As we touched on in our discussion of A View of Love, with the notable exceptions of Gillo Pontecorvo’s renowned The Battle of Algiers (1966), Hollywood’s Lost Command (also 1966) and Jean-Luc Godard’s The Little Soldier (1960, but released 1963), the French occupation of Algeria and the subsequent war throughout the 1950s and 1960s is something that cinema has often struggled to come to terms with. Writer / director Rachid Bouchareb had previously explored the dynamic between the colonial French and the ‘motherland’ in his 2006 Cannes Film Festival Indigènes (Days of Glory), in which a group of four North African Muslims enlist in the fight for France during the Second World War. During the Algerian War of 1954 to 1962, there was violence both in Algeria and in the streets of Paris. Bouchareb attempts to take a holistic approach to this moment in history once again via the stories his small group of Algerian ex-pats.
After losing their ancestral home to French colonists in Alegria, three brothers take very different paths across the world. Messaoud (Roschdy Zem, Days of Glory) joins the French army to fight in Indochina, Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) is sent to jail in France as an Algerian political prisoner and Saïd (Jamel Debbouze, Amélie) moves with their mother to the slums of Paris where he becomes a success in the local organised crime gangs. When Abdelkader is released from prison, he is intent on raising the consciousness and fists of the local Algerians against the French oppressors by taking the fight to the French on their own territory. Recruiting Messaoud, the two brothers begin to grow apart from Saïd, who has his own ambitions for fame and glory.
Dealing with this historic travesty in an unbiased way is virtually impossible, especially given the emotions that this kind of story is likely to evoke on both sides of the political fence. Indeed, to speak of ‘both sides’ is already hopelessly simplifying a problem that traces its roots back the imperialistic and colonial roots of many an empire across the world prior to the First World War. As is the nature of such tales on-screen, we are given a personalised account of the events via three brothers who have taken three very different paths through adversity. Those paths may be tried and true on-screen – a criminal, a military vet and a political prisoner-turned-rebel – but the same could be said of the reality of coming from a war-torn country, with destinies forged by an imperialistic power that has no notions of how it will impact on the lives of average people. In this sense, we are only given a limited view of the horrors that were perpetrated in both Algeria and France during this period, with massacres and brutality that seems out of step with the sophisticated persona that Paris displays to the world. The shanty-town in which many of the Algeria refugees reside sits just outside the Paris city lights, within sight of the Eiffel Tower but a world away in practice. In many ways, this is what we as audiences members must endure: the closeness of human drama but with the distance of time and experience to truly understand the breadth of the moment in history.
As a way of personalising history, Bouchareb brings his trio of actors back from their Days of Glory roles and continues their tale in a different context. The film is very heavy-handed in its politics, with there being very little in the way of a grey area between French nationalism and the explosive politics of Abdelkader’s FLN (Front de Libération Nationale). The film certainly downplays the thousands of French killed as part of the FLN bomb attacks in the so-called ‘Café Wars’ during the Algerian War, but by same token it may shock many to learn of the sheer brutality of the Paris police force in dealing with any Algerians on the streets of the French capital. The reduction of this tragic period of French history to a series of personal stories may not encompass all the politics of the day, but it does what it sets out to do and bring a sense of individual drama to a set of events that couldn’t possibly be contained within one film. Although we are kept at arm’s length by the dramatic action at times, and this is seemingly a piece of entertainment first and foremost, the audience ultimately gains an insight into a period that we hope never repeats in our time.
The Reel Bits: A powerful human drama set against the backdrop of a tragic war within living memory. Superbly acted by the principle cast of brothers, this lavish production is undoubtedly one of the modern epics of this year’s festivals.
A stand-alone follow-up to writer / director Rachid Bouchareb’s Cannes Film Festival François Chalais award-winning world war two film Days Of Glory, Outside The Law provides a lengthy interpretation of the impact of French rule in Algeria and the resulting war that spanned 1954 to 1962, covering five decades and two generations of family members. Drawing upon a rich history of features dealing with the topic (including Gillo Pontecorvo’s stand-out effort The Battle Of Algiers), it explores the actions of three sons (a crook, a political prisoner and a military veteran) driven to improve upon their father’s and family’s impoverished station in life, and to address their nation’s oppression and exploitation at the hands of the French in the process. As an effective early scene reminds the audience, on the day that the western world celebrated allied victory in the second world war, Algerian freedom protesters were massacred in the infamous Sétif massacre. This is a telling juxtaposition that provides the spark for the siblings’ deeds and permeates throughout Bouchareb’s Oscar nominated feature (for best foreign language film, with Susanne Bier’s In A Better World the eventual victor), even if the film’s presentation of this horrendous chapter in history is sadly lacking.
With actors Jamel Debbouze (Angel-A), Sami Bouajila (Bitter Victory) and Roschdy Zem (Department 36) returning to their roles from the preceding feature, the stage is set for a riveting examination of the formative years of Algerian politics in the twentieth century. Alas, instead of capitalising upon the continuity of his protagonists within such explosive circumstances, Bouchareb instead wallows in manipulation and repetition, highlighting the cause over the characters at all costs. As a result, empathy is mostly absent across the film’s 138-minute running time, with the well-performing leads trying hard but finding it difficult to evoke an emotional connection. Their efforts are not aided by the controversial nature of the re-telling of history, with political reactions varied in their view of the feature’s authenticity and even uninformed viewers likely to spot the partiality. Owing a debt to the gangster genre (with Michael Mann’s Public Enemies providing an interesting stylistic parallel) more than the oeuvre of war films, Outside The Law is technically competent, although it ultimately comes across as slow and drawn out rather than immediate and energetic. With a third feature in the thematically connected trilogy the concept of current discussion, this may not be the end of Bouchareb’s ponderings of the state of his homeland, however here’s hoping the next installment re-ignites the topic’s inherent spark
The Reel Bits: Re-uniting with his cast and characters from the applauded Days Of Glory, writer / director Rachid Bouchareb has crafted an admittedly biased account of the Algerian war. Interesting in content whilst languishing in execution, Outside The Law is effective in the historical sense, yet nowhere near as compelling as the events demand.
Outside the Law is screening as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival 2011.