The Algerian Ministry of Culture

Why is the great director Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) making a state-sponsored biopic?

Graffiti of Algeria's President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or, Rhone-Alpes, France. Image: Thierry Ehrmann (via Flickr CC).

Most of you may know Charles Burnett for his brilliant films “Killer of Sheep” and “To Sleep With Anger,” among others. But now it has been announced that Burnett is teaming up with the Algerian Ministry of Culture and the American company Cinema Libre to make a film focusing on the life of Algerian leader and national hero, Abd El-Kader. Emir Abd El-Kader became known as the father of the modern Algerian state after uniting various factions and leading the resistance against the French colonial invasion in the mid-19th century.

This is not the first time the American director has worked with an African government to produce an official biopic. Back in 2007, Charles Burnett collaborated with the Namibian government on “Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation,” which told the story of Namibia’s first president, Samuel Nujoma and the nation’s fight for independence from South Africa. If his film on Namibia is any indication, those expecting a film of the same quality as “Killer of Sheep” will be sorely disappointed. By most accounts, “Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation” (check out the trailer here) was utterly frustrating, dry, and clocking in at an excruciating 161 minutes, better suited as a PBS miniseries. The film starred Danny Glover who, given his involvement in the Africa Liberation Support Committee in the 1970s, had a deeply personal connection to the Namibian liberation struggle. However, the film turned out to be a complete waste of his talent.

Moreover, one cannot avoid consideration of the fact that Algeria’s current government has a less-than-stellar reputation and a penchant for making its dissidents disappear. It makes you wonder what kind of message and nationalist narrative a film co-produced by the Algerian Ministry of Culture might convey. It also begs the question of what might be the motivation behind their collaboration with an American director and production company.

  • BTW, Algeria’s government is no stranger to collaborating with filmmakers. “Battle of Algiers” was a 1966 collaboration between the newly independent Algeria and the Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo. But that was a different time.

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