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Synopsis “ Late for My Mother's Funeral ”
Filmed in 3 countries over the course of 3 years,
“Late for My Mother's Funeral” is the intimate
portrait of an Algieran-French-Moroccan family
adrift following the death of their mother Zineb,
a notorious smuggler of gold and jewels.
This true post-colonial story evokes with humor
and pathos the multi-faceted mourning of
Zineb's ten children and the influence of
political context on their lives.
Some comments and reviews:
TEWFIK FARES, French film director and screen writer:
An eye both aloof and attentive, with the kind of
patience that engenders confidence in those who
are not like us, but who, without knowing why,
feel close to us and share their profound intimacy.
The film expresses perfectly the heartbreak of
the uprooted, even if life has brought them
financial ease. It movingly evokes the drama
of not being able to live in an indisputable
and undisputed “here,” while allowing the
protagonists to pierce the abscess of their
frustration and soul-searching induced by the
stupidity of the human species, which too often
forgets we are all “one.”
Translation of program « Behind the Image,»
with Guy Ménard and Pierre Pageau,
Radio Centre-Ville, Montreal, August 30, 2013,
on the occasion of the Montreal World Film Festival
Late for My Mother's Funeral plays magically
with genres, capturing the viewer in its
imaginary world. Very powerful, the film is a
panorama about a family, a people, a contemporary
human condition : A family without a country,
a family caught in a web of nationalities while
identifying with none of them. They aren't really
Algerian, or Moroccan, or French. Their identity
lies in the grave with Zineb, their
recently-deceased mother whom we are invited to
The film brings Zineb to life, this woman
of great determination and force, capable of
resolving any problem, even deportation. Via
an extraordinary intimacy we understand that
Zineb was the source of identity for her ten
stateless offspring, now adult. We watch them,
behind closed doors, privy to their most
intimate secrets, as they fabricate a new
identity in Zineb's absence.
The film's approach is that of a tale,
a beautiful fable that invents, like a fantasy,
ghosts and all. A fable of The Mother.
As a man, I didn't realise my mother's
importance when she was alive. Only when
she died did I understand what I got from her.
It's tremendous when we are offered this
knowledge through a film ! It's a
universal experience, it can happen to
anyone, this shock.
Organized around scenes developed
through improvisation, the film portrays
each of the offspring donning the mother's
dress (even the man) to evoke telling
scenes, many of them touching on stories
never told – the tensions between
Algeria and Morocco, the private life of
Islam, the marrying off of the youngest
daughter Souaad, all of this told with
the force of the real, all of it beautifully
presented, with great freedom of form.
It is a strong, impressive film,
which takes the time to put everything
in place, and thus we grasp that everything
is part of a larger construct, one that
brings us back to ourselves.
Via this family, we rediscover ourselves.
Oregon (& Paris) filmmaker Penny Allen’s
Late for My Mother’s Funeral
DAVID MILHOLLAND © 2014
Penny Allen's 4th film follows in tracks laid
by The Soldier’s Tale (2009), her documentary
account of one man’s experience in George W’s
Iraq War, hatched after an opportune
conversation with a US soldier on a transatlantic
A screening of the film results in an encounter
with Paris partisan Abdeljalil Zouhri,
thoroughly embroiled in the twisted remnants
of French post-imperial relations and their
impacts on neighboring North African nations.
After a year of less-than-engaging polemical
talks, this man seemingly defined by the
impersonal reveals to Allen the resounding
impact of his mother’s sudden passing in
The massive absence in the wake of this
powerful Moroccan-Algerian matriarch famed
for her gold and jewel smuggling propels
Allen into the creation of a familial portrait
in the round and ethnographic adventure.
One of ten adult offspring, Abdeljalil’s
return to his estranged family thrusts him
full blast into grief, intrigue, litanies of
unfulfilled expectations, and each sibling’s
ongoing obsession with Zineb Zouhri, their
The film begins in flight, as the family had swept,
and been swept, repeatedly across the border
separating Morocco and Algeria. Their rights
in Algeria have always been thin and suspect.
