Periscope on Amira-Gehanne Khalfallah

Photo credit: Bruno Carbone

Amira-Géhanne KHALFALLAH is currently earning a PhD in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis.  For 18 years she was a journalist and a columnist covering North Africa, West Africa, and the Middle East.  With a degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the University of Constantine in Algeria, she integrates both science and investigative work in her writing.
In 2019, Khalfallah directed La Petite (Engl. title Miss), a short film based on her screenplay, about the first French nuclear bomb detonated in the Algerian desert in 1960. La Petite  has been shown at major festivals around the world, won “Special Mention of the Jury” at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival, and was awarded “Best Short Film” at the Mediterranean Film Festival in Rome the same year. She is also a playwright, with seven of her plays produced in Europe and Africa; her most recent one, La Vielle dame, will be premier in France this summer. Her debut novel, Le naufrage de La Lune [The Wrecking of The Moon], was published in 2018 by Éditions Barzakh.  In 2019, she participated in IWP’s Fall Residency.


Q: What reading is on your nightstand? What films have you taken notes on/what films you’ve seen lately have stayed in your head?

Currently, I am immersed in reading unpublished work that I receive from friends, and seeking ways to share these powerful texts that have yet to find their path to publication. I believe in constantly exploring alternative avenues and venturing beyond the mainstream. Engaging in this kind of endeavor brings me great pleasure.
As for films, I am revisiting the classics. However, one film that has caught my attention recently is the Italian 2019 adaptation of Jack London's Martin Eden, directed by Pietro Marcello. The way this text was transformed within the Italian context is truly fascinating. One of the pivotal scenes that resonated deeply was the incorporation of commedia dell'arte and its potent symbolism, which masterfully encapsulates the novel’s depiction of class struggle. Drawing from the past and from diverse cultures, the adaptation of this work is simply magnificent. I confess that I don't watch commercial films; I get bored very quickly and feel like I'm wasting my time. I have become more and more selective. What captivates me in cinema is the cinematographic language rather than special effects and technical prowess.

Q: You have returned to academia after years of freelance media work—theater and film especially. What have been the advantages/pleasures and what have been the challenges of being a student? What have you learned from your colleagues?

The idea of venturing into unfamiliar territories, both academically and culturally, has always held a special allure for me. Thus, going back to school and immersing myself in a new country seemed incredibly enticing. Despite the inevitable hurdles, I can confidently say that I have no regrets about this decision. I now find myself thriving in an intellectually stimulating environment, surrounded by talented writers, poets, and filmmakers hailing from diverse continents. The interactions I engage in are invigorating, exposing me to fresh perspectives and exciting opportunities. At times, a mere question or a misunderstanding from my fellows can unlock new thoughts. It is in  attempting to address these misunderstandings that I have been able to write a new narrative. Some students may believe that participating in a creative writing workshop will offer them clear answers to their questions or doubts. However, it is actually the questions raised by others that provide the writer with answers. Writing entails stirring things up, altering perspectives. It is through this movement that the story takes shape.

Q: How has moving from Algiers to St. Louis, from the Mediterranean to the Midwest been?

I was asked recently by a friend who was getting ready to travel to Algeria “How dangerous is it?”. I said, “It’s far less dangerous than St. Louis!”
Coming from a country classified as dangerous by the US State Department, I have come to question thoroughly the concept of dangerousness, which lacks objectivity and is, rather, rooted in the fear of the other--an other always perceived as more dangerous than ourselves.

The transition was undeniably challenging, perhaps more than I anticipated. It stemmed from my preconceived notions about the United States, which were shaped by my immersion in American culture through movies, television, and literature. However, upon arriving in the country, these assumptions clashed with the stark reality, forcing me to confront uncomfortable truths that shook me to my core.

I grew up in Algeria, where I developed a deep fascination by American detective series. The way detectives meticulously investigate cases, utilizing advanced technological and scientific support always captivated me. However, my recent experience with a burglary in my apartment shattered my expectations of how the police would handle the situation. Sadly, they seemed disinterested and unresponsive, failing to ask even the most basic questions to uncover the identity of the intruder. I had been eagerly anticipating the arrival of the police team, expecting them to dust for fingerprints, question neighbors, and make inquiries to aid in the investigation. To my dismay, none of that happened. The police merely compiled a report without taking any meaningful action. It felt disheartening to realize that amidst the prevailing high levels of criminality, my personal problem was deemed insignificant and not worth their time or attention. As a filmmaker, I am well aware of the artifice inherent in cinema but, unconsciously we build an imaginary and it's hard to confront it with reality. Another example: last year I was attacked in a park in broad daylight. I never would have thought that instead of ensuring my safety, a police officer would suggest that I buy a weapon... It is these everyday experiences that, when added up, reshape our perception of a country.

