Friday, 30 March 2007

Indigènes/ Days of Glory - Review by Sandra Dupuy

Director: Rachid Bouchareb
Screenwriter: Rachid Bouchareb and Olivier Lorelle
Runtime: 128 minutes
Certificate: 12A
Release date: 30th March

Since 1945, French cinema has drawn its inspiration for numerous fiction films from the Second World War’s smoking remains. Traditionally linked to three major themes - the shameful Collaboration, the heroic Resistance, and the epic Liberation- most of these films helped to forge a strong national identity.

This identity, however, was built on a sanitized version of French contemporary history. With Indigènes, Rachid Bouchareb reframes this carefully selective vision by shedding light on an episode completely ignored in retrospectives and history textbooks until now.

In 1943, while De Gaulle had just set up the CFLN (French National Liberation Committee), more than 130, 000 North-African soldiers, mostly from Algeria and Morocco, were mobilized to join the Army of North Africa. This division of the French Army was sent to liberate occupied France from the Eastern front, by landing in Marseilles and fighting their way, on foot, from Provence to the Vosges and Alsace via the Rhone Valley. Most of these “indigènes”, treated as second-class citizens, shed their blood for a mother country they had never even seen.

Indigènes focuses on four Algerian and Moroccan soldiers and their sergeant, relating their long and winding journey from the banks of the Mediterranean to the forests of Alsace. Naïve shepherd Saïd (Jamel Debbouze) leaves his village and his mother to join the army. Stubborn mercenary Yassir (Samy Nacéri) doesn’t hesitate to rob dead soldiers, selling his spoils as military memorabilia. Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), “Pas de chance” (bad luck) tattooed on his chest, wants to flee poverty and falls in love with a girl from Marseilles. Young educated corporal Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) is craving for social recognition and justice. As for their immediate leader, Algerian-born Frenchman Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan), he is quick to praise his men to his superiors, though he never gives them an encouraging word.

Bouchareb tells their story fairly conventionally, in a war film full of sound and fury. Aerial black and white landscape shots, slowly turning to a mosaic of greens, browns, and oranges as clouds move past, signal spatiotemporal shifts. Sequence shots of soldiers crawling on burning rock faces like anonymous ants alternate with close-ups conveying their extreme fear and violence.

The battle scenes, whether they are large-scale manoeuvres or isolated fights, are brutal. Bullets fizz and shells explode. Black dust covers everything, creeping over the frame. Bodies jump, or crumble mutilated to the ground. The final fight against a German battalion, set in a ghostly Alsatian village, possesses a feverish atmosphere of suspended threat. There is no heroism here. It is simply about forgotten soldiers, all the more brave since they belong nowhere, and have volunteered to be cannon fodder.

Despite its big budget and its spectacular aspect, the main function of Indigènes’ is to explore the poignant human drama unfolding behind battle scenes and important political moments. “I wanted to focus on human matter and small everyday details, which recreate life better than any speech”, explains Bouchareb.

In a country lost between its wounded colonial pride and a humiliating German occupation, racial tensions inevitably arise between the French commanders and the “indigenous” troops. These soldiers, constantly called “wogs” between deadly raids, experience blatant inequalities as far as food rations, pay, permissions (they’re not allowed any) and speed of promotion are concerned. They are victim of the cruellest deception: the blood that they shed will only buy their colonizer’s freedom. Historically accurate moments such as the soldiers mutiny for fresh tomatoes, or the government censoring letters between native soldiers and French women, are adapted from veterans’ and historians’ accounts and reinforce the notion of injustice.

Bouchareb manages to avoid over-simplification. Though most officers are indifferent, patronising, or insulting to their North-African recruits - the French Army was never renowned for its philanthropy- some of their actions show a deep lack of understanding rather than deliberate cruelty. Captain Durieux (Benoît Giros), at a loss after putting Abdelkader in jail for incitement to rebellion, asks Sergeant Martinez: “What can we do for these natives?” He also takes Abdelkader’s side, and replies to his superior, who wanted the young man shot as an example: “Tell me, before joining De Gaulle at the last minute, what was your function within the Vichy government?”

As a tribute to the many North-African veterans, quickly relegated to oblivion, Bouchareb paints an endearing picture of the soldiers, never perceived as angels or complete victims. Abdelkader, when asked to join a dangerous expedition to Alsace, soon forgets his claim for justice, suddenly craving for social promotion. Saïd’s anger and courage increase throughout the film, after being previously exploited by Martinez and ridiculed by his fellow soldiers because of it. As the film progresses, these characters become less archetypal, and more complex. And there’s the ambivalent figure of Sergeant Martinez. Passing for an Algerian of pure French origin, while he is in fact half-Arab, Martinez is a self-loathing character, constantly torn between the desire to protect his men, and the fear of being mistaken for one of them.

Finely shaded performances, contributing to the film’s psychological accuracy, are its major strength. The five main actors bring enough substance and violence to their characters to carry them beyond mere symbols. They thoroughly deserve their Cannes Festival 2006 collective interpretation prize.

Indigènes is important because it reminds France of its contemporary history, and draws attention to the fact that 84,000 of these veterans are still alive today, most of them penniless, vegetating in drab single rooms “generously” rented by the council. Though a law has been voted in 2000 to force the French government to restore their war pensions, frozen in 1959, their situation is unresolved to this day, and they’re still waiting for a decent retirement benefit.

The film’s second merit is to renew the national debate surrounding integration. Algeria’s status in particular has always been, and remains, a sensitive issue as far as French politics and society are concerned. Though many traits of the North-African culture are part and parcel of France’s cultural heritage, and Islam is the country’s second religion, racism is still present in everyday life. Indigènes is a step forward towards a pacified, rather than accusatory or guilt-ridden, debate. If one film can’t completely revolutionize the way the French view their history, it can certainly plead for a multi-cultural approach to it.

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