Two years ago, filmmaker Karim Ainouz took a trip that he’d been dreaming of all his life. He journeyed back to Algeria, the home of his estranged father and, like any director presented with such a valuable opportunity, it inspired his new movie, Mariner of the Mountains, a touching travelogue that premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Ainouz, 55, is no stranger to Cannes. His 2019 film Invisible Life, about two sisters living in Rio de Janeiro, played in the festival's Un Certain Regard category and won that strand’s top prize. This week, Ainouz had the chance to unspool Mariner of the Mountains, this most personal of films, to several hundred people as part of the festival’s Salle du Soixantieme event. He admits to feeling trepidation, wondering how they will react to something so intimate.
In the film, Ainouz crosses the Mediterranean from Marseille by ferry, heading to Kabylia, a mountainous region in northern Algeria. “For me, it was like meeting a biological country,” he explains. “And it just so happened that this biological country … it was an incredible one. It has an incredible history. And I think that has deeply affected me. It’s going to stay with me for ever.”
Years earlier, Ainouz’s parents split and his Algerian father remarried and moved to Paris. While being raised by his Brazilian mother and grandmother in the north-eastern city of Fortaleza, he felt an unquenchable yearning to explore his father's homeland.
His mother had always wanted to go to, but it was too expensive. The 1992 civil war in Algeria further delayed his ambitions. After his mother died in 2015, he decided the time was right. “I thought it would be great to film this journey because I think there’s something very powerful about discovering this place at my age.”
Ainouz used Mariner of the Mountains as a way to explore his own identity. “I don’t know how to define myself,” he says. “I think I can say, I’m Brazilian, and then people ask, ‘But where is your surname from?’ And I can say I’m Algerian. So I define myself as a very fortunate man who has a background; places that I find really, really fascinating.”
His biggest challenge was finding something universal as he explored his own background. “Every family has secrets,” he says. “Every family has rotten things. Every family has good things. The point for me with this film … was how can you tell that story and be relevant? How can you make that story so that it’s not something you put in your drawer and you keep for yourself?”
The solution was to examine Algeria's recent political history.
When Ainouz arrived, it was just as protests were swirling around then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was seeking to extend his 20 years in office. He immediately began filming, with no plan. Ultimately, Ainouz accrued so much material he funnelled some of it into another film, Nardjes A, which follows young activist Nardjes over 24 hours during International Women’s Day. It premiered at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival.
Mariner of the Mountains is no less political, as it addresses Algeria's fight for freedom from French colonial rule during the 1954-1962 Algerian War of Independence. “I think colonialism was something so horrible,” he says. Not everyone was in agreement, however. At one point, he interviews a trio of young men. One, a 23-year-old, it's revealed, tried to leave Algeria eight times and was deported back to the country on each occasion. In the film, Ainouz says: “He wished the French had never left.”
“It shows what this film is talking about,” says Ainouz. “It shows the joy of independence and the war and what they conquered. And at the same time, where are we now? And what have we achieved? I think a lot has been achieved, but at the same time, there’s a lot more to achieve.”
While the film is structured as a tender letter to his mother, it’s as much a missive to a country that he feels deeply in his soul, but is only beginning to understand. “I fell in love with the people,” he says. “There was something about the way that people took to me. I think Algeria is a country that’s very reticent to foreigners, they have their own history. It’s a bit like Cuba. There’s a sense of pride. But I really felt a connection. It was a connection of being welcomed home.”
Mariner of the Mountains closes to the sound of Bronski Beat’s 1980s classic tune Smalltown Boy. So does that describe him? “A little bit,” he says. It turns out that in the 1990s, Ainouz shared a house in London’s Islington with Jimmy Somerville, the Scottish lead singer of Bronski Beat and, later, The Communards. “Jimmy is a small town boy,” he says. “That song, it’s so autobiographical. It’s an anthem to emancipation. It’s very Anglo-Saxon.”
Ainouz’s next step is to direct his first English-language project, Firebrand, which he’s planning to shoot early next year in the UK. The film tells the story of Katherine Parr, the sixth wife of Tudor king Henry VIII, and will star the imperious Michelle Williams in the lead role. From modern-day Algeria to 16th century England is quite a leap, though, true to form, Ainouz found a personal way into the story.
“She had something that really reminded me of the way I was raised,” he says, pointing out that his mother had always valued education. Parr, who outlived her rapacious husband by a year, similarly took pains to educate Henry VIII’s children, including a young Elizabeth I.
“I think there was something about how women exercised power that I thought was really fascinating.” He flashes a mischievous glint. “I also have the right to tell it because there are so many times that the English and the French and the Dutch and the Americans have told our history.”