Posted by on October 17, 2014 in Blog

By Kristyn Acho
Fall Intern, 2014

In the history of the Algerian post-colonial struggle, Jamila Bouhired stands as one of the most striking and pervasive figures of the revolution. Bouhired, who was recruited by her brother to join the National Liberation Front (FLN) in 1956, was among several French-educated Algerian women who strategically donned the veil in order to carry bombs, money, or messages to different areas of Algiers. Bouhired was arrested in 1957 for carrying a bomb, but ultimately released due to pressure from international human rights groups and French intellectuals. Though she is a controversial figure for clear reasons, many modern feminist circles regard Bouhired as an iconic freedom fighter and a revolutionary woman.

Beirut-based female artist Marwa Arsanios was uniquely inspired by Bouhired’s story. She created a film titled Have You Ever Killed a Bear? or Becoming Jamila (2014), which is based on Bouhired’s life and the diverse cinematic and artistic representations of the contentious freedom fighter. Through the formative figure of Bouhired, the film seeks to look at the history of socialist projects, anti-colonial wars, and the ways in which these entities have both encouraged and relegated feminist projects. The film was recently shown at the New Museum in New York City as part of the “Here and Elsewhere” exhibit of Arab artists.

We spoke to Arsanios about her explorative project and the broader role of women in the Algerian war of Independence and the modern Arab world.

When did you first develop an interest in the Algerian anti-colonial struggle and the life of Jamila Bouhired?

When I was doing research in historical leftist publications from the 50s and 60s, I saw many mentions of her, and I started digging more into her life and the Algerian anti-colonial struggle, as she was its icon.

Can you explain why you chose Have You Ever Killed a Bear? or Becoming Jamila as the title of your film?

This came out of the process of writing. There is a whole story in the text that talks about an encounter inside a forest with animals, where she faces a bear and a group of dogs. It is a little bit of a surreal story, and I liked the idea that the title refers directly to the surreal story. But, also, the whole script is about an actress who is preparing herself to play Jamila’s role. So the whole script is about rehearsing a script and becoming someone else (Jamila) for the time of the film.

 In your video, you recreate a scene of a terrorist-bomb planting from the award-winning 1967 film Battle of Algiers. In the original film, Jamila and FLN female bombers don western clothing, leave the cloistered female sphere, and enter the Algerian streets to plant the devices. Why did you think it was important to recreate this scene?

It is a major revolutionary act that Jamila had taken part in. It was criticized a lot later, as she had planted the bomb in a cafe between civilians. And I myself in the script critique this act as well. We should also mention that it was the first historical act labeled as a "terrorist act" in the contemporary sense. So, historically, it is important to look at the movements of Jamila while she plants the bomb as historical gestures that led to other similar gestures. 

 Can you describe the ways in which the Egyptian cultural magazine, Al-Hilal inspired your film?

It was a major inspiration, as the whole idea came from there … I was very inspired by the language that was used.

Why do you think women were featured so prominently on the covers of Al-Hilal magazine during the 1950s and 1960s?

Well I guess for marketing purposes … many modernizing projects used women's images for self-promotion.

 In what ways has researching Al-Hilal magazine and the life Jamila Bouhired impacted your views on feminism in today’s Arab world?

Al-Hilal was nationalized during Nasser, so it really represented state policies. I guess women's liberation was part of this state project and it was circulated by Al-Hilal. I am definitely not an admirer of state projects, rather [I am] very critical of them, especially when they are using feminism or women's liberation, as they are always voices of patriarchal structures that should first of all question that. 

For more information on Marwa Arsanios and her film, visit her website

Photo Courtesy of New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley.