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Dialogue between Nicolas Nova and Habiba Djahnine

50 Minds for the Next 50. Towards a Balanced Representation of World Heritage Sites

Nicolas Nova

Researcher, writer, design researcher and anthropologist of technology

Habiba Djahnine

Writer and filmmaker whose body of work consists of cinema dedicated to accurate portrayal of Algerian realities

Vision for the Next 50

In the Next 50… Technologies enable us to tell our own stories, express emotions and share cultural values. With the help of technology, we are able to observe details rooted in diverse cultures and heritage, getting past the facade of a person or country.

In the Next 50… Women actively employ documentary films to show and participate in their heritage promotion, as well as to preserve, reappropriate and reconstruct values of heritage that are at risk of disappearing.


Nicolas Nova and Habiba Djahnine discussed the role of new media and technologies in a balanced representation of culture. They agreed that technologies, including films and documentaries, can raise recognition of culture and heritage of the underrepresented region, faced with a glut of international culture.

Nicolas underlined the importance of paying attention to various aspects of identity, culture and heritage that are hidden behind the facade. As an anthropologist observing technology’s influence on humanity, he talked about designing technologies to connect people and preserve heritage against dominant international culture. Habiba stressed that documentary films give women the opportunity to promote their heritage, demonstrate their values and protect their culture from colonialism and the dominance of certain media. We must create a new path towards reappropriating heritage by supporting and training women and young professionals in cinematography who aspire to capture true narratives of the ‘overlooked region’.


I can see you are a leading figure in promoting filmmaking in Algeria. One interesting thing regarding our topic, the issue of heritage, is directly related to my work – the importance of telling stories. How important is this concept in your work, especially when it comes to recognition of heritage at the local, national or international levels?

Just to put things into context, we created an independent structure in Algeria as an alternative space where we could think with colleagues, filmmakers and also activists. We think about image, how we can build an image of ourselves and so therefore storytelling lies at the very heart of our work.

I live in North Africa, a region of the world that was colonized for 130 years. And therefore in our countries, we try to own our culture, and sometimes this takes place in an authoritarian and violent way. This means we have to think constantly about the way we tell our stories. As soon as we pick up a camera, we need to think about how we can build an image of ourselves that is not alienated, one that is free, independent, not polluted by the various misconceptions we have of ourselves. How, based on our practice, we can look at our heritage that is disappearing or being destroyed.

There's also the issue of gender inequality. It is very difficult for women to speak up; they have a minority status under Algerian law. Even though women are the bearers of heritage, such as poetry or customs, habits, rituals. Filmmaking gives them the possibility to tell their stories and promote their heritage.

Making documentaries can be the way to conserve something that is disappearing. And therefore our approach is extremely dynamic, a very lively approach that includes and represents the people themselves today. This way we try to invest in the future through heritage, which I think is crucial because sometimes people have a narrow-minded way of looking at the past.

As an anthropologist, Nicolas, someone who is interested in transmission, how do you think we can we have a different approach to technology today, and use these new technologies without falling into the same traps?

People think I promote technologies, but first and foremost, I am interested in human beings. What I'm really interested in when I look at anthropology and technology is to understand how human beings use these technologies, such as smartphones, and the disconnect between the intent of the people who produce these technologies and the way in which people will be using these technologies to do whatever they wish, to act, to communicate…

And of course there are companies trying to impose their own goals, so there's a problem of disconnection, a risk of alienation, the fear that we may lose our heritage like our language because very often these technologies are in English.

I'm currently working with a colleague in Haiti, for example, on the issue of smartphones. The people who use these technologies to meet their needs, how will they find an equilibrium between what is imposed by a technological company and their own needs? There's a clear contradiction, but I think people will always try to use these technologies the way they want, which can upset companies or states. It is important to understand this disconnection, and find new ways to tell stories and communicate more discreetly. There is always a way for people to find a solution. And my goal is to try to understand the way in which they use technologies to find new ways to tell stories.

But I wanted to ask you, how do we allow people to reappropriate their own story, their heritage, using the tools of today and how can we use the tools differently? If we take documentary cinema, how can it be changed in order to tell stories in a certain way?

I think that's really what we're doing. What's more, we've made a documentary that brings in people from throughout the country who are not necessarily trained as artists, or have an artistic background.

We’re trying to generate creative spaces for them, to help them look at their own realities. What we need to keep in mind is the fact that our history and our heritage is losing value because of colonialism, neocolonialism, and also the dominance of certain media.

All culturally dominant structures in the world, like Hollywood, are shaping the way people see things. There's a process of appropriation and people moving away from their original culture. So we have to look at things in a new way and get things right. In other words, create a new path towards the reappropriation of our heritage.

For example, a young intern who made a film of a slum area, he went into that area, which is despised because of its social status. Then the young man starts to work with people who've been pushed to the margin of society. By doing that, he brought back culture through music, through social solidarity. It’s so important to be collective in our approach, to work with people. We do not make films about people, we make films with people. And it’s not something we were necessarily aware of, to begin with. But it’s what we’re seeing when we add up different heritage we notice that people are producing.

And I wonder if your approach to heritage takes into account these different facets. I mean, there are all sorts of populations that are pushed to the outer confines of society. I wonder how you see things.

If you're in a country such as Switzerland, from the outside, it's a Western society and I'm the representative of that society here on this panel. But there are all sorts of differences, different accents… In a city like Geneva, you've got people from all over the world or international organizations, and I have students who offer all sorts of backgrounds, racial, cultural…

Even where I am, Geneva, there is irritation when certain things are imposed as models that have to be followed. Historically, if you take a look at the history of the Alps, for instance, there are lots of different approaches that existed in the past. And that has been overlooked. So there's a way of taking on board stories from the past and reworking them. And in the context of transmission, there are two things that we should teach our students: to get behind the facade of a person from a country. Because there might be an awful lot more to that person. For instance, my grandmother was Brazilian, but if you look at me, who would know. That means you have to pay attention to the other part of identity.

And then it's the second thing. You have to know how to observe and listen, to be able to create, as you were saying earlier.

I see this with younger people. We have to teach them to observe and to see details that might seem irrelevant, but on the basis of those details, you can tell stories that are important for you, that can be linked to cultural aspects, music, history, things that speak to you. Very often, that's been set aside because of the ‘legitimate’ international culture – people have lost sight of their roots. If you see the way in which people see the world, tell stories, express emotions, fears, there's ground for further development.

We're always trying to take a look at design technology and see how we can work with it. It's a question not just of design, but ethics.

That's crucial. So first of all, our training is for young people under 35, 40 years old. We see that there's a real passion for history, cultur and heritage, and a desire to seek a certain truth. And to move away from the official line and see how these minor stories can tell the big story.

One of our trainees came up with a film that was shown in cinemas in 2022. It portrays a woman who was a shepherd. The filmmaker went to her village and worked with people who were pursuing old traditions. A group of women has been created, taking turns to take care of the goat and work in the fields. While they were doing field work, others were dealing with taking care of the children, taking people to the doctor. So it's a sort of self-help system based on solidarity in the village.

And it's a fantastic film, aside from the fact that she's managed to capture this solidarity in this age-old system that had been forgotten, this whole lost relationship with the land has been reintroduced by these women.

They even go and clean the cemeteries, which are focal points for memory. It’s just wonderful that these young men and women are returning to this overlooked world.

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Five dialogue sessions covering five themes take place in 2022, each joined by thinkers in paired dialogue from diverse regions. The interdisciplinary dialogues inspire new visions for the next 50 years of World Heritage.

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Towards a Balanced Representation of World Heritage Sites