ENG - Summary of my work

Erasure. That’s the word that came to mind and the source of the hollow unease I always felt when asked about my Algerian heritage. I am not the only one. There are so many people like me, in France, in Algeria, in the US and around the world, who question their past, or that of their parents, ancestors, and all those who were once colonized. So many of them ask questions that simply echo back from the void. Like me, they seek to under- stand their past - no matter how painful it may be - in order to be at peace with their identity in the present. So many of them search and find nothing but typical answers that lock them in fictive narratives frozen in time and swallow them in shallow yet cavernous collective identities that erase the plurality of experience that is fundamental to our individual sense of self.

I grew up in France with the sensation that my Algerian cultural and political heritage had been erased and suppressed. My father, an exiled Algerian filmmaker, never spoke about his home country and did not — could not — pass on his own language, culture and memories to his daughters. I was always curious about Algeria as a country, but my father did not discuss his past or talk about our Algerian and Kabyle heritage. I satisfied my curiosity about my paternal roots through higher education and subsequent work in the French diplomatic service, film and journalism.

Having completed a degree in international relations and Arab studies at Sciences-Po in Lyon in 2007, I headed to Cairo to perfect my Arabic at the French Department of Contemporary Arabic Studies. From there, I joined the French diplomatic service and was posted to the Consulate General of France in Jerusalem in September 2008 as a press officer and assistant to the Vice-Consul, in roles that took me regularly to the West Bank and Gaza. There, I drafted reports on political and humanitarian issues such as Palestinian politics and settlement activities in East-Jerusalem and in the West Bank for the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs in Paris and its diplomatic representations worldwide, I attended military trials in Jerusalem and the West Bank to document the trials based on facts and ensure all the laws and proper procedures were followed, I assisted in press relations with French correspondents and Palestinian journalists, including assisting with press visit logistics during presidential, ministerial and high-ranking official visits and was responsible for developing the website's design, content and managing the structure and editorial process.

While I was in Jerusalem, I began reflecting on how colonial systems work and how they damage the psyche. I became interested in the indigenous forms of cultural expression, political organization, and governance that resist such systems. I left this post in June 2010 on a Fulbright scholarship to complete a Master of Arts in Arab Studies at Georgetown University. There, I worked as a research assistant to Dr John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) and took classes in English and Arabic, focusing on the contemporary history of the region. In one of these, History of Colonial North Africa, I was able to excavate the colonial past of France in Algeria and explore my father’s traumatic story. Had I not studied in the US supported by postcolonial scholars in history, I would not have initiated the following foundational work.

Around that time, my father presented me and my sister with a documentary film project entitled “Lettre à mes filles” (“Letter To My Daughters”). It included a brief handful of paragraphs in which he described his childhood in Algeria during the 1954-62 War of Independence. I discovered that my father had grown up in the Kabyle village of Mansourah in eastern Algeria, a hotbed of insurrection

At the time, I started investigating. I was ready to confront the wounds of my father after this long detour to join him on his island of exile and silence.

- “Dad, what were these resettlements?”!"

- “It’s what led to a life ruined by war that gave us the right to a wandering life of roaming and migration. You will find there the sources of today’s terrorism”

During the war, many indigenous villages were emptied under the French military’s resettlement policy. This policy forced some 3 million people, roughly half of the rural population, out of their homes, with many of them resettled by the French army in often overcrowded, unsanitary camps. It is one of the darkest and least documented episodes of France’s rather well-documented colonial history in Algeria. It is through this violent, silent, yet not forgotten experience of forced displacement of millions of Algerian civilians that I first came into contact with my father’s concealed personal past, the uncovering of which would occupy much of the next decade of my life.

