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Charef, Mehdi 1952-

Charef, Mehdi 1952-


PERSONAL:

Born 1952, in Maghnia, Algeria; married, 1980; wife's name Latifa.

ADDRESSES:

Agent—c/o Adriana Chiesa Enterprises Srl, Via Barnaba Oriani, 24/A, 00197 Rome, Italy.

CAREER:

Writer, novelist, screenwriter, and movie director. Worked in factories for thirteen years.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Prix du Jeune Cinema Français, Prix Jean Vigo, and Award of Youth, all 1985, all for Le thé au harem d'Archimède; César Award, 1986, for Le thé au harem d'Archimède; Prize of the Ecumenical Jury—Special Mention, 1992, for Au pays des Juliets; Kodak Award, 2002, SIGNIS Jury Award, Milan African Film Festival, 2003, both for La Fille de Keltoum.

WRITINGS:


Le thé au harem d'Archi Ahmed, Mercure de France (Paris, France), 1983, reprinted, 1998, film version produced as Le thé au harem d'Archimède (title means "Tea in the Harem of Archimedes"), M&R Films/Cinecom (France), 1985; translation by Ed Emery published as Tea in the Harem, Serpent's Tail (London, England), 1989.

Le Harki de Meriem, Mercure de France (Paris, France), 1989.

La maison d'Alexina: a roman, Mercure de France (Paris, France), 1999.

FILMS


Miss Mona, AAA (France), 1987.

Camomille, K.G. Productions (France), 1988.

(Director, writer) Au pays de Juliets (title means "In the Country of Juliets"), Erato Films/CEC Rhone Alpes/FR3/Investimage 3/CNC/Canal Plus/Region Rhone Alpes (France), 1992.

(And director) La fille de Keltoum (title means "The Daughter of Keltoum"), Algeria, 2002, also released by First Run Features, 2006.

Also author of screenplay and director of the films Pigeon volé, 1996, Marie-Line, 2000; the segment "Tanza" for All the Invisible Children, (and director), MK Film Productions (France), RAI Cinema (Italy), 2005.

SIDELIGHTS:

Mehdi Charef, Algerian immigrant to France and one-time juvenile delinquent, found himself an overnight sensation after directing the film of his novel, Le thé au harem d'Archi Ahmed. He has followed this success with several other films and novels, most of which focus on the experience of poor immigrants in modern France and the difficulties of living between two civilizations.

Charef was born in Algeria in 1952. He recalls seeing people line up outside the cinema in the French quarter of his hometown in Algeria. One day when he was eight or nine years old, his older brother bought him a ticket to see a western, and he found it incredible; he has loved movies ever since. Charef's father left Algeria when his son was a small child, moving to France to do excavation work. Ten years later he sent for his family. His children grew up between shantytowns and cities of transit, and young Charef spent his teenage years in the slums on the periphery of Paris. He longed to write but did not have the time or the resources because he was forced to work in a factory to help support his family. Frustrated, he got into trouble with the police and went to prison. He left prison at the age of twenty and resolved never to return.

Charef went back to work in a factory but wrote in his free time. His novel, Le thé au harem d'Archi Ahmed, was the key to his success. This novel depicts life among the poverty-stricken immigrants in the Parisian slums, particularly the Beurs, or North African immigrants, who straddle both the French and Muslim cultures. The protagonist, Majid, is an unemployed Algerian immigrant in his early twenties. Thrown out of technical school, he has no education. He lives in a run-down slum that stinks of urine in the "zone," the steel and concrete housing projects around Paris. He feels displaced; he can no longer remember his Algerian home, but the French do not want him in their city. He and his friends spend their time doing nothing, building up anger and violence within themselves but feeling utterly impotent and isolated, which prevents them from aspiring to anything better. They accept their wretched lot because they do not know how to improve it. Majid and his friends drink, take drugs, and set fire to cars. Finally he runs into trouble with the law.

Majid blames his parents for his plight, for choosing to bring him to this country that does not want him, and refuses to take any responsibility for it himself. Majid makes fun of his mother because of her poor French; she in turn badgers him to find a job and criticizes his no-account friends. She herself is often called to intervene in the domestic crises of the French couple across the hall.

