‘The Last Queen’, Algeria’s first costume drama, premieres at the Venice Film Festival

“It’s a very artisanal film, months and years of work, little hands – working, working, working,” director Damien Ounouri says of his new film, the Algerian period epic. the last queen.

He sits with his co-writer/director/lead actress – and real-life partner – Adila Bendimerad overlooking the waters of Venice, where their long-gestating film 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 had 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 has battled the pandemic and taken 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 described as the country’s premier costume drama.

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

An Algerian-French co-production, the last queenFunds have also arrived from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Doha Film Institute put some money upfront. “They really understood that it was very important for us to make this film,” says Bendimerad.

After filming began, essential funds also came 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 to the business, but very important for the region,” says Ounouri.

It turns out that Ounouri first met Bendimerad at the Doha Film Institute in 2012, when his documentary fidai, on the Algerian revolution, came out. “I said, ‘We have to work together. Come see my movie. If you like it, we can talk,” he reveals.

In 2016, the couple made the 40-minute short film Kindil El Bahrwhich they co-wrote and in which Bendimerad starred. He played as part of the Cannes Film Festival’s Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, but all the while they were preparing to the last queena film based on a play written by Bendimerad.

Queen Zaphira is depicted here as a fearless woman, who refuses to go to bed when her husband, King Salim Toumi, turns against her. “What was very interesting to me, since the 16th century, [with] historians, there are two schools of thought,” the actress explains.

“Some say it exists, others say it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s quite violent between historians — they fight! And even now, in Algeria… sometimes people make up the story of 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 was why she was erased from history.

There’s a lot of blood and thunder in the film – there are times when this tale of betrayal feels as amplified 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 artwork, while Bendimerad did the same with the costume designer, even buying all the fabrics for the outfits.

“We cannot do such [big-scale] movies in our country,” she says, “we don’t have the cinema, the industry to do that. So it was a choice to say, ‘OK, we’re going to do it and it’s going to be beautiful and a great movie, but we have to find another way to do it.’

Yet the support they received was overwhelming. Among the cast is Franco-Algerian actor Dali Benssalah – a former Muay Thai boxing champion who rose to international fame in 2021 for playing one of the James Bond movie villains, no time to die.

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

Although they had to stop after just two days of production, due to Covid-19 restrictions, Ounouri and Bendimerad continued;  with the support of many parties.  Photo: Party Movie Sales

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

“It was kind of a 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 I said, “We have to stop. We sent the crew home. We lost money and we were in debt. But for this year and a half, we haven’t stayed home watching Netflix We just worked, worked – [looking for] financing, financing, financing. We have drawn strength from it. »

While the film has just been unveiled in Venice in front of an enthusiastic public, the enthusiasm of the general Algerian public is even greater. “It’s so important and they’re so excited because they saw the trailer yesterday, and they’re so proud,” Bendimerad said.

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

The Last Queen will be released later this year.

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

Updated: September 11, 2022, 04:12