Zineb simply made her place in the world by
practicing personal force majeure. Her
enigmatic absence produces an existential
crisis for several family members, which
to astute viewers’ fortune plays out on
Like the core cast of Allen’s first films
Property (1978) and Paydirt (1981), a
crisis precipitates linkage among ‘family’
members. Reverberant events largely spinning
beyond anyone’s control sweep each of them
far beyond their initial expectations.
In My Mother’s Funeral, then again,
Zineb or her vacuum might fittingly claim
Allen employs a simple, highly effective
‘device’ to give all eight of the ten
siblings who play themselves a medium to
serve, well, as their mother’s medium.
Throughout the film, each in turn wears a
strikingly patterned red dress they fondly
remember as one of her favorites. Every
time they don the garb, a virtually
alchemical transformation takes place.
Zineb has “really got a hold on” them.
Such scenes often revive pent-up frustrations,
including Abdeljalil playing Zineb opposite
perhaps a nephew playing Abdeljalil as a boy.
It reprises a childhood memory exposing her
potent power and a grown man’s unyielding
sense of inadequacy in his mother’s timeless
Late for My Mother’s Funeral darts between
standard definitions of documentary and
narrative fiction film. It’s the kind of
stretching-the-boundaries film that another
famed Northwesterner, photographer and
filmmaker Edward Curtis, made with
all-Kwakiutl cast – In the Land of the
Head Hunters (1914). Alison Skinner of
the American Museum of Natural History
wrote to Curtis at the time, “I think
you have made ethnology come alive.”7
No less can be said for Allen’s germinal
work that opens real doors to a world at
the edge of our consciousness. Much of it
was filmed under severe restraints in Algeria,
with powerful scenes also shot in Morocco
and France. Like her peer’s work cited above,
this film commands attention and deserves
Those infested with modern impatience might
find that real life and even verisimilitude
often take their own sweet time. So gear
yourself down, linger in the hammam – community
baths in the family residence, watch the
wedding unfold over its several days,
absorb some real grief and life transformation,
and partake of what an Algerian critic
wrote Penny Allen of Late for My Mother’s
Funeral, calling it “the most intimate
portrait of Algerian culture I’ve ever seen.”
7 excerpt - Short Nights...p. 239
MICHKA GORKI, critic, filmmaker, former
director of the French film school, FEMIS
Beyond the story of Abdeljalil, 50, a
Frenchman of Moroccan origin who grew up in
Algeria and now returns to Algeria after the
death of his mother, and beyond the fictional
reconstitution of the recently-deceased
mother's extraordinary personality, what
interests me in this film is the universality
of a crucial contemporary problem. Which is:
the belief that mixed cultural identity is
easy, even possible. It is an idealized
concept that denies individual genetic heritage,
that makes light of cultural up-rooting even
when it comes by choice, that ignores the
feelings of guilt experienced by individuals
of all beliefs, that denies the profound
legacy of colonialism or cultural imperialism.
Despite his choices, Abdeljalil experiences
a profound malaise, both in his cultural identity
and his personal identity. The film conveys
Abdeljalil's malaise through the reconstitution
of his mother's personality via an original
fictional concept: a DRESS worn one after the
other by seven of the ten offspring, now
adult, who have agreed to “play” their mother
in a process of familial memory. Mixing their
mourning with this interpretative fiction, a
documentary emerges about the future of the
youngest daughter, who will now be married
off by her brothers and sisters according
to an elaborate traditional ritual because
the culture requires it. Thus all the
siblings collide with their own cultural
origins and traditional religious rites.
What strikes me is the idea that the
mother, whose portrait is created throughout
the film, impresses me as a woman who has
broken through the limitations of her culture:
she has raised ten children by an absent man
she finally divorces, she re-marries, she
carries on a dangerous occupation as a
jewel-smuggler to support her family, she
launches a business with her youngest daughter,
the one who will now be traditionally married
off by her siblings after their mother's death.
