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Rock the Casbah

In her documentary El Gusto, Safinez Bubeh reunites 40 Algerian musicians—Jews and Muslims—who had not played together in decades. It’s a Buena Chaabi Social Club…

Tribeca: Tell us a little about El Gusto. How do you describe the movie in your own words?

Safinez Bousbia: El Gusto is the story of a group of musicians who learned this popular music Chaabi in the 1940s in the Musical Conservatory of Algiers. In the mid-1950s, the War of Independence took off, and these musicians were obliged to stop playing music, and their friendships were torn apart because they were forced to take sides in the war. Soon after came the independence, and the Jewish musicians left, and the Muslim musicians that remained were moved to the outskirts of Algiers. And from there, their lives were kind of put on hold.

I met one of the musicians in 2003 by pure coincidence, through the process of buying a mirror. And basically, I decided to help him find his friends. From there, we formed an orchestra, and the orchestra started playing again.

Tribeca: So you really just stumbled upon them? Did you know anything about the music beforehand?

Safinez Bousbia: Not at all! I am originally Algerian, but I never lived there. I left at the age of 8 months. In 2003, I went to Algiers with an Irish friend—I was an architect in Ireland, doing a master’s in architecture—when my Irish friend said, “Oh, come on, we’ve been to Morocco, to Tunisia, and we don’t know the country of your origin.” So we decided to go discover the city. And just like any other tourists, we walked through the Casbah, and we saw this mirror hanging outside a shop. We went in to buy the mirror, and we found out that the mirror maker was a musician. And as it shows in the film, he showed me black and white photographs.

At the beginning, my idea was not to make a film. It was purely just—I just met this old man, he’s lost all his friends, and I understand that life in Algiers is very complicated. You can’t really get around the city very easily—there’s no public transport. So I said, “Why don’t you look for your friends? I’ll help you out and try to find them.” The idea wasn’t to make a film.

It took me about 2-3 years to find them all, and it’s when I found them that I thought, My God, they have an incredible story to be told. So I contacted producers and directors, whomever I was able to get my hands on. They really thought the project was great, but it was not commercial—it was too risky, and very difficult to recoup on, so no one really went for it. At the time I was living in Ireland, and I sold my house and my jewelry and I opened up a production company, and I invested in the movie. That’s how it took off.

El Gusto

Tribeca: So you were not a filmmaker before in any way?

Safinez Bousbia: No, I was an architect! But I was very well surrounded—there were a lot of people who worked on this movie; it wasn’t just me. It was eight years, as well—we had to not only work on the production, the writing, the directing of the film. But I had to rehearse an orchestra, I had to become their manager, I had to produce their music album, and I had to produce a music tour…

Tribeca: The instruments are so beautiful, and so is the music, and so is the Casbah. How did you develop your eye for film, and what did you like most about filming your subject?

Safinez Bousbia: Although I haven’t done any film, I’ve been doing a lot of art in general—painting, photography. It’s true that the subject that I had had amazing faces, very expressive, very emotional. The beauty of the city helped as well—the architecture, the colors, the light—I was quite spoiled. The people are so interesting, the instruments, as you said, the music. I had about 200 hours of footage.

Tribeca: And for you as an architect, the Casbah must have been especially rich.

Safinez Bousbia: It’s true. The city is structured like a labyrinth. It’s really, really cool, architecturally.

Tribeca: It’s so inspiring to hear the men focus on the similarities between the Jewish and Muslim cultures, and to see them united through their shared musical history. What do you want audiences to take away from your film?

Safinez Bousbia: In France, a lot of journalists wrote about El Gusto as a beautiful project of reconciliation, but I always say that I didn’t reconcile these men—they never lost their friendships, they never fought; they just lost touch. They were always friends. For me, it’s very important to highlight that, because when there was a division between the Jews and the Muslims and Algeria, that was an act of the state, the government, the system—and not by the people.

When I was walking down the street, I would cross the path of many Algerians from different classes and backgrounds, and I would tell them what I was doing. The reactions of the older generation were like, “Oh, the Jewish people were our neighbors, we lived together. They were our friends!” But the younger generation—I would say up to age 20—I was shocked to learn that they had no idea; they never realized that Jews ever lived in the Casbah. It seems like this generation of Algerians has been brought up with no diversity at all, and they don’t know much about the other cultures. It’s a shame.

El Gusto

Tribeca: As a first-time filmmaker, what’s the biggest lesson you took from the experience? Do you want to keep making films?

Safinez Bousbia: Yes, I am preparing my next film. People tell me I’ve given these musicians the gift of their lives, and I always say they did the same for me. I was never a very happy architect; I’m a much happier filmmaker.

Filmmakers need patience. [laughs] This job really requires a lot of patience, because everything takes ages and ages and ages to get done—especially to get funding. The fun part of it is so short, and you spend your time waiting. So don’t give up.

Tribeca: What’s your next project about?

Safinez Bousbia: It’s about single mothers. Everyone always said that El Gusto had no women in it, and the new project has only women. [laughs] It’s a narrative—a thriller!

Tribeca: What are you most looking forward to at Tribeca?

Safinez Bousbia: I am very delighted to be connected. It’s a great Festival, with a great slate. I’m very happy that I am able to screen my film there, because it’s the first screening in North America, and I am curious to know how people will react to the film. I am also looking forward to discovering new films and filmmakers, and enjoying New York.

Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?

Safinez Bousbia: Kubrick. I just love the fact that he has such a diversity of subjects in the same visual style. I love how he explores things in such depth, and I love the complexity of his characters. I am a huge fan of his work. My favorite is A Clockwork Orange.

Tribeca: What makes El Gusto a Tribeca must-see?

Safinez Bousbia: It’s a very strong film, emotionally; that’s what I’ve noticed at screenings around the world. People really sob, they cry! They feel an empathy with the musicians, and then they come out with a huge smile. It’s a feel-good movie. It’s also a good portrait of modern Algerian/French history; it tells the story of a city from the 40s up to the modern day.

Safinez Bousbia was born in Algeria and educated in Switzerland, the UK, and the UAE. She worked as an architect before making films, including the documentary X-Kids (2004), through her Dublin-based Quidam Productions. She collaborated with Damon Albarn to produce the El Gusto orchestra's first album.


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