Lightweight documentary fails to deliver

Lightweight documentary fails to deliver

Algeria Interface, 2 november 2000,

A recent French TV documentary on the murder of Berber militant and folk singer Matoub Lounès was strong on impact but weak in substance, shedding no new light on who was behind the murder.

Paris, 2/11/00 – Three years ago Berber activist and folk singer Matoub Lounès was gunned down on a road in Kabylia. His death remains a mystery to this day. On October 31 French pay channel Canal+ devoted 30 minutes of its current affairs programme « 90 Minutes » to the « Affaire Matoub ».

Called « La Grand manip » (the big fix), the documentary billed itself as an investigation into army involvement in the killing. Yet it failed to deliver beyond shots of angry young Berbers chanting « Pouvoir! Assassin! » (the regime is the killer). Inference, hackneyed statements, footage from the archives, and flashy editing replaced hard evidence.

The documentary’s subtext was that of an orchestrated plot, involving the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) and Nordine Ait-Hammouda, local leader of the anti-Islamic militia, the « patriotes ». Director Jean-Baptiste Rivoire’s documentary alleges that RCD leader Said Sadi stalled Matoub Lounès’, who was due to fly to Paris just before he was killed.

Questioned by Algeria Interface, Sadi reacted coolly: « It’s not the first time Rivoire has tried to clear the Islamists and even if the army does get up to skulduggery, what about armed Islamic groups. » He added that if the programme smeared the RCD he would take the matter to court.

Rivoire claims to have edited out potentially slanderous footage like Ferhat Mehenni – also a Berber folk singer and RCD dissident – saying that the « RCD’s long-standing strategy was to always incriminate Islamists ».

The two eye-witnesses who spoke had their faces concealed. They recalled noticing men in battle dress, the crackling of walkie-talkies and an army truck shortly before the murder. The thing is, Islamic terrorists also use walkie-talkies and battle dress. A truck is not much to go on.

Civil strife has torn Algeria for nearly ten years now. In that time there has been a conspicuous failure to produce hard facts in support of allegations of killings and atrocities. When it comes to the crunch witnesses, clues and evidence vanish, giving way to hearsay and supposition. Suspects and motives abound, however, which makes every theory as good as the next one. « La Grande manip » was one more such theory.

The film-makers were reduced to using, the dissident army officers’ website as a source. Yet even the Algerian opposition takes MAOL’s allegations with a pinch of salt.

Jean-Baptiste Rivoire has previous work on Algeria to his name. He made a documentary on the abduction and murder of French monks in March 1996, while in a film on the massacre of the village of Bentalha in September 1997, he pointed an accusing finger at the Algerian military.

He belongs to a new school of French TV journalism that has broken with the methods of the mainstream media. But the result in « La Grande manip » was sketchy information, aggressive voice-overs, stage-managed shots, and the pervasive presence of Rivoire himself aimed at showing viewers how he worked and how tangled the issue was.

The assassination of President Boudiaf in 1992 and those of other prominent politicians and journalists were doubtless the work of the state machine. The Algerian intelligence services have a long tradition of political assassination. And Matoub Lounès’ relatives have tirelessly denounced the slipshod police enquiry – no post-mortem, no ballistic analysis, and witnesses and evidence overlooked. It took the police three years to re-enact crime and the gendarmes who conducted initial investigations were transferred.

So Matoub, too, may well have been a victim of the state. But « La Grand manip » failed to come up with hard evidence or credible witnesses.

What it did illustrate was Matoub’s mistrust of the RCD. And it highlighted some established facts. That the regime tried its darnedest to ascribe the killing to the GIA of Kabylia. That « patriote » leader Nordine Ait-Hammouda has close ties with the regime, while Hakim Chenoui, an Islamic militant accused of the murder, confessed only under torture – sadly standard practice since 1992.

The documentary finishes on a resigned note that sums up the whole investigation: « We made official representations to all the generals allegedly involved in the Matoub affair. Not one agreed to answer our questions. »

Chawki Amari