"Outside the Law"
Directed by Rachid Bouchareb
2010, France/Algeria/Belgium, 138 min.
French and Arabic with English subtitles
The French colonial occupation of Algeria ended in 1962 but France has yet to deal with this sordid chapter in its history. The conflict that killed over 100,000 French citizens was never officially called a war and the world knows little about this war of liberation that Algerians estimate killed over a million and a half of their own citizens.
The subject is relatively taboo in France and only a few films have addressed the neglected story, most notable being Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 powerful classic, "Battle of Algiers." Bertrand Tavernier's 1999 film "The War with No Name" and Egyptian master Yousef Chahine's 1958 drama "Jamila, the Algerian" went relatively unseen by the general public.
In 2006, French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb wrote and directed "Indigenes (Days of Glory)," and created a storm of controversy by telling the unknown story of the Algerians in French history. Protests were held by French nationalists claiming the film was revisionist, anti-French and defamed French participation in World War II. But the film received endless accolades, was nominated for an Oscar Best Foreign Film Award, and the Cannes Festival Award for Best Actor went to the entire male ensemble, a first for any festival. The epic production dramatized the Algerians' contributions to the liberation of France in World War II. These Arab fighters dedicated their lives to free France while they were still under occupation in their homeland. The day Hitler was defeated Algerians celebrated and marched in the hopes that their own land would be liberated also. In the small town of Setif in northern France, joyous marchers were gunned down and the ensuing hatred and chaos resulted in the deaths of as many as 40,000 Algerians.
It is this momentous massacre that starts Bouchareb's new film, "Outside the Law," shown at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival last month, and about to be released this weekend. It is essentially a sequel to "Indigenes," but this time addressing the struggle for independence that took place on French soil. It begins in 1945 where the other film leaves off. Both films are fast paced with topnotch directing and acting, sex, violence, and car chases, certainly a highly entertaining way to capture attention for the real-life struggle for liberation.
"Outside the Law" is the Algerian revolution in the style of "The Godfather," but with a significant difference. The three brothers are fighting in a collective way to liberate their country, rather than just the for the honor of their family name. The same three actors portray the same characters who appeared in the first film, but here they each represent a different approach to fighting for independence. Said, played by Moroccan-born Jamel Debbouze, chooses the secular route, assimilates into French society and runs a nightclub with prostitutes. Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) is a religious intellectual who leads the independence movement (the FLN), joined by his battle-scarred brother Messaoub (Roschdy Zem) returning from action in the French Resistance. What they have in common is the desire to free their homeland from years of colonial occupation. As history has shown, through many battles, deaths and other setbacks, in 1962 Algeria won its freedom.
Bouchareb's films have provoked real social change in France. As a result of the exposure of the Muslim Algerians' contributions to World War II, France now grants equal pensions to all former combatants. And in the current climate of ethnic fear caused partly by a nation denied its full history, the positive role of Muslims in the French liberation from Nazism as portrayed in Bouchareb's films helps break the stereotypes prevalent in today's Europe. It also offers inspiration to those struggling in other parts of the world against colonialism and foreign occupation. And, in fairness, France deserves praise as a nation at least partly willing to address its sordid colonialist past.
Photo: A scene from "Outside the Law." (Tessalit Films)