in his final shot represent an elsewhere to which one could flee to escape the violence of men, as is the case in Crin blanc. This long final shot seems to me to be the key for a type of cinema that would be shamanic, seeking the secret to healing in nature. It’s the last in a series of shots that already attempted to frame the wind, silence, the discreet presence of plants and animals. The final shot is taken from the boat carrying the doctor away. In the image, the port’s docks create a sort of door onto the open sea and disappear in a traveling movement forward. The sea is flat. The outlines of three ships can be seen, seemingly immobile in the evening sky. The shot lasts nearly two minutes,10From 1:27:25 to 1:29:10. long enough to disassociate it from the character’s gaze. On the soundtrack, four female a cappella voices begin singing a lullaby,11“Lille Lame,” by the Swedish female folk vocal group Kraja. Women’s voices singing a cappella have always had a special importance in the films of Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche. which replaces the cries of seagulls and the thud of the boat’s engine. This is an invitation to plunge into the image, to open oneself up to the sparkling waves, to the water, the air, the light, which the film’s characters sorely missed—before the credits chase everyone out of the movie theater. The gentle and repetitive rocking of the frame creates an image that breathes and “brings attention back to the present by this anchoring in respiration” (Herbette and Guilmot 143).
In retrospect, this ending shot opens onto quite a different film, one I already detected in the careful sequence of the journalist’s burial, where, under the blazing sun, patient men bend down to dig and cover their friend’s grave, panting softly, where the women collect themselves in the shadows while singing and pouring water on their hands in a clear and sparkling stream. An intimate film, which began, in fact, in the very first film by the filmmaker, composed of “variations of intensities, sounds and luminosities,” “of pulsation, of rhythm.” I borrow these terms from Daniel Stern describing the experience of the newborn. And Raymond Bellour uses them to evoke, by analogy, the experience of infra-sensations the film image can provoke. The “vital affects” (Stern)12“On ne peut parler d’affect ou de niveau d’activation comme on parlerait d’éléments statiques. Il faut tenir compte de la courbe exprimant son déroulement dans le temps, avec des crescendo, decrescendo, explosion, atténuation, moment stationnaire, etc. Ces courbes expriment surtout des variations d’intensité dans le temps.” [“On cannot speak about affect or level of activation as static elements. One must account for that arc expressing their unfolding in time, with crescendo, de-crescendo, explosion, attenuation, stationary moment, etc. These arcs particularly express variations of intensity in time.”] we thus feel refer precisely to variations of intensity, a kind of respiration of forms, colors, sounds. How can we not link the perception of these variations to their effects on breathing? What appears suddenly takes our breath away, what explodes makes us stop breathing, what dwindles slows our breathing. We harken back to our very first experiences of life, replacing the pain of the first breath of air with the permanent scansion of breathing, carving out small pieces of presence in the world. The “vital affect” defines the present moment lived as such, on the order of three seconds, three seconds that also correspond to the respiratory cycle, but which interaction—or art—can prolong or shorten using voice, gesture, melodic phrase, or shot to elicit pairings. To pair mother with child, two human beings with each other, or a human with an animal, we need a sequence of present moments providing the possibility of “adaptive oscillations” that we all possess, to synchronize what breathes within us, to pair with each other through breathing. The last shot in Terminal Sud is thus not a symbol of flight (things are barely moving), but of a “meshing” through breathing between the human and the sea, the last chance given to the consciousness of the character, the viewer, and the filmmaker to recapture a modality of the present beneath the harsh line of the world’s violence.
Writing this article for the jubilee of SubStance made me engage in listening to your film breathe, dear Rabah. Then I scattered some words on paper to retrace the breath pairing that lives within the film—and is calming. I am thinking now about the past months since the film came out, about the tragedies and the caring that have exhausted us, about the violence that “moves and outrages,” about the natural disasters that loom. If the future resembles what we are making of the present, the script will be just as implacable as the one you wrote. Happily, you create a cinema that frees itself from what was pre-written. For all these films that bring the anima of the world into the image, as all your characters whose shy movements of body and gaze unfailingly reveal, I want to thank you.
- Bellour, Raymond. Le Corps du cinéma : hypnoses, émotions, animalités. POL / Trafic, 2009.
- Fontenay, Elizabeth de. Le silence des bêtes. 1988. Fayard, Le point, 2015.
- Herbette, Gwénola, and Patrick Guilmot. “Chapitre 5. Cheval et pleine conscience: éveiller les sens, apprivoiser les émotions, ancrer sa présence.” Pleine conscience et acceptation. Les thérapies de la troisième vague, edited by Ilios Kotsou and Alexandre Herren, Carrefour des psychothérapie, De Boeck Supérieur, 2011, www.cairn.info/pleine-conscience-etacceptation–9782804166137-page-141.htm
- Kuntzel, Thierry. “Le travail du film.” Communications, vol. 19, 1972, pp. 25-39.
- Stern, Daniel. “L’enveloppe prénarrative. Vers une unité fondamentale d’expérience permettant d’explorer la réalité psychique du bébé.” Récit, attachement et psychanalyse, edited by Bernard Golse, Érès, 2008, pp. 29-46, www.cairn.info/recit-attachement-et-psychanalyse–9782749203935-page-29.htm.