'The Last Queen', Algeria's first costume drama, has its premiere at Venice Film Festival

Years in the making, the co-directors of the epic recount how they brought the tale to life

'The Last Queen' tells the story of the legendary Queen Zaphira and her revenge against the pirate Aruj Barbarossa. Photo: The Party Film Sales
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“It’s a very handmade film, months and years of work, of little hands — working, working, working,” says director Damien Ounouri of his new film, Algerian period epic The Last Queen.

He’s sitting with his co-writer/director/leading lady — and real-life partner — Adila Bendimerad overlooking the waters of Venice, where their long-gestating movie has finally premiered at the film festival. A week ago, Bendimerad gave birth with the film still unfinished. “When it was in the labs, we were in the maternity ward and Adila was having contractions,” says Ounouri. “We arrived from France yesterday by car with the baby.”

Still, a post-production pregnancy seems the least of their dramas, for a film that battled through the pandemic and took years to get off the ground. Set in Algeria in 1516, The Last Queen tells the story of the legendary Queen Zaphira (Bendimerad), and is being described as the nation’s first costume drama.

“We never explored this period in Algeria,” says the actress. “We know just about colonialism. As if there was nothing before. It was a real political choice that we made…to show Algerians that we existed and we have beautiful stories to tell of our past.”

An Algerian-French co-production, The Last Queen’s funds also arrived from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Doha Film Institute put money in at the beginning. "They really understood that it was very important for us to make this film,” says Bendimerad.

After shooting began, vital money also came in from the Red Sea Fund, the initiative set up by the Red Sea Film Festival to support African and Arab film projects. “They are new in the business, but very important for the region,” explains Ounouri.

As it happens, Ounouri first met Bendimerad at the Doha Film Institute in 2012, when his documentary Fidai, about the Algerian revolution, was being released. “I said, ‘We have to work together. Come and see my film. If you like it, we can talk,’” he reveals.

In 2016, the couple made the 40-minute short Kindil El Bahr, which they co-wrote and Bendimerad starred in. It played as part of Cannes Film Festival's Directors' Fortnight, but this entire time, they were building up to The Last Queen, a film inspired by a play written by Bendimerad.

Queen Zaphira is shown here as a fearless woman, who refuses to lie down when her husband, King Salim Toumi, turns against her. “What was very interesting for me, since the 16th Century, [with] historians, there’s two schools of thought,” the actress explains.

“Some say she exists, some say she doesn’t exist. Sometimes, it’s quite violent between the historians — they fight! And even now, in Algeria … people sometimes they invent history about her. We know that there was a woman who had an army, who tried to resist, but we don’t know more. What was interesting is to know why she was erased from history.”

The film features plenty of blood and thunder — there are times when this story of betrayal feels as amped up as a Shakespeare play. And to its credit, given its relatively low budget, it looks impressive on the big screen. Ounouri says he worked closely with the film’s set designer, researching books and artworks, while Bendimerad did the same with the costumer, even buying all the fabrics for the outfits.

“We can’t make such [big-scale] films in our country,” she says, “We don’t have the cinema, the industry to do that. So it was a choice to say that ‘OK, we will do it and it will be beautiful and a big film, but we have to find another way to make it.’”

Yet, the support they received was overwhelming. Among the cast is French-Algerian actor Dali Benssalah — a former Muay Thai boxing champion, he gained international acclaim in 2021 for playing one of the villains in the James Bond film, No Time to Die.

“Despite shooting James Bond, he blocked three months for us,” says Ounouri. “He was very committed.” In The Last Queen, he plays the terrifying Barbarossa, the pirate leader who helps free the country from Spanish tyranny, only to then seize power for himself, even with one arm severed in battle.

Even delays due to pandemic didn’t derail the film. The shoot began on March 13, 2020, with the production managing to shoot only for two days before the world began shutting down due to the spread of the Covid-19.

“It was a kind of nightmare,” says Ounouri. “I was very focused. I said, ‘Don’t worry it’s just a little virus! We shoot, we shoot.’ But that night I didn’t sleep and I woke up Adila and said, ‘We have to stop.’ We sent the crew home. We lost money and were in debt. But in that year and a half, we didn’t stay at home watching Netflix. We just worked, worked — [looking for] funding, funding, funding. We took strength from that.”

While the film has just been unveiled in Venice to an enthusiastic audience reception, there was even more excitement from the general public in Algeria. “It’s so important and they’re so excited because they saw the trailer yesterday, and they’re so proud,” says Bendimerad.

“They are quite tired of seeing contemporary films,” adds Ounouri. “The contemporary world in our country is quite complicated sometimes, so for us it was very exciting to say, ‘We have history.’ Before French colonisation, we have history, we have characters, we have legends — we must put them on the big screen.”

The Last Queen will be released later in the year.

Scroll through images of the Venice Film Festival 2022 line-up below:

Updated: September 13, 2022, 12:00 PM