'I was fascinated by the Art Deco Es Safir hotel - once the Hotel Aletti, and Algiers' casino … At first glance the building looks "authentic" or in original condition, but as you get closer you see that it hasn't been looked after and it's rundown. Some people are put off by its neglected state, but I love its strangely unexpected appearance. I find that in Algiers you're faced with this aesthetic experience all the time - an initial impression of splendour or perfection shattered by flaws.' Zineb Sedira in conversation with Christine Van Assche, Saphir (The Photographers' Gallery, London, Kamel Mennour and Paris Musées, France, 2006)
Zineb Sedira's two-screen video projection, Saphir, was filmed in and around the port of Algiers and is presided over by the large expanse of sea that stretches towards the far horizon. It is this body of water that separates and connects Algeria and France, countries tied to each other in the present by the legacy of the colonial past, and which together inform Sedira's heritage as the Paris-born daughter of Algerian immigrants.
The port is a place of arrivals and departures, and Sedira's film and related photographs offer a lyrical meditation on transition, from place to place, past to present, one state of mind or being to another. The video opens to the cries of the migratory swallows that appear in a constant whirl, criss-crossing the blue sky and the white façade of the Es Safir hotel. A symbol of faded colonial grandeur, the hotel forms a backdrop for the movements of Sedira's two actors/protagonists. Inside the building, a woman - the daughter of pieds-noirs, Europeans who left Algeria when the country gained its independence - gazes out to sea from her balcony or window in between traversing the corridors, ascending and descending the stairs. Outside, an Algerian man is likewise either on the move or looking at the sea, watching the arrival of the Tariq Ibn Ziyad ferry, the conduit between Algiers and Marseilles for migrant workers and those in search of better lives.
Restlessness and longing suffuse Sedira's piece, yet the mood is ambivalent - for all their motion the film's protagonists seem to be suspended in a type of limbo; physically present, their minds elsewhere. In the end Sedira counters this with a 360 pan from the hotel across a railway line to the harbour and back to the city, as if casting an anchor to the here and now. The jewel of the title, French for sapphire, evokes the colour of the Mediterranean and the glittering promise of faraway cities, but also the preciousness of home. In this sense Sedira is the ambassador - safir in Arabic - who reminds us that it is our identification with a particular place that allows us to feel that we belong.
© 2007 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.