All the brothers and sisters have been
educated thanks to the authority and charisma
of their mother, but they still oblige this
youngest daughter to marry.
This mixture of influences and
contradictory behaviors is fascinating
and poses all sorts of questions.
And it is this ambiguity that gives
universality and profound interest to the film.
ROGER PORTER, critic and professor:
Penny Allen's sensuous film "Late for My
Mother's Funeral" is a rapturous homage
both to the world of contemporary Algeria,
with its dazzling terra cotta colors,
and to a family held together by the
pervasively haunting "presence" of its
recently deceased matriarch. Blending the
personal stories of the many brothers and
sisters who remember and enact the memory
of their mother with the politics and social
complexities of the Maghreb, Allen
creates a deeply moving memory film. The
mother appears only briefly, on her death
bed, but she is everywhere in the narrative:
in her limp and empty dress to which her
son speaks to ask forgiveness for
missing her funeral, addressing the
mother as if her spirit and body still
inhabited the garment; in the sisters
who seem to reincarnate the mother;
in her husband who cannot bathe in
the hammam she owned without hearing
her voice calling to him from beyond
the grave; and in the son himself
when he puts on his dead mother's
dress and plays her role with his
youngster cousin. The film veers between
past and present, Paris and the small
Algerian town where they all used to
live, and most brilliantly in two scenes
where mother and son cross the fraught
frontier between Algeria and Morocco.
Somewhat between a documentary and a
fictional story acted by utterly
convincing non-professionals, this film
represents and inhabits many border
crossings. It exquisitely portrays how
figures enact their charisma deep
inside others, surviving in those
who can never abandon their individual
and collective pasts.
Former Portlander Penny Allen (the mastermind
behind 1978’s Property, a documentary exploring
local gentrification) is back with a scrappy,
Mod Podge portrait of a French-Algerian-Moroccan
family that scatters—both physically and
spiritually—after the death of the mother, Zineb.
The film floats between documentary and fictional
dramatizations of the past, in which Zineb’s
children literally take on the role of their
deceased mother and re-enact memories from
their childhoods. At one point, middle-aged
son Abdeljalil dons traditional Moroccan women’s
attire and carries on a conversation with a
teenage boy portraying Abdeljalil himself. It’s
a fascinating, Freudian and Psycho-esque
exploration of the subjectivity of memory
and personal interpretation. If you can keep up,
Late for My Mother’s Funeralproves a deeply
intimate meditation on family roots and
DAVID A. HOROWITZ , professor of U.S. Cultural
History at Portland State University in Oregon,
U.S.A. Author of A People’s Voice: A Populist
Cultural History of Modern America (2008):
In Late for My Mother’s Funeral, filmmaker
Penny Allen returns to the way her earlier
efforts Property, Pay Dirt, and The Soldier’s
Tale addressed how ordinary people seek to
negotiate the social, cultural, and political
currents of their time. Defying standard
categories, Allen’s work eagerly unites
fictional and documentary styles to familiarize
viewers with the internal lives and private
reflections of her characters. In this case,
she provides an intimate portrait of a
middle-class Algerian family of Moroccan
origin who must find their way through
North Africa’s nationalist and ethnic
rivalries and antagonisms. Learning the
details of the story through a series of
interviews with family members, we come to
appreciate the postmodern view of nationality
and even ethnicity as social constructs.
It turns out that the consequences of migration
and revolutionary nationalism have cut off
several members of the family from citizenship
in any nation. All of the film’s main characters
maintain at least a cursory connection to Islam.
At the same time, each is a francophone. As the
story unfolds, we learn that some have migrated
to France in search of work and the amenities
of French culture and others hope to become
French citizens. Still others, however, including
the daughter who runs the family’s public bath
enterprise, choose to remain in Algeria, the
family’s home through a combination of historical
accident and the sacrifices of their late mother.
Penny Allen’s gift lies in letting her
characters delineate the circumstances that have
molded their lives. She accomplishes this without
sentimentality, without pre-judgment, and without
calling attention to herself as a filmmaker.
