Sisters is a story about Zorah, who writes a play about her horrorshow of a childhood, to the dismay of the rest of her family. She claims it is an act of catharsis, but there is so much unresolved anger, it could as equally be an act of revenge.
Sisters is about inherited national trauma. The Algerian struggle for independence from France looms large in the lives of all the characters, being the genesis of all their torment. This is an intergenerational trauma, that you can see in the film being passed down from mother to daughter.
Their mother fought as a maqui in the Algerian War of Independence. Upon capture by the French, she was brutalised. Female fighters were raped, tortured and shot. Their father was in the Algerian forces that liberated the holding camp she was in, and they met and fell in love. As horrific as the violence was, for them this was still a hopeful period, fighting together, devoted to their cause and each other.
Eventually, out of necessity, they escaped to France, and made contact with the Algerian resistance there. Unfortunately their father was betrayed by his contact there. It was unclear to me if it was a literal brother or simply a brother-in-arms, but the treachery was real. Their father ended up imprisoned for 4 years.
During this period a darkness entered him, and he emerged a much more violent man. It’s like he’d lost everything. Algeria was independent, but it was not the Algeria he had fought for. He seems disillusioned with the outcome of his sacrifices, and bitter about his betrayal to the enemy. What’s worse is he is now stuck in fucking France. To compensate, he turns his home into Algerian soil, and himself into its dictator. There, everything will be as it should. He runs drills with his daughters, getting them to salute and sing the Algerian national anthem. He is determined they will not grow up to be French.
Naturally, this is impossible and only results in increasingly violent acts of domestic abuse towards them and their mother. Their mother tries to protect them, and then eventually says she will divorce him. His reaction is to hold a gun to her head in front of her daughters.
They do finally escape him, and their mother divorces him, but he abducts the two youngest kids, Norah and her brother Redah. Norah is about 6 at the time, and Redah is an infant, barely walking on his own. He takes them both back to Algeria.
Their mother absolutely loses her mind with grief, and Zorah has to step up as the eldest to reunite the family. They get a court to recognise the abduction, but it counts for nothing in Algeria, where men have complete authority over their children. Their mother attempts suicide, and is only saved because she is found by her daughter, who calls for help and tries to stem her bleeding.
A rescue attempt is made to try and get Norah and Redah back, with Zorah being sent in her mother’s place to retrieve them. However they are caught, and Zorah is only able to save Norah, leaving Redah behind.
This is all told in flashback and in scenes of Zorah’s play. Now as a 40-year-old adult, she is trying to exorcise these demons. But knowing that this will go down like a lead balloon, she has kept the fact from everyone at home. Only her daughter knows, as she has been cast as Zorah’s mother in the play.
The wound that this whole nightmare has inflicted on them is still unhealed to this day. Redah is missing, not dead, so can never be mourned, so his mother can never find peace. Her responsibility for him ends with her dying breath, and she has not given up the hope he will be found and restored to her.
“You failed,” she tells Zorah. Zorah listens placidly as she has clearly heard it a hundred times. She doesn’t argue because she doesn’t disagree. As the eldest she was as good as a parent, and when faced with her Sophie’s Choice moment of saving Norah or going back for Redah and risking them all being caught, she as good as abandoned her little brother.
As a result of this, you get the feeling Zorah has kinda abdicated her position as eldest child. Because it is the middle sister, Djamila, who acts most like the eldest sister. She’s fiercely loyal to their mother, and a high achiever. She is the chair of the local council, and pristinely put together. She feels like she’s holding it together while Zorah daydreams in her theatre, and Norah is off being a fuck-up.
Norah struggles to hold down a job or keep an apartment, she frequently lashes out, as a ball of barely contained rage. Her mental health has been impacted badly by all of this, and she blames everyone else, including their mother, for the warzone of a childhood she was given.
Norah is particularly angry at Zorah when she finds out about the play. Zorah has used performance to get distance from the pain of these events, but Norah does not have that. She tells her frankly that she doesn’t want a piece of entertainment made out of the thing that destroyed her.
About halfway through the film, they get word that their father has had a stroke. Their mother begs them to go to his bedside and ask him, as his children, where he has hidden their brother. He might want to clear his conscience in his final days.
The three sisters have to face the prospect of traveling to the land which saw so much of their childhood strife, and confront the one person who terrifies them most in the world. By turns they come together for support, and fall apart to tear at each other in anger and pain.
Allegorical for the tumultuous life of Algeria, the family’s violent and conflicted character casts a long shadow into the present. The constant tension between their status as both French and Algerian, when that has been a national battlefield, recurs again and again.
It is also a female viewpoint of war. Their mother fought for Algeria’s independence, only to have no right to her own children in it. She endures the brutality of the French in war, only to endure the brutality of her husband in her home. For women, the war never ends. There is no ceasefire. And revolutions that bring about new worlds are much like the old ones for them.
Sisters is an interesting film. A bit wooly and oddly-paced in parts, it is nonetheless compelling in its story and the portraits of its characters.