The story is semiautobiographical, and Charef brings to it an immediate understanding of the lives of his characters. He does not use a plot, but ties together the novel with a series of observations, bits of conversation, fleeting impressions, and quickly sketched portraits. His young characters, French and Beur, all share an inability to join mainstream society, and are all stricken by the desolate landscape in which they spend their time.

The name of the novel comes from a verbal misunderstanding made by an Algerian schoolboy. He is called upon to write the theorem of Archimedes on the blackboard. The French name for this theorem is "Le Théoreme d'Archimede." The boy has never seen these words written, only heard them uttered, and he writes the homophonic words "Le thé au harem d'Archi Ahmed," ("Tea in the harem of Archi Ahmed") a phrase that says much about his cultural assumptions. His humiliation is so great that he leaves school and does not return. Later this character turns up in an expensive car with ample disposable income, convincing his comrades that crime does pay.

Charef had started writing this story as a screenplay when he was seventeen years old. A novelist saw a draft of it and advised Charef to novelize it, which he did. Then film producer Michele Ray-Gavras and her husband, director Costa-Gravras, read the novel and wanted to turn it into a movie. They invited Charef to write and direct the movie because his novel showed such cinematic instincts. Their gamble on the novice director paid off; Charef directed the film with assurance and understanding.

The film, produced as Le thé au harem d'Archimède, was immensely successful and turned Charef into a sought-after director. The novel, too, was a commercial and critical hit; it has been translated into several languages, including Spanish, German, and Basque, and it won two literary prizes in 1985. It appeared at a time when the problems facing France and its immigrants were becoming an urgent political matter, and depicted a side of immigration that many French people did not know, though many immigrants knew it only too well. Critics noted the novel's brutal simplicity, which delivers the story like "a fist in the face." Penny Kaganoff, reviewing the novel for Publishers Weekly, commented on Charef's implication that Majid's problems are the result of a lack of cultural identity, but concluded that "ultimately, this is a novel not about culture shock but about the bleak world of a forgotten underclass."

Charef's novel, Le Harki de Meriem, also deals with the immigrant experience. Azzedine, the protagonist, works as a bus driver in Rouen; his ambition is to see his children assimilated into French society. This hope dissolves in tragedy when his son Sélim, a promising young man who wants to become a lawyer, is murdered by racist thugs. Azzedine and his wife send their daughter Saliha to Algeria with the body so it can be buried in its homeland. When Saliha arrives in Algeria, she is denied entry to the country because of her father's former activities as a harki terrorist. She spends a night alone in the airport with her brother's body. While she waits, her old grandmother creeps into the darkened airport to see the granddaughter she has never met; the unity created by the ties of blood contrasts with the rejection Saliha and her siblings have felt in both France and Algeria.

The rest of the novel uses flashbacks to trace the events of Azzedine's life, starting with his childhood in the sun-baked Algerian highlands. His marriage to his wife, Meriem, was one of the first social rejections he suffered; Meriem's first husband had divorced her for failing to produce a child, and Azzedine's family was outraged that he had married a social outcast. When his family suffered hardship during Algeria's struggle for independence, Azzedine took what appeared to be the only viable course of action and joined the French army in the harki squad; these soldiers committed many crimes against the Algerians, which Charef describes in forthright detail. In return, they were allowed to immigrate to France. Azzedine and Meriem moved to Rouen in the hopes of living a peaceful existence, a hope that was shattered with the murder of their son.

Le Harki was another critical success. Glenn W. Fetzer, reviewing the novel for French Review, praised Charef's sincerity, noting that he tells his story "with such unassuming skill and poignancy that the pain evoked cannot help but stir the reader." The story emphasizes the importance of family ties and ancestral heritage. Saliha learns to appreciate the family she is part of and to understand the problems that bigotry inflicts on the disadvantaged; she dedicates herself to providing health care to the Maghredin community and finishes the novel as a well-educated, well-respected citizen.