The result leaves us with an incredibly
penetrating view of the conflicting personalities
that make up a closely-knit unit of people whose
immediate circumstances may seem unique but
whose interactions remind us of families in any
setting or culture.
Penny Allen Talks:
Late For My Mother’s Funeral (2013)
December 8th, 2013 by ANNE RICHARDSON •
Penny Allen made her first feature film,
Property (1977), in Portland’s Lair Hill
neighborhood on a CETA grant. She made her
third feature film, En retard pour
l’enterrement de ma mère ( Late For My
Mother’s Funeral) in Algeria, with French
financing, a French crew, and a French
speaking cast of non-professional
The godmother of Portland independent
filmmaking recently sat down to an email
interview with Oregon Movies, A to Z.
Anne: You’ve made narrative films (Property,
Paydirt) and a documentary (The Soldier’s Tale).
Late For My Mother’s Funeral blurs narrative and
documentary. How did this happen? Did the mixing
begin to happen as you made the film, or was
that present from the first moment of conception?
Penny: When it played at the Museum of Modern
Art in New York, Property was described as a
film that appears to be a documentary but as
it continues, the spectator realizes it is
constructed and fully fictional. My third
film The Soldier’s Tale has an essentially
fictional segment which ends the film even
though the beginning and middle parts are
documentary. So the blurring of narrative
fiction and documentary in Late for My Mother’s
Funeral is a continuation, or further
development, of my preference for mixing
the two forms. This hybrid genre is the
genre I feel comfortable in.
The principal reason for working this way is
that, for me, the mix corresponds to reality,
which itself operates in a range from total
fiction (imagination, or falsehood, or
misrepresentation, or manipulation) to total
documentary (such as what one might see on a
hidden camera where nothing happens for hours).
In the case of Late for My Mother’s Funeral,
the two major characters were given the
opportunity to speak directly to the camera
for the change of perspective this offers
to the spectator. To sort of tell you what
is happening. This kind of scene is not really
documentary or fiction but something else
altogether. There is also an extract of a
movie within my movie. I tend to use whatever
I think works and try to make it seamless.
Anne: What drew you to this story?
Penny: I have lived in France for 22 years now,
a country with a population that is 12% Muslim,
the majority of which is Maghrebin (Algerian
and Moroccan primarily). Algeria was part of
France for 130 years, and the Algerian culture
is very present in France today. There are
probably as many variations on Algerian immigration
as there are immigrants, of many generations by now,
ranging from the happiest, most successful at
expressing themselves, to the most oppressed
and miserable. By luck, I have lived in
neighborhoods — the 20th, the 14th, the 3rd,
and now the 18th arrondissements of Paris —
with large Maghrebin populations. My interest
in their culture, history, and politics has
been stoked for years. All this to say that
it was natural for me to eventually think in
terms of a story.
In the case of the particular story of Late
for My Mother’s Funeral, the main character
Abdeljalil came to a screening in Paris of
The Soldier’s Tale and came up to me afterwards
to ask me to make a movie about his story.
So I was invited in.
Anne: Were you already familiar with Arabic
culture, and Arabic family structure, before
you made this film, or if it was a discovery
process for you, as you were making the film.
To me, the film felt deeply anthropological,
even though you were directing actors, and
using the mother’s dress as a unifying motif.
Penny: An Algerian critic in Paris wrote that
he thought the film was the most intimate
portrait of Algerian culture he’d ever seen.
If this is so, it’s thanks to the Zouhri family.
The film is deeply anthropological, and the
Zouhri family is the subject. The idea that
came from outside the culture, from me, was that
one of the sisters could wear the mother’s dress
and play the mother. This is not part of their
culture, but I thought doing this would get us
started, and it did.
Anne: You said you spent three years making this
film. What was that like?!
Penny: We filmed over the course of almost 3 years,
about 9 weeks altogether, in order to follow the
story as it evolved. We also edited and re-edited
over the course of a year after that, making it
almost 4 years.
