Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 10, 2006 8:16 am 
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A film in defense of Algerian French soldiers in WWII

This is the story of a “band of brothers,” Algerian Arabs fighting in the French army under French or pieds noirs (North African born French) cadres in World War II, a steadily dwindling unit fighting across the theaters of the war like the one in Fuller’s 1980 The Big Red One, the film ending with a lone survivor as an old man, the actor, heavily made up, revisiting the battlefield cemetery à la Saving Private Ryan. This is in many ways the creditable recreation of a Hollywood dogface drama recast as an exposé of colonialist exploitation.

Rachid Bouchareb’s earnest, often conventional, but nonetheless essential war film is about his grandparents’ generation (Bouchareb was born in France of Algerian parents). In the film, the volunteers in Algeria declare allegiance to France at the outset, and sing the “Marseillaise” with fervor, though many of then can’t read Arabic or French and speak the colonial language haltingly. For the most part doggedly loyal and always good fighters and brave, the principals all meet with prejudice from their white French superiors, failing to receive recognition or promotion after each exploit. As it proves itself the company is moved from North Africa to Italy and then France, fighting its climactic battle, isolated into the platoon with the lead actors, even their pied noir sergeant disabled and near death, in a remote Alsatian village where all are wiped out but one in a dramatic battle against a much larger unit of Germans.

Adopting Days of Glory as the English title loses half the point of the film. The actual title is much more ironic and bitter: Indigènes -- i.e, "natives" -- is what the French called their colonial locals, a public substitute for nastier words spoken in private, which are rendered in the English subtitles as "wog." All the principals are played by French-Arab film acting veterans -- who won a collective Best Actor award at Cannes. Even this prize carried an unintentional insult with its implied equation: 4 Arab actors = 1 French one, but that doesn’t change the fact that for Jamel Debbouze, Roschidy Zem, Sami Bouajila, and Samy Naceri, Indigènes represents an exceptional personal opportunity met with due honor and commitment. It’s watching these skilled actors doing the most serious, accomplished work of their lives that constitutes the chief pleasure of the film, but it also has authentic locations, convincing battle scenes, and fine camerawork, and the specific goal of the film was to prod France into finally rewarding the survivors with their pensions.

Each character and incident exists to make a point, again with the reservation that the good acting makes it nonetheless work. Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blacon) is ostensibly a pure Frenchman born in North Africa – a pied noir – but a photograph reveals that he’s probably half Arab himself, and hides this fact out of internalized racism and expediency: were it known, he might not have even made sergeant. He leads the little band of men and is with them till the end, acting as their protector and defender, but still reinforcing French prejudices. Messaoud (Zem) is the soldier in love: he also wants to become French, to marry into French society, because his girlfriend is a pretty French girl. The army is successful in keeping them apart. Abdelkader (Bouajila) is the best educated and has the greatest leadership potential; he is the lone survivor and the one who speaks up most strongly along the way about France’s failure to deliver the “liberty, equality, and fraternity” it promises them. Yassir (Naceri) is a country rube who steals and exploits, but turns out to be a crack fighter. Saïd Otmari (Debbouze) is a little one-armed illiterate naïf adopted by Martinez as his personal dogsbody. Even he proves a brave fighter in a pinch. If there was a negative side to the Meghrebi soldiers and they committed some atrocities when unleahsed in Europe as depicted in De Sica's 1960 Two Women (La Ciociara), that's not what this picture is about. When people are telling their story for the first time the format tends to be conventional and the content idealized.

In the final battle sequence, after a lull that is perhaps too long, the platoon, whose tough stringy leader, Martinez, is wounded and dying now, Abdelkader takes charge in the fierce battle in the Alsatian town. The few remaining men wipe out a much large number of German soldiers armed with flamethrowers. Sure, this is idealized – it forces us to see the Arabs as superior soldiers – but it’s also a gripping war gunfight sequence worthy of Spielberg or John Ford. Your feelings hover between awe, pleasure, and horror as they should and must. When you see Abdelkader, the bravest and the most caring of the men, left alone staring at the sergeant and Saïd’s entwined, torched remains, and he weeps, you weep with him. The moment is richly earned.

The Alsatian villagers come out after the battle and many more French soldiers arrive and a photographer takes pictures and you realize the Arabs’ heroism is going to be bypassed even after this extraordinary final test. Nobody saw it and nobody is going to care. Sure, the messages are telegraphed simply, but they’re far more bittersweet than any US war picture’s. This has been compared to Zwick’s 1989 Glory, but Zwick wasn’t a black man; the director is Arab of Algerian descent speaking of his own recent forebears.


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