In 2019, my first feature film called “In Mansourah, You Separated Us”, was released. Using the methodology of ethnographic immersion to understand the struggles of resettled indigenous communities, the film intersperses footage of my father as he revisits the family home in Mansourah for the first time in five decades with recollections from other villagers about the French suppression of the local population. In a beautiful account of the film, Myriam Amri, a Tunisian researcher and visual artist, PhD candidate in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, wrote « the film excavates silences. Protagonists laugh, hesitate, shy away from the camera. We hear the director herself stumbling at times around the questions she’s asking in French and that her father, Malek, translates back into Algerian dialect, often modulating the meaning based on his own relationship with the person they’re speaking to. In this memory-work, intimacy is the instrument as Malek takes us around the places of his own past, like the room where he was once cramped with entire families of displaced people. In a scene in that room, he places a picture of his mother against the wall, as his fingers pass onto the uneven lime covering the walls. In that gesture, where the room becomes the conductor of memories, we witness both the impossibility of forgetting one’s past and the trauma of conjuring it. »

The film was coproduced in France (les films du Bilboquet), Algeria (HKE) and Denmark (Sonntag). It came to life thanks to the support of several funds, including the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) in Beirut, the Center for National Cinematography (CNC) in Paris, the International Media Support (IMS) in Copenhagen. The film was premiered at the Film Festival Visions du Réel in Switzerland and was selected in many film festivals, including the international documentary film festival in Amsterdam (IDFA) and les Journées Cinematographiques de Carthage in Tunisia. It received several awards, including the Human Rights Award at Fidadoc in Agadir in 2020 and the Étoile de la Scam by the French civil society of multimedia authors in 2021. The film ranked among the region's top films of 2019, by film critic Joseph Fahim. The film is now distributed by Icarus films, a US based company whose catalog presents what the New Yorker describes as “politically progressive films and aesthetically advanced ones.”

As the film traveled the international festival circuit, I met other women filmmakers from the Middle East, North Africa and the diaspora. Very often, directing and producing independent films can be a lonely, isolating and draining experience, both financially and emotionally. And making films in a region of unrest, conflict and upheaval can only amplify this experience. As a result, emerging female filmmakers often don’t make it to their second or third films. Without intervention, these voices will be lost. In 2020, nine of us from Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Libya founded the collective “Rawiyat”, meaning storytellers in Arabic. Rawiyat, that I currently preside, started as discussions to share our experiences and challenges during our first and second feature films. All of us felt a lack of a network and solidarity, not only in the region but globally. We felt a need to change this, through a sisterhood that not only supports us as filmmakers but also supports others. By creating an accessible network and structure across the region to be passed on to the next wave of regional talents who hope to make sustainable change. We also felt the need for collective critical engagement, reframing of language and challenging the power dynamics as we commit to these stories.

Since the creation of the collective Rawiyat in 2020, we have been able to implement actions enabling the collective to be identified and visible to our peers, partners and the industry. We've innovated by offering women filmmakers from the MENA region and the diaspora multi-faceted, sometimes audacious, always caring support. We have also learned to work together within the collective, between founding members and new collaborators, despite COVID and the commitments of each. For instance, we created a range of media and online spaces dedicated to women directors. Our Facebook page (1200 followers) and our Instagram profile (900 followers) are becoming increasingly active. There, we assiduously relay the opportunities available to the community (funds, training, residencies, festivals, etc.), the achievements of Arab women filmmakers, as well as the awards and acclaim their work has garnered. All our publications are trilingual (Arabic, English, French). In partnership with festivals, we also selected projects from women filmmakers who could benefit from mentoring to take their projects to the next level. At the Cairo Film Festival 2022, Rawiyat presented its second award to the documentary film project "Let's Play Soldiers" by Mariam Al Dhubahni (Yemen). The award consisted of a series of consultations on her project. The need was mainly for moral support and mentoring on the film's dossier, teaser and first cut. This support evolved into more occasional consultations on the film's promotional tools and legal aspects.

We are now developing a new workshop to explore the bounds and limits of creative energy, unearth the source of our creative contractions, and finally work somatically with those contractions to open them, release them, move through them, ultimately creating more room/space for creative energy, power, and vision to flow. We started working with Iman Boundaoui, who I had met in Gabes Cinema Fen festival in Tunisia. Boundaoui is a social justice litigator, life and career coach, embodied transformation teacher and somatic practitioner in leading a coaching and consulting career focused on embodied leadership, embodied justice and equity, personal and career transformation, and trauma-healing. At the heart of her holistic approach to transformation and healing is an unwavering belief in every single human’s potential to envision new possibilities, overcome historical, transgenerational and personal obstacles and traumas, and cultivate and embody the skills needed to chart a new future.