I had been meeting in Paris with Abdeljalil Zouhri,
the main character in the movie, about twice a
month for at least a year, but without the
intention of doing a movie. He wanted to
talk about the relations and history between
Algeria and Morocco. I listened, asked questions,
filled a couple of notebooks. He also inspired me
to read several books, including “The Harem and
the Cousins,” by anthropologist Germaine Tillion.
Then, when Abdeljalil’s mother died, and when
I learned what a personality she had been, a
gold and jewel smuggler raising 10 children
alone, and when Abdeljalil revealed his own
existential crisis in a very touching way,
I wanted to do a movie. That was what he had
been wanting all along, but it took an acute
situation to get me started writing.
We went very soon to Macon, in Burgundy, where
I met 6 of Abdeljalil’s sisters and brothers,
most of whom he had not seen for years. They
had been estranged. Soon after that, with
Abdeljalil, a cameraman and a soundman, we
left for Algeria for the first shoot.
It was still not long after the death of
the mother. The family’s mourning in the
film is very new, very intense, very raw.
It was in Algeria that for the first time
I met Samira and Souaad, both of whom became
important in the filming, particularly Souaad,
whose own story later hi-jacked the movie,
even though her story is of course related
to the mother’s death and to the fact that
her mother had been the center of her family’s
universe during a turbulent period of history.
It was important for me to be patient and to
listen and learn a great deal, to follow clues
that were offered, and to offer ideas of my
own that corresponded to what was happening.
It would never have been possible to start
the movie any later after the mother’s death,
because mourning does end usually, and
conflicts forgotten during mourning once again
rose to the surface. Now, for example,
Abdeljalil has broken off contact with family
members in Macon, as he had done before his
mother’s death. I am still very much in contact
with Abdeljalil and with Souaad, less so with
the others, although I was invited to a family
wedding recently, about 5 years after the
mother’s death, and everyone treated me like
a member of the family.
Anne: The importance of the house in the
narrative, and the almost claustrophobic
focus on interpersonal relationships…. I felt
I saw some similarities with Property. In both
films, there is the sense that an embattled
community has walled out the world. What do
you make of these parallels?
Penny: In Algeria, the enormous family villa
and hammam in the film is the space where now,
without the queen, if all ten brothers and
sisters were there together, it would be a
miracle. When the mother reigned there, it
was full of life and meaning. What the villa
means now or in the future is part of what
steers events in the film. The villa was also
a fabulous and inspiring decor in which
to shoot, with endless possibilities.
And people came to the villa, so there was a
constant flow of people inside or on the
roof. This lead to an intensity of interactions.
That is the way social life occurs in small-town
western Algeria in general — inside or on the
roof. Especially when there were all those sisters.
And in a dynamic family, a lot happens when
people come calling. Visitors are welcome.
There is a lot of palavering and activity,
especially on the roof.
Property shares one important thing with Late
for My Mother’s Funeral, and that is having
8 main characters. I have often been interested
in group interactions. In Property it seemed
the characters really liked their community,
but they had drifted there without the intent
to wall themselves off. They were content to
stay put. Property was more of a “chamber movie,”
as critic Amos Vogel called it.
Anne: Thank you, Penny!
Tel: 01 40 27 81 80
Portable: 06 48 32 31 90
Penny Allen interview: Portland-born director of 'Property'
visits town with her new film, 'Late for My Mother's Funeral'
Late for My Mother's Funeral.jpg
A scene from Penny Allen's film "Late for My Mother's Funeral,
" which screens Monday, December 16, at the Northwest Film Center.
(Penny Allen Films)
Print Marc Mohan | Special to The Oregonian By Marc Mohan |
Special to The Oregonian
Before “Grimm,” before “Portlandia,” before "Drugstore Cowboy,
" there was Penny Allen. The Portland-born director made two
independent feature films here, back before it was cool.
“Property” (1979) followed the efforts of a batch of Northwest
misfits to protect their homes from urban developers, while
“Paydirt” (1981) was about vineyard owners who branch out into
marijuana cultivation. Clearly, even then she had her eye on
issues of great import to Oregonians.
