Classic Arabic film Omar Gatlato with director Merzak Allouache

Claudia Jubeh and Rabih El-Khoury introduced the audience to Omar Gatlato, a classic of Arab cinema. Claudia Jubeh emphasized how happy the team was to finally be able to show a reconstructed version of the film in Berlin. Director Merzak Allouache, who attended the film screening, added how beautiful it is to ressurect movies that have almost been lost.

© Leena Kwideer

“Omar Gatlato – it means virility, masculinity and machismo” – The feature film from 1976, which revolves around the life of the young Algerian Omar, begins with these haunting words. Together with his family, the young man lives in apartment in the capital of Algiers which is much too small for them all. Omar is full of virility – his gestures, facial expressions and habits are so exaggeratedly male that the audience can’t keep themselves from laughing. Omar constantly has a comb with him to ensure his hair is perfectly in place at all times. Omar’s social life also takes place in a genuinely male space. Women are seen, if they are not part of the family, only from afar. Omar’s great passion is music, and he’s obviously proud of his tape recorder and a small selection of cassettes, which he calls his sweetheart. He has a particular weakness for Bollywood music, which he even secretly records in the movies – “If I were a woman, I would cry when I hear it,” says Omar, as he raves about that music. When his recorder is stolen during a raid one day, Omar is devastated. Fortunately, his friend Moh soon gets him a new device which contains a mysterious cassette. On the cassette, Omar hears a calm woman’s voice, which completely enchants him. Almost as if she had spoken to him directly, Omar longs to meet the woman from the cassette in person and searches for her. After finding out her phone number and finally talking to her, he literally dances with joy. However, when he has the chance to meet the woman on the tape and she is only a few feet away, he defeats himself. Feeling insecure around expectations of masculinity and his relations with women, Omar can not speak to Selma, the woman from the cassette.

Although Omar’s masculinity and associated difficulties seem to be one of the main themes of the film, director Merzak Allouache explained in the Q&A session that this was not his intention. Allouache’s idea was to portray a certain generation of a neighborhood in Algiers. One quote from Omar, right at the beginning of the film, sums this up: “Though based on reality, not based on reality”. Although the film is fiction, the life and problems of that generation are not completely fictitious.

Since the director himself had been socialized as male and knew life as a man in Algeria, it had been obvious to create a man as a protagonist. Since women and men in Algeria lived largely in separate spheres, Allouache found it difficult to take a woman’s perspective. Ultimately it was important to him to show the simple aspects of a man’s life and not to create a very intricate story about Omar. Nonetheless, the film does show that Omar, who is symbolic of the Algerian man, finds it difficult to approach women in Algeria. Most of the time he only encounters them behind windows, like the beautiful Zheira, whom he watches daily or on cassettes, like Selma – but they are not part of everyday life.

The film was shown many times in Algeria, the first audience was the Ministry of Culture. This brought  the film a lot of praise, since it is finally an Algerian movie that does not deal with war and liberation. The Ministry did not understand the name Gatlato, which means “you killed him”. They also, the ministry has come to terms with the large amount of beer that is consumed in the film.