In parallel to my work in the film industry, I continued to work in journalism in French, English and Arabic on the MENA region, for France 24, Arte, le Monde, France Culture, Orient XXI etc... In June 2016, I notably uncovered in the French newspaper Le Monde the scandal of the French company Lafarge indirect funding of the Islamic State (IS) group during the war in Syria. This work was rewarded with the TRACE International Prize for Investigative Reporting, which recognizes reporting that uncovers bribery and transparency in the business world, equal-first with the International Consortium of Journalists which revealed the Panama Papers, an unprecedented leak of 11.5m files from the database of the world's fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca. Following this investigation, Sherpa and ECCHR filed a lawsuit against Lafarge, together with 11 former employees of Lafarge in Syria. In June, 2018, Lafarge became the first company to be indicted on charges including complicity in crimes against humanity, financing of a terrorist enterprise, and endangering the lives of others, following a request from the Public Prosecutor. In October 2022, in a separate proceeding in the United States, Lafarge agreed to pay a $778 million fine after pleading guilty to providing material support to Islamic State and other terrorist groups.

In addition to investigative reporting in the written press, in 2020, I also created a radio podcast for French national radio France Culture about the present consequences of silenced Algerian uprootedness. The podcast narrates my intimate journey through the silenced past of forced resettlement during the war in Algeria and how this still unresolved colonial conflict continues to haunt France and Algeria, an uncanny reminder of what needs to be told. In this series, I also investigate the long term consequences of massive forced displacement, asking what is the link between jihadist Salafism and uprooting. In 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) came first in the first round of the first multi-party legislative elections in Algerian history. But the government canceled the electoral process, for fear of seeing the Islamists come to power. Algeria then descended into civil war, pitting armed Islamists against the Algerian state. This war caused the deaths of nearly 200,000 people. Among these Islamists engaged in an armed struggle against the State, the GIA established itself in the agricultural plain of Mitidja, one of the most populated places in Algeria. It is in this area, nicknamed the “triangle of death” during the civil war, that massacres of civilians – attributed to GIA terrorists – were perpetrated. It is also in this region that the French army massively resettled rural populations during the war of independence, and where the experiment of socialist villages was then carried out, in1965, causing a profound restructuring of the Algerian peasant identity. According to a researcher, met discreetly in Algiers, the GIA recruited many of its fighters in the former socialist neighborhoods and former camps in this region. Why ? Certainly, the scholar replied, because the GIA offered a noble place in history, that these uprooted people and their descendants no longer had.

While in Algeria, working on my podcast, I also covered the revolutionary politics in Algeria for the newspaper Le Monde and started thinking of writing a book. Between France and Algeria, in a constant back and forth, I immersed myself in memories of untold uprootedness lived by those who experienced it and their descendants, and grew feelings of being enclosed, isolated, and hurt by this past that remains denied. I came to mourn and accept what was devastated and lost and choose life over death. The resulting work is a book, in which I narrate how, as the daughter of an Algerian director from Kabylia and a French native of the upper classes, I have carried within myself and in my name the clear signs of conflicting discourses and enforced silence about the history of France’s fraught relationship with Algeria. Though I was born long after the violence that accompanied the last years of more than a century of French rule in Algeria, I experienced its history through the disturbing emptiness of the silence that hung over our family.

Below is a short summary of the book Nancy-Kabylie that was published in October 2023 by Grasset, one of France’s leading publishing houses. « From Nancy where Dorothée grew up, via Egypt, Palestine and the United States, she travelled to better anchor herself. In this very personal book, she goes back in time, when her parents knew and loved each other in Algiers. She also evokes her childhood, her dual culture, the strength and the tensions it creates. The weight of silence as a legacy: war, resettlement camps... With her father, she returns to the scene of this traumatic story: a house, a tree, witnesses from that time will make it resurface. Father and daughter make a film of it, and thus repair the offense. The book is an essay mixing genre and methodology : Investigation, intimate story, reflection on history, memory, identity and transmission, initiatory journey, tribute to my father and his country : this first text by Dorothée Myriam Kellou is unclassifiable and remarkable for this very reason. It gropes, questions, recounts an Algeria that is sometimes painful, sometimes dreamed of, opening the way to appeasement and reconciliation. »

During the writing of my book, I also started working with the Museum of Fine Arts in Nancy and heritage curator Kenza-Marie Safraoui on a memorial stele project for the colonial statue of Sergent Blandan. The world watched the statue of slave trader Edward Colston be torn down in Bristol, before being thrown into the harbor during a Black Lives Matter rally, following the death of George Floyd in the United States. A sculpture representing a young black woman from the anti-racist movement, created by the artist Marc Quinn, was installed in place of the statue. One symbol chased another. A way of inviting the city to a general reflection on its history. Colston's statue is now on display at the Bristol City History Museum, with all the historical explanations necessary to understand it.