But, after "Property" gave poet Walt Curtis, cinematographer
Eric Edwards and then-sound engineer Gus Van Sant their first
film credits, and after “Paydirt” played at the U.S. Film Festival
(which later became the Sundance Film Festival), Allen wouldn’t
make another film for a quarter century. Now she’s back in
Portland to screen “Late for My Mother’s Funeral,” her newest
project, on Monday, Dec. 16, at the Northwest Film Center.
It’s a documentary-style chronicle of a large Moroccan family
living in Algeria, coping with the death of their matriarch,
who in her day was a notorious jewel smuggler.
I spoke with Allen by phone from Paris, as she was preparing to
fly to the U.S. the following day. Questions and answers
have been edited for length and clarity.
Marc Mohan: What prompted you to leave Portland after
“Paydirt” and what have you been up to since?
Penny Allen. In 1982 or 1983, I moved from Portland to a
ranch outside of Sisters, and lived there until we moved
to Paris in 1991. I usually come back to Portland at least
once a year. It’s very dear to me, it’s my anchor. It’s a
place where I get refreshed after having depleted myself
in Paris. I still have a house in Portland, though it’s
rented out. It’s the house where much of “Property” was shot.
MM: What changes have you noticed from these annual
snapshot visits to Portland?
PA: The obsession with cuisine has only happened since
I’ve been away. It is a fact that you eat better in Portland
than you do in Paris. When I say that, people are shocked,
but it’s true.
MM: Does it surprise you that Portland has acquired a
certain cultural cachet in the last couple of decades?
PA: When I got started making “Property,” there was a
large community of filmmakers who already existed, and
I was a newcomer to that community. So it’s not surprising at all.
It’s a good place to make movies.
MM: It must be! Once you left, in fact, you didn’t make
another movie for 25 years, until “The Soldier’s Tale” (2007).
PA: When we moved to Central Oregon, it was to a pretty
isolated place, where I not only didn’t want to make movies,
but where it was unlikely to happen. When I moved to Paris,
it struck me as impossible to penetrate the film community
and actually become a filmmaker here. I worked for the French
minister for the environment for several years, and then Sept.
11 kind of wiped the environment off the screen for a while.
So I translated books after that, and I was writing. Then in
2004 I got back into filmmaking by accident. I was sitting
in a plane on the tarmac at the Paris airport and this soldier
sat down next to me and started talking in this hysterical mode.
That was the beginning of “The Soldier’s Tale.”
MM: How did you meet the family you film in
“Late for My Mother’s Funeral?”
PA: The main character of the movie, Abdeljalil, came to a
screening of “The Soldier’s Tale” in Paris and asked me
afterwards if I would make a film about him having been
deported from Algeria to Morocco. I was not particularly
interested in doing that, but I did meet with him regularly.
And then his mother, who he’d never mentioned previously at all,
died, and he changed. He had an existential crisis and was
wracked with guilt over not having seen his mother in 12 years,
and convinced me to follow him home and film her funeral.
So I didn’t recruit them, they recruited me.
MM: The movie feels like a documentary, but has scenes of
reenactment, and you use words like “character” to describe the
people in it. One a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is total fiction
and 10 is total truth, where does it lie?
PA: The film is very definitely a hybrid, quite intentionally.
I came up with the idea of the scenes where the children wear
the mother’s dress and re-enact quite early, and those are fiction.
This hybrid between fiction and nonfiction is something I’m
interested in; I think even “Property” has some of that.
PA: I don’t mean to pry, but I’m still curious why you left
Portland for this ranch near Sisters and abandoned what seemed
like a promising filmmaking career.
PA: Love! It was a love story. And it’s not prying — I wrote a
book about it. It’s called “A Geography of Saints.” It deals
with life in Sisters, focused around the shocking events that
happened our first year there, including murders and a few
MM: Sounds like it would make a good movie.
For French click here