Zineb Sedira has outlined plans for her presentation at the French pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale (23 April-27 November), revealing that the project will focus on Algerian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s and its links to the Italian and French film industries. The subject matter is timely as 2022 is the 60th anniversary of Algeria achieving independence from France. On 5 July 1962, Algeria became a sovereign state after an eight-year war which resulted in the deaths of at least 400,000 Algerians.
Sedira is the first artist of Algerian descent to be selected as the country’s representative. Sedira, who was born in Paris to Algerian parents, attended college in London, completing her undergraduate studies at Central Saint Martins school of art. She is now based in South London.
Sedira revealed her ideas for the cinematographic installation Dreams have no titles in an online press briefing held 18 February, outlining how she initially researched the history of Algerian film for an exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2019. Her passion for cinema was sparked by childhood trips to the local cinema in the 1960s in her home town of Gennevilliers outside Paris (these film outings were made with her father every Thursday when school was closed).
This interest developed further during her time as a student in London. “As part of postcolonial studies, I came across [the philosopher] Frantz Fanon and [the 1966 film] The Battle of Algiers. In France, I never came across those people because The Battle of Algiers was still censored in France [in the late 1970s and early 1980s],” she said. “There were no intellectual role models to me of Algerian origin; in England, I discovered there was a wealth of [Algerian] men, women and filmmakers.”
For the pavilion piece, Sedira carried out research at the Cinémathèque in Algiers, discovering that many films financed by the state of Algeria at the time were also co-produced with Italian and French filmmakers. “So when I was asked to propose an idea for the French pavilion, I thought of the Mostra [Venice Film Festival]. I thought it was interesting to do something around the three countries,” she said. Sedira wants to focus on the cooperation between France, Italy and Algeria— and the solidarity between the trio of nations—though her Venice “project goes beyond that”, the artist stresses.
Sedira visited numerous film archives in Algeria, France and Italy as part of the research process. “In Italy, [we visited] Venice, Turin and Bologna. We discovered a film that had disappeared,” says Yasmina Reggad, the co-curator of the French pavilion, referring to Les Mains Libres made by the Italian director Ennio Lorenzini in 1964.
“It was the first international film collaboration between Algeria and another country [Italy],” said Sedira, but after 1966 Les Mains Libres was lost. She eventually found the forgotten work in a small archive in Rome. “It is an important film for anyone interested in post-1962 Algerian history,” she adds.
The French pavilion project aims to be a starting point for discussions on other topics such as colonialism, collective and individual histories, national identity and the fight against racism. “The notion of a nation begs to be critiqued and challenged. What is a nation at the end of the day? It is a big fiction to believe that when you draw a certain line, everyone who happens to be behind this line is of the same mentality and culture,” said Sam Bardaouil, the co-director of the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin along with Till Fellrath (the duo have also co-curated the French pavilion).
“In a sense, a pavilion is an attempt to give a physical form to a fiction, so to use fiction in the language of cinema as a way to critique nation and belonging is such an intelligent and timely way to discuss these issues,” Bardaouil said.
The three pavilion curators will participate in a film to be shown in the pavilion. “We’ll be turned into actors and actresses,” said Reggad. Bringing together an artistic community was paramount, added Sedira, who relished the opportunity “to work with friends, to be surrounded by friends”. The film production will also include members of the crew and her son. “I was playing on the aesthetic and structure in cinema in the 1960s in low-budget films when one would play many roles,” she said
The pavilion project will also include a “conversation” with the UK pavilion artist, Sonia Boyce, and the Swiss representative, Latifa Echakhch. “Sonia was my neighbour for many years and she taught me at one point when I was studying art in London,” said Sedira.
At the briefing, the curators also discussed the three accompanying journals linked to the pavilion project. Each issue refers to a city—Algiers, Venice, and Paris—that has played an integral part in Sedira’s practice. “The journal is an extension of what the project entails inside the pavilion. The cities mark the phases of Zineb’s life, they become entry points to questions that are related to the themes that will be discovered in the film and installation in the pavilion,” said Bardaouil. Contributors include the French artist Laure Prouvost and the actor Nabil Djedouani.“The journal has allowed for a diversity and plurality of voices,” Bardaouil added.
The journal design is based on film magazines of the 1960s and 1970s, added Reggad, and also borrows from militant leaflets of the era. The journals are “doors to an intellectual horizon [with] texts, images and playlists”, said Eva Nguyen Binh, the president of L’Institut Français which is supporting the pavilion. Other sponsors include Arts Council England and the dealer Kamel Mennour who represents Sedira.