It’s still too soon to predict a winner for the Golden Lion for best national participation, one of the Venice Biennale’s top awards, but it was clear earlier today that the French Pavilion had attracted significant attention within the exhibition’s first hours.
The pavilion is host to a new grouping of installations and a film by Zineb Sedira, who is the first artist of Algerian descent to represent the country. (Yasmina Reggad, along with the duo Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, curated the pavilion.) Perhaps fittingly, the Algerian independence movement of the 1960s forms the basis for her show, which is titled “Dreams Have No Titles.”
Sedira is specifically interested in the way that aspects of Algerian culture have been represented in film, in such works as The Battle of Algiers (1966) and Les Mains libres (1964/65). The former, by Gillo Pontecorvo, has justly won fame for its gripping depiction of the violence to which Algerians resorted in order to obtain liberation, but it was banned in France for several years until after its initial release. The latter, by Ennio Lorenzini, is a lesser-known documentary about the state of Algeria during the era; Sedira has been instrumental in the film’s recent restoration.
Both films figure in various works on display in this pavilion, the bulk of which is a series of installations resemblin sets from notable feature films. Inspired by a sequence from Luchino Visconti’s The Stranger (1967), an adaptation of the Albert Camus novel of the same name in which an Algerian clerical worker finds himself increasingly alienated, Sedira has installed a coffin in one gallery. A three-point lighting system is already set up—it’s camera ready.
Historically, works like these have aimed to showcase the artifice associated with cinema, a dream factory that has marketed lies to its viewers. Sedira’s newest works contain traces of that sentiment, but they are not quite so cynical in tone. If anything, they are joyous.
The first installation viewers see could very clearly be used as a set. It resembles an old-school bar from the postwar era, and swooning music that would have been contemporaneous to that time is piped in. (The reference point here is the locale from Ettore Scola’s 1983 film The Ball, which is set in a Parisian boîte.) Periodically, two performers—a man and a woman clad in black formalwear—mingle among visitors to the exhibition, at one point even dancing energetically before everyone.
The buoyant mood is also felt in the film that gives the pavilion its name, which is being projected in a theater made to resemble an old-school arthouse cinema, uncomfortable wooden chairs and all. In this gripping essay film, Sedira mulls the thin line between reality and fiction, and the potentially liberating potential in doing so.
At various points in this film, Sedira evokes the forms of restaging and re-creation that are broached elsewhere in the pavilion. She has an actress mimic a clip from The Battle of Algiers, and it quickly becomes unclear what is Sedira’s footage and what is Pontecorvo’s. She watches old films on her computer and appears to delight in doing so. She arranges miniatures based on sets in the movies she’s watching—and then, by way of some clever editing trickery, even appears to mingle among those tiny spaces herself.
Though an essay film, research-oriented narration and all, it never gets dry. If anything, it is rather forceful. Dreams Have No Titles proposes that solidarity is a powerful thing—Latifa Echakhch and Sonia Boyce, who are representing Switzerland and Great Britain at the Biennale, respectively, are among its cast members. It also proposes that remakes may be unoriginal, but they help us digest real-life events that are hard to process. Reggad, the pavilion’s co-curator, appears in the film herself, averring that the production of artworks like Sedira’s is “a way of persisting, a way of surviving, and a way of life” for people like her.
Sedira closes out the film on a positive note. As Charles Wright’s song “Express Yourself” plays, Sedira dances away. She continues to shimmy on as the credits roll.