In addition to writing, Charef continued his film career in the 1980s, building many contacts in the French film community. With the help of the Gavrases, he produced Miss Mona with Jean Carmet in 1986, and Camomille with Philippine Leroy Beaulieu in 1988. Charef's 2001 film Marie-Line portrays low-income French and immigrant women working as nighttime cleaners. Marie-Line, the head of the cleaning crew, is a middle-aged Frenchwoman who drives her workers relentlessly, taking pride in a job well done. Aside from work, her life is relatively empty; the most satisfaction she gets comes from running a fan club for a popular singer who died twenty years ago. Her company encourages her to keep costs down, which involves employing illegal aliens paid under the table. The police conduct frequent raids, hoping to find undocumented immigrants. Marie-Line is tough, but she is also fair, and she begins to have sympathy for the women working under her. Many of them have children to support, one Albanian woman is pregnant, and they are all subjected to racism, persecution, and humiliation. Lisa Nesselson, reviewing the film for Variety, summed up its theme neatly: "The women's job is to keep surfaces clean, but their lives are very messy."

After Marie-Line, Charef went to work on La fille de Keltoum, a film for which he returned to the North African desert. The setting for this film is like the desert of his youth, the one in which some of his cousins still live—no water, no toilets, unchanged since his childhood. The main character, a young woman named Rallia, leaves her adoptive country for her roots in the south Algerian mountains. Critics praised the film for its contemplativeness and poetry, yet another triumph in the short career of Mehdi Charef. Writing on the Marxmail.org Web site, Louis Proyect called the film "worthy" and referred to it as "an exploration of the class and gender oppression facing the Kabyle peoples, the Algerian branch of the Berber nationality that lives primarily in the mountainous region of the north."

Charef also wrote the screenplay and directed the segment "Tanza," which was part of the ensemble film All the Invisible Children. In Charef's tale, a young boy joins African freedom fighters and is told to blow up a school that harbors children just like him. "I like to be autobiographical in my films or in my writing because I talk a lot about the Algeria of my childhood," the author noted on the Adriana Chiesa Enterprises Web site. Commenting on the children who fought in Algeria, Charef went on to note: "These children who went off to war were not old, and something else that really struck me was they never knew what it was to have presents. They thought going to war was a gift, they thought being given grenades and guns were presents and that is very troubling. That is one of the reason I made this film." Bill Chambers, writing on the Film Freak Central Web site, called "Tanza" "a disturbing portrait."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:


BOOKS


Singer, Michael, editor, Michael Singer's Film Directors, Lone Eagle (Hollywood, CA), 1998.

PERIODICALS


College Language Association Journal, March, 1995, Glenn W. Fetzer, "Memory, Absence, and the Consciousness of Self in the Novels of Mehdi Charef," pp. 331-341.

French Review, October, 1990, Glenn W. Fetzer, review of Le Harki de Meriem, pp. 202-203.

Library Journal, June 1, 2006, review of Daughter of Keltoum, p. 166.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 27, 1991, Charles Solomon, review of Tea in the Harem, p. 10.

New Republic, June 16, 1986, Stanley Kauffmann, review of Tea in the Harem, p. 26.

Paroles Gelées, 1998, Issue 2, "Naming la Guerre," pp. 65-90.

Publishers Weekly, December 7, 1990, Penny Kaganoff, review of Tea in the Harem, p. 76.

Revue Celfan, May, 1985, Barbara Harlow, "Camus and Algeria 1985: ne touche pas à mon pôte," pp. 31-35.

Times Literary Supplement, April 13, 1990, Ivan Hill, "A Love-Hate Affair," p. 404.

Variety, April 2, 2001, Lisa Nesselson, review of review of Marie-Line, p. 21; September 12, 2005, Deborah Young, review of All the Invisible Children.

Wasafiri: Journal of Caribbean, African, Asian, and Associated Literatures and Film, spring, 2000, pp. 37-40.

ONLINE


Adriana Chiesa Enterprises Web site,http://www.adrianachiesaenterprises.com/ (September 24, 2006), "All the Invisible Children."

Film Freak Central,http://www.filmfreakcentral.net/ (September 24, 2006), Bill Chambers, review of All the Invisible Children.

Internet Movie Database,http://us.imdb.com/ (September 24, 2006), information on author's films.

Marxmail.org,http://www.marxmail.org/ (September 24, 2006), Louis Proyect, review of Daughter of Keltoum.

Toronto Film Festival,http://www.e.bell.ca/filmfest/ (September 24, 2006), includes brief biography of author and commentary on the film All the Invisible Children.

University of Massachusetts Web site,http://www.umass.edu/ (September 26, 2006), "Mehdi Charef, Tea in the Harem."

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