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Sarah Derris ‘21: false chronology

Project Date:
Project Date: Summer 2020

"false chronology" is an extension of my film by the same name. It is an exploration of the lingering French colonial consciousness in Algeria and the fading traditions of the Algerian Amazigh people, specifically the custom of facial tattoos.

About the Project

My grandmother, whose memory is declining rapidly by the day, remains in my father’s childhood home — an eight-floor walkup in a colonial apartment building in the Algerian capital, Algiers. Her memory may be going, but it is important to me to preserve memory of her, and her memory of the place she calls home. I seek to develop “false chronology,” an extension of my film by the same name, at the source of my many questions: Algeria.

Many of my films grapple with identity — being Algerian, American, Muslim, not-so-Muslim. I have had to reconcile Algeria’s colonial past and to understand that what it means to be Algerian is inextricably intertwined with French colonial history — within our language, cuisine, architecture—woven into the very material of our national identity.

To extend “false chronology” would mean to expand it into the remaining three parts (i.e. the French and Arabic title cards). First, that would mean exploring the lingering French colonial consciousness in Algeria: the customs, ways of life, and landmarks that will outlast firsthand memory of French colonial rule. Much of the Algiers my parents and grandparents knew is fading: The Catholic school my father attended, a remnant of French colonial rule, has been converted into a mosque. My grandfather’s neighborhood, The Casbah, once a central hub and trading center dating back to the Byzantine empire, has been slowly crumbling since the French-Algerian war due to a lack of infrastructural funding.

Both of my parents are Amazigh, a Berber tribal group indigenous to North Africa. Before Islam had become prominent within the Berber tribes, it was customary for women to tattoo their faces with Amazigh symbols. The last generation of Berber women with facial tattoos was born in the 1930s and 1940s, and the number of those women left is rapidly declining. I have had a long-lasting fascination with Berber facial tattoos and the many Berber traditions that are fading from practice and memory. These women and the fading traditions of the Amazigh people will be the focal point of the documentary and my memory preservation efforts.

Reflecting on Art Amidst Covid-19

Although I had to completely rethink my original plan as described in my proposal due to travel restrictions, the Benenson Award allowed me to continue developing myself as a filmmaker and writer.

Out of “false chronology,” another project, “Umrah,” evolved over the summer, and has sustained into a long-term project in the form of my VMS distinction project. Over the summer, I took the course “Writing the Movie,” where the idea for “Umrah” first originated. In six weeks’ time, I developed and wrote the first full draft of the screenplay— about 100 pages.

While the first iteration of this project took the form of a feature-length film, with characters, a plot, and a relatively linear narrative structure, the themes I explored — motherhood, femininity, religion, and the fragmentation of memory — carried over into my distinction project. “Umrah,” as it is now, is experimental in nature — a  spiritual passage where reality and unconscious;  devotion and chaos blur and mesh. It asks the question: if the spiritual self cannot be compartmentalized, how can the  self cope  with the cognitive dissonance: when wants, needs and desires compel it in different directions?

“Umrah” explores what happens when these conflicts cannot be contained or accommodated in the way that spirituality dictates: unrestrained expressions of grief and fractured recollections contrast the order of spiritual life. This will be achieved through a spiritual journey of sorts—a journey that may displace us spatially, but never strays too far from a single place.   I have been able to use what remains of the Benenson award to help fund the making of this film, and I am grateful for the opportunity to make this vision come to life. Currently, the film is in progress and should be completed for my GWD by the Spring of 2021.