Saphir, 2006

Zineb Sedira
Saphir, 2006
18 minutes
Installation view
Copyright the artist and Courtesy Galerie Kamel Mennour, Paris
Commissioned by the Photographers Gallery and Film and Video Umbrella, London


Saphir: video
The title Saphir (French for sapphire) reflects this, evoking not only the pure maritime light typical of Algiers, but also those flickering glimmers on the horizon that symbolise people’s dreams and aspirations. In Arabic,the word safir also means 'ambassador', a person who travels between different places, the representative of one country on the soil of another.

This play on meaning is extended through two central characters in the film. The first is an Algerian man who walks across town, with no apparent purpose, and silently watches the daily ferries arrive and depart from the port. His image is counterpoised by that of an older woman, a daughter of the noirs (a term for those European settlers who left Algeria after its Independence). She inhabits the Safir Hotel, one of the grand landmarks of French colonial Algiers, whose imposing architecture is a powerful and resonant reminder of a past that still casts its light and shadow over the city. Both characters circle within their own separate but parallel worlds, their paths often appearing to intersect, but without any conclusion.

Saphir: photographs
A series of panoramic images focus on the periphery of the city. Men stand before the immense, mist-shrouded sea, contemplating the horizon filled with ships in transit or awaiting permission to cross. The images can be seen as atmospheric, even poetic. But a further reality is also expressed: how individuals are directly and radically affected by social, political and environmental challenges. They suggest the longing of disenchanted young men,whooften still dream of travelling across the water to Europe.

In other photographs, empty French colonial houses and dilapidated ruins appear to emerge out of the cliffs where they once stood overlooking the sea. Although ravaged by time and by the sea that has gradually eaten them away, the constructions have lost none of their elegance. Today the question is what will become of these French ruins? Will they eventually turn to dust amid widespread indifference? Or, in a few centuries will they become a symbol of national pride like the sites which bear witness to the hegemony of Rome during Antiquity?

Confronting the contemporary life of the city with an older and more ambivalent legacy, the project Saphir presents a portrait of Algiers in a transitional moment, the local character gradually becoming absorbed into the current of increasing globalisation.

This project was part of Sharjah Biennial 8.