France will not dismantle its statues, President Macron declared. But the question of their destiny remains, because "a statue is not a history book, it is a trace of glory", analyzes Emmanuel Fureix, Professor of Contemporary History and specialist in the history of political cultures at the Nineteenth century. “Our statuary landscape corresponds to a vision of history and the great man which is no longer ours,” he adds.

In Nancy, the question arises with the statue of Sergeant Blandan, a historical figure (1819-1842) tied to the conquest of Algeria and to Marshal Bugeaud, who from the 1840s implemented a “scorched earth policy » with mobile military columns, “enfumades”, fires to asphyxiate men, women and children taking refuge in caves, raids and population regroupings. Mortally wounded during a fight against hundreds of Algerian horsemen in 1842 in Beni Mered, Blandan died a few days later in Boufarik. His death, interpreted as sacrificial by Bugeaud, was heroized. A monument was erected in his memory in 1887 in Boufarik. The statue was then transferred to Nancy, where the 26th Infantry Regiment was based when Algeria became independent. In 1990, it was moved out of the Thiry barracks to a public square, renamed Blandan. The ashes found in the base of the statue were transferred to the South cemetery of Nancy.

The statue of Blandan is my father’s ghost. He used to see it in Boufarik, located on the road from his village to Algiers. As a child, the statue of Sergeant Blandan terrified him. It crystallized his forced departure for the big city, the separation from his mother, brother and sister, it reminded him of the presence of the French occupation of Algeria. After contributing to the reflexion on the exhibition space : « Postcolonial stories : in the footsteps of Sergeant Blandan » at the Museum of Fine Arts in Nancy, that looked back on the colonial conquest of Algeria through the story of Sergeant Blandan, I am now exploring ways to contextualize the history and meanings of this statue erected in the public sphere.

While completing this personal and collective journey through the process of excavation of self, family and history, I felt the need to explore new themes. I have recently started a new column in the newspaper Le Monde under the pseudonym Ream Ka, exploring the sexual revolution currently happening in Africa. According to Camerounais philosopher Achille Mbembe, « the last quarter of the African 20th century was marked by a silent sexual revolution, unfortunately poorly documented.... It radically transformed – and for good – the way in which many Africans imagine their relationship to desire, the body, sex and pleasure. This sexual revolution took place in a context characterized by an unprecedented opening of African societies to the world. For example, today there is not a single African city where adolescents are not introduced to sexuality through pornographic videos. » To document this silent sexual revolution, we decided to create a space to articles written in the first person where African women and men engage in self-reflection about their sexual preferences and desires and reflect on their past experiences, fantasies, and interests.

In parallel to my production in the film and media industry, I have presented and discussed my work in more than 100 places around the world online and onsite.

Since 2021, I also work as an instructor of creative writing process. I am teaching creative writing techniques at the Training and Development Center for Journalists (Centre de Formation et de Perfectionnement des Journalistes) in Paris. I am also an instructor of radio documentary and podcasting. I teach podcasts tools, ideas and techniques to help students investigate and tell their own stories at the European Institute of journalism in Paris. In 2023, I also taught historical research methods and podcasts techniques to create a podcast on memories of the Algerian war in Nancy at ARTEM, a partnership between three institutions of higher education, the Nancy School of Art and Design (Ecole nationale supérieure d'art et de design de Nancy), the ICN Business School, and the Nancy School of Engineering (Mines Nancy).

In 2024, I received the Recanati-Kaplan Prize, an annual initiative from the Recanati-Kaplan Foundation, Villa Albertine, and the Institut du monde arabe, the Prize supports international artistic and intellectual exchange by recognizing a high-potential project from an outstanding cultural actor in the Arab world.