Es-Stouh (The Rooftops)

The solitude of primary numbers. Merzak Allouache’s Es-Stouh (The Rooftops) is the last in competition and focuses on five rooftops in five different parts of Algiers. The action is broken up by the five calls to prayer heard from the city’s minarets.

As dawn breaks on the city the audience is introduced to the different groups of people who make up the rooftop stories of this interesting and arresting film. We meet the layabout who squats in the washroom of his apartment block, making money from some very dodgy deals, and the property developer and his thugs giving someone a little water board treatment. Light relief is brought by a band and a camera crew. We watch a lonely housewife, spreading her rug out to beat. Perhaps the oddest group is the family living in a ramshackle hut, which we later discover was built with the help of neighbours when the matriarch of the family lost her home. This nucleus is made up of the simple elderly woman, exasperated by her ne’er do well grandson who comes in at all hours and drinks or snorts his way through the day. His mum never speaks a word and is virtually immobile, her hair spreading out in the breeze and a cigarette almost constantly at her lips.

Allouache’s gaze on this chaotic and crammed city is a critical one. We see how people living in the midst of so many others – and so often on public view – can slip into isolation right in front of our eyes. We see people tortured and tormented, sometimes at the hands of their own family. One man lives on his rooftop, caged and shackled like an animal. Yet when he is given the chance to flee, he fears the outside world, afraid of the sunlight and his freedom.

Allouache also focuses on the plight of women. We see a wife beaten by her husband and when the female singer of the band calls on her male companions for help, they all decline, unmoved by the woman’s plight. A short but intense relationship is forged between the two very different women separated by just a few feet between their respective rooftops. The director also looks at the religious issues of his country, but it is with a lightness of touch that is merely another facet of this rooftop community.

This is an important film that deals with the many problems facing Algeria, but not only: the desire for change pitted against the innate conservatism and religious fundamentalism, the corruption and disregard for one’s neighbours and fellow human beings. By the end of the film and the final call to prayer there is a body count of five characters. For Allouache, in this film at least, five is the magic number.