Yema, by Djamila Sahraoui A magnificent act of defiance
In the face of repression, one of the most powerful acts of resistance is the pursuit of normality and the refusal to give into the chaos and paralysis that orchestrators of violence seek to infuse.
With Yema, Algerian filmmaker Djamila Sahraoui's second feature film after her acclaimed feature debut Barakat! (2008), the director continues to devote her extraordinary sensitivity and talent to the theme of women and resilience in repressive times.
Ouardia (played by Sahraoui) has lost two sons to the violence that has ravaged the nation for decades. Tarik - her favourite and a military officer - was killed in the guerrilla war between Islamist and government forces. Her other son Ali left home to fight with the Islamist forces.
Ouardia's suspicion that Ali had a hand in the killing of his brother leaves them unable to communicate, other than through accusations and elaborate ways to cause each other pain.
Ouardia lives as a prisoner in an isolated house in the Algerian countryside, where an Islamist fighter incapacitated by an explosion is watching over her at her son's orders. The mutual resentment of the soldier, who would rather fight a war, and the grieving old woman, is manifested in wordless and petty showdowns. Their monotony and solitude is only interrupted by Ali's irregular and unsettling visits.
Her daily routine of tending to her garden keeps Ouardia's fear and grief at bay. It also allows her to perform a magnificent act of defiance, which is to give and nurture life in a political and geographical landscape of drought and destruction. These acts have a significant impact on herself as well as the soldier. Not in a miraculous or earth-shattering way, but enough for them both to hold on to what remains of their humanity and maybe even restore some.
In a confident cinematic language and deliberate rhythm, Sahraoui skilfully plays with architecture and geography to reflect the austerity and isolation, as well as fluctuations in mood and relationships. Situated in a volatile no man's land between warring sides, Ouardia's home is both a protecting but limiting fortress and a sanctuary to which the guard and Ali can be invited or denied access.
Sahraoui in the role of Ouardia reflects similar dualities with her measured acting and vulnerable yet forceful figure engaged in constant and resolute action.
Djamila Sahraoui thankfully refrains from teaching moral or political lessons. Instead she merely reminds us that regardless of the level of oppression, there is almost always room for agency to be exerted in the form of minor action or thought. Perhaps she is also suggesting that liberation begins with individuals rather than revolutions.