Though I entered the new country armed with intellectual knowledge, my integration process was far from effortless. I didn’t have the luxury of time to adjust: the demands placed upon me by the pace of school were overwhelming. It became clear that my intellectual background alone was insufficient preparation for such an experience. Ironically, I found that people without too much of intellectual backgrounds, such as refugees from the Middle East, adapted more readily than I did. This realization challenged my previous tendency to avoid being confined within a community, a religion, or a language, as I came to understand how much we need to share experiences with people who have the same background in order to try to understand the Other. We need a kind of “mirror.” Yet while this sense of belonging is reassuring, there is also the risk of becoming limited to one’s own community and losing sight of new perspectives. Striking a careful balance becomes essential.

Q: In retrospect what, if any, residue is there from your IWP residency in 2019?

The IWP experience entered my life when I felt stagnant, no longer gaining any new insights from my immediate surroundings despite the inherent challenges of my profession, journalism. The opportunity to connect with authors and artists from across the globe injected a newfound energy into my creative pursuits. It presented me with a fresh equation, one that encouraged me to delve deeper into the realms of writing and human connections.

Even though tangible projects may not have materialized from my interactions with fellow IWP participants, the true value lies in the ongoing daily exchanges, the shared readings, and the mutual advice we offer one another: almost four years later, I’m still in contact with some of the cohort.  Writing encompasses all of these intangible elements. It is not defined simply, by a singular, concrete project that finds its way to publication, but rather by the intricate interplay of these unseen interactions.

Q: Let me try a hypothesis: your strong STEM research background in life sciences has carried over to an inclination toward fiction grounded in archival research, both in your first novel  Naufrage de la Lune (taking off from an 17th c naval battle between Berber pirates and France's royal navy.) and your award-winning film La petite (imagining a scenario in the wake of France’s nuclear tests in the Algerian desert in the early 1960s). What is the place of “realism” in the different media in which you work?

It is indeed true that I often draw inspiration from established historical facts in my writing. Extensive research is an integral part of my writing process. But my intention is not to overwhelm my stories with historical, scientific, or technical details. Rather, I utilize these elements to construct a fresh fictional world. My focus is first off on exploring the human experience and how individuals navigate through situations. Fiction possesses the power to compress time while delving deeper into the core of human existence. It allows for connections between characters who would be unlikely to cross paths in reality. That said, there is a scientific aspect to it as well: by playing with probabilities and combining different elements, we can create new situations or question the familiar ones within the context of a new narrative. My initial training is in biology, and coming from a laboratory setting, I consider writing to be a lab to experiment with words and ideas. We are often surprised by the outcome!

Q: At one point you were planning a sci-fi TV series set in Africa after a climate catastrophe renders “the global North” uninhabitable. Is that still in the works?  And has the scenario evolved in your head?

This series has traveled through various production companies and agencies, receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback on its storyline and concept. However, one recurring obstacle has been the argument that it is too expensive. There seems to be a reluctance among producers to invest in African fiction, or at least not to the extent required. So, the project is currently on hold. It’s worth noting that films on the African continent-- especially those that don’t praise the current regimes--find their funding abroad, mostly from European or more broadly Western sources. Nevertheless, I have learned not to give up easily. I will continue to nurture and develop it, exploring alternative avenues. Perhaps it could be adapted into a novel, a theater piece, or even an audio play. I have developed an interest in sound and its impact. While it's important to remain true to a project's initial vision, it is equally crucial to be open to the various possibilities that life presents us with.

Q: You have recently participated in artist actions against the war in Ukraine.

"Tracks" is a transcontinental project in which artists from different parts of the world were paired with artists from Ukraine to create collaborative works. The idea comes from Sveinung Nygaard, a Swedish musician who has worked extensively in Ukraine. In this project, I had the opportunity to collaborate with a talented young Ukrainian photographer, Kateryna Tretiakova, and complemented her work with poems.

Q:  What keeps you up at night, politically?

I didn't hesitate for a moment when the Ukrainian project was proposed, and I would do the same for any other cause that resonates with my sense of justice. What keeps me up at night is injustice, wherever it may exist. What deeply wounds me is the unequal attention given to certain injustices over others. When I witness the silence surrounding the Palestinian question, it breaks my heart. Every people whose lands and territories have been taken deserve equal consideration. Regardless of their beliefs and religions, every individual has the right to freedom and to be treated with dignity. However, the mainstream press frequently falls short, often handling of information in various conflicts worldwide quite unequally.  While it's important to talk about Ukraine today, why is nobody talking about Sudan, for instance? Who knows what's going on in Syria anymore?
On the other hand, the injustice prevailing in my own country and the loss of a free press and freedom of speech concern me deeply. In Algeria, many newspapers have closed down or have been forced to shut down these last two years, and respected journalists are either imprisoned or facing the Algerian justice system simply for doing their work.
In the evening when I go to bed, I sometimes think of these imprisoned colleagues, far from their families and friends, while their rightful place is on the ground, exposing what is happening in their country.

Thank you.

July 2023

Interviewer: nd.


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