We hardly ever get to watch true epic blockbusters from the MENA. And when you factor in a woman-centric story, based on a legend originating from a real courageous, no nonsense queen, the figures get even smaller.
But Algerian wife and husband team Adila Bendimerad and Damien Ounouri seem to have created the impossible: a feminist, epic, blockbuster film which features an Algerian story and plays out as a kind of MENA Game Of Thrones. Actually, make that a Shakespearean feel, complete with five acts, evil villains drawn in shades of grey and damsels who aren't at all what they seem. Not to mention, the duo manage to reclaim Algeria's history which has succumbed to the tales of colonialism, which as Ounouri mentions in our interview, tried to erase it by saying nothing existed before the French.
The result, of course is visually stunning and a cinematic adventure which compels the viewer to find out more -- more about the spellbinding Queen Zaphira, more about the polyglot pirate Aruj Barbarossa, but also more about where women stood in society in 16th century Algeria. The film propelled this writer to do a bit of research on Sufi scholar Sidi Abdul-Rahman, whose name is mentioned in passing in the story. And when a work of art allows room for learning and enlightening, it is always a good thing.
I caught up with the extraordinary couple in Venice, at the site Giornate degli Autori had designated for interviews, overlooking the iconic Venetian architecture just over the canals, which I imagined played its part in the story at large. Bendimerad had given birth only six days before to a beautiful baby, and yet not even the miracle of life had stopped her from coming to the Lido to promote the film. It seems the Queen and the actress who makes her come to life on the big screen also share an otherworldly strength between them.
If you get a chance to watch The Last Queen, do, without hesitation. It will delight your visual sense but also provide you with a bit of education along with your entertainment. The main thing one takes away from the film is a commentary on the great power of women within the MENA region. And how some have tried to silence that idea, all around the world.
Why did you choose to make this film, together?
Adila Bendimerad: We choose to tell Zaphira's story, because throughout the centuries many historians have either claimed she existed or she did not exist. I was wondering why so many wanted her to exist, but also so many wanted her not to exist -- to erase her life. She was very different, because she wasn't a woman with military power, she held no weapon. She was just a woman, with her fears, she was not a big heroine.
Also, we really wanted to go into this period, because in Algeria we always talk about colonialism, and we wanted to go into the 16th century, and find the pleasure to make cinema like a piece of Shakespeare, classical and historical, to give to the Algerians. We don't have that and it is both historically and politically important to feel that we existed before.
Damien Ounouri: It's a moment in history when the center of the world was the Mediterranean sea. And the relationship with France is quite complicated and a lot of French politicians like to say that before France in Algeria there was nothing. So for me it's very important to say "no guys, there was a big history and colonialism tried to erase it." It's a political gesture.
Bendimerad: It's always very painful to find out that Algerians known nothing about their history and they don't know where they came from. Even now, we feel it every day.
It is interesting that here in Venice, modern audiences find the film relatable as an Arab world Game of Thrones.
Ounouri: We hadn't watched Game of Thrones when we started the project, we only started at their sixth season. At the time, we weren't being fashionable, we just said we wanted to do a period drama, Shakespearean, and people would ask "why such a classical film?" And we would answer, this kind of history did not exist, we don't have an Algerian Shakespeare. We want to put that on the big screen for our audiences.
What was your research like, since the film feels authentic, yet there couldn't have been a lot of material available for you to reconstruct the period in Algeria, including the interiors and the costumes?
Ounouri: There were three layers of research: the historical research, the costumes, and the set research. In the historical research we had to mix information from Turkey, Italy, Spain and Algeria, to cross information because at this time it was a very "partisan" history, so we had to compare the facts. And after we had to do a lot of work on the costumes and set design, because for example with the architecture, France during the colonization demolished eighty percent of the castles. To shoot the film we had to shoot in various cities and create a kind of puzzle -- Zaphira's castle, the room is in a Mosque from the 13th century, in the West of Algeria and the garden is in Algiers. It took two years of work with my set designer to put together.
Bendimerad: It was a conscious choice not to go into studios, we really wanted to use what we have in Algeria. It was very important for us to make it all in Algeria.
Ounouri: For the costumes it was also very specialized, we worked with Leyla Belkaïd, she is a fashion professor at Parsons in NYC. We started from her work, she also wrote a book, and after our costume designer Jean Marc Mireté worked very closely with Adila, for nearly a year and a half. We looked at paintings, drawings and some books where there are descriptions of the clothing from that era.
For the Queen Zaphira we just have her legend, and for Barbarossa, we have a statue in Algeria. Those were our starting points.
I loved that your characters live in shades of grey -- it's not about who is good and who is evil in the film.
Bendimerad: That is against the way we are taught history in Algeria. In school in Algeria when they teach you history they say, "this is wrong, this is good" so this way of thinking we felt we needed. Instead, we need to realize that all the characters in the story are our forefathers, we come from them as a people.
Why do you think Zaphira's existence was mostly erased?
Ounouri: Because she is a woman -- first.
Bendimerad: And I think that this erasing is very common for women. I didn't know. And since I started being interested in Zaphira, I've become very sensitive to it. I discovered that women are always erased, even now, I see it. I think it comes from men who want to keep their privilege, place, castles and history. In the official history, even now, they talk about the wife of the king, without giving her a name. Sometimes they talk about her as a traitor, and you never know if the women are one or two.
Ounouri: In every country you have that -- when there is a strong woman.