There aren’t all that many high profile films which cover the flipside to the whole terrorism debacle. Obviously it’s still a touchy subject – many troops are still over there, and the so-called ‘war on terror’ is still going on, across several fronts – but it is always interesting to see things from a different perspective, as these matters are seldom clear-cut black and white. A few films have posited more complex storylines, highlighting flaws in US actions (Green Zone looked at the futile search for WMDs that, it posited, were never there in the first place), whilst some others have shown a more satirical look at the plight of the ‘common’ terrorist – as shown in the poignant, tragic, and yet also hilarious Four Lions. Seldom have viewers been put in a position where they could countenance ‘siding’ with the terrorists, however – and why would they? Politicians, and the media, after all, would have you believe that there is no flipside to the coin. Yet, as history has shown us, telling the other side of the story is something that comes with maturity and the benefit of 20:20 hindsight – remember the old Vietnam movies (like that one with John Wayne – Green Berets), which attempted to show the heroic US fight against these dastardly Vietnamese? Well, things sure changed when we saw the true horrors as shown in the likes of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July (not to mention Apocalypse Now). Perhaps the same will happen with the Middle-East struggle? But, no doubt, it will take some time yet. Oddly, one of the best examples of a production sympathetically ‘getting us in the terrorist mindset’ is the recent TV show Battlestar Galactica, which turned tables on viewers midway through the seasons, and showed the characters that we knew and loved, who were fighting the good fight against the evil cylons, now caught and in internment camps, mistreated and tortured, and often awaiting execution. All of a sudden, the heroic characters we had followed for so long were compelled to do anything to break free of their captors’ oppression – from the establishment of a resistance movement, to the execution of those felt to be traitors, to, eventually, suicide bombings. Whatever it took. The whole thing was quite obviously an allegory for the US conflict in the Middle East, and the terrorism surrounding it – and it was a highly effective one at that as, all of a sudden, it became abundantly clear that the viewer had surreptitiously been placed on the side of the now-terrorists. For a time – however short that may have been – we could see why these desperate individuals were fighting the battle the only way they knew how. It’s one of the most powerful sympathetic depictions of the terrorism angle ever shown on-screen, and it’s a shame that, essentially, if you weren’t a fan and follower of Battlestar Galactica, you would never know it even existed.
The Algerian production Hors La Loi (Outside the Law) attempts to do much the same thing – but about a much earlier conflict: The Algerian War.
Algeria is the largest country in Africa. Situated to the north, just to the South East of Southern Coast of France, it was colonised by the French in the mid-19th Century. When I say ‘colonised’, I should probably elaborate: it was an attack that was characterised by massacres, mass rapes and a general ‘scorched Earth’ policy designed to leave the inhabitants with nothing to, well, inhabit. Soon settlers from all around Europe landed there, Algeria formally being declared an ‘integral part of French territory’. Whilst European settlers and some non-Muslim natives were allowed French Citizenship, the indigenous Muslims would have been compelled to renounce their faith if they wished to become Citizens – understandably, few did. By the end of the 19th Century, the French had expanded this discrimination to a form of outright punishment – and Muslim land was ‘appropriated’ by the French Government, the families living there uprooted. Despite all of this, these native Algerians enlisted and fought for France in both World Wars, and then they fought France for independence.
The film kicks off in 1925, where we find an Algerian farm owner, and his wife and three sons, being told by the French authorities that he has to leave his home. Jumping forward 20 years, to the end of World War II and we find the Algerian nationals, on the same day that Nazi Germany surrendered, have taken to the streets in a mass parade to celebrate victory. In amidst the huge crowd there are several with banners declaring the need for independence and an end to colonial rule; these banners catch the attention of the French authorities and soon the parade-turned-peaceful-protest becomes an all-out massacre where thousands of innocent civilians are slaughtered. Amongst those shot by the French is the Algerian farm owner; his three sons are now grown up, and with one suffering as a Prisoner of War, after fighting for the French Army in Indochine (the precursor battle to what would evolve into the Vietnam War), and one in jail awaiting execution for his work in the independence movement, it is up to the third, Said, to take his mother away from it all. They relocate to Paris, where they are forced to live in the immigrant slums, but Said rejects the notion of going to work for next to nothing in the local Renault garage, and instead takes up work as a pimp and, eventually, a nightclub owner.
His brothers, meanwhile, return to find their country a very different place, and set about trying to do something about it. Also moving to Paris, they establish a proactive independence movement which is designed to take the fight to the French on French soil. Soon they are organising bombings, doing raids on police stations and generally causing chaos, much to the chagrin of the authorities. But things start to take a sour turn when their resolve becomes more prominently fundamentalist – not only are they willing to take innocent French lives to prove their point and achieve their goal, they are prepared to kill their own, and sometimes on the most insignificant grounds (executing a father and husband in his own home just because he bought a French fridge!). Will the independence movement ever free Algeria from its colonial stranglehold? And, if so, at what cost?
Back in 2006, Director Rachid Bouchareb stunned audiences with Days of Glory, a film which focussed on the plight of the Muslim Algerians who fought in the Second World War: their courage, their sacrifice, and their poor treatment upon their return. It was so moving that then-President Chirac even attempted to make some efforts to fix (however ineffectively, and after the fact) some of the damage the French had done, immediately upon seeing the movie.
Outside the Law is his follow-up to Days of Glory; an unofficial sequel of sorts, obviously continuing basically the same historical ‘journey’ because the events take place immediately after the end of the previous movie – although obviously the characters are different (even if many are played by the same actors). Similarly, he takes quite an ostensibly controversial, perhaps even inflammatory approach, which has since seen the film derided in France – and criticised by the new President’s Government – for purportedly ‘distorting’ history. This has mostly come about because of the first act massacre in the movie, where hundreds of native Algerians are slaughtered at the hands of the French authorities, merely because some of them were carrying banners promoting independence. The massacre in question is based on the famous Setif massacre, a true event in history, which the film posits as being the spark that ignited the subversive resistance movement. Although nobody is denying that the massacre took place, I suspect that the French would prefer a more balanced view with regards to the cause of the ‘official’ start of the conflict (some 10 years later), as, at that time, both sides were undertaking back-and-forth attacks-and-reprisals.
Still, despite the aura of controversy, on closer inspection is seems clear that Outside the Law does not seek to lay all the blame at the feet of any one party. Whilst the French are portrayed as having started the whole thing off, as the story progresses, it becomes evident that both sides behaved, at times, inhumanly – and certainly towards the final act, whilst you are supporting, on paper, the right for Algeria to have independence, you are certainly not supportive of some of the extreme tactics that are employed by the independence movement: particularly towards their own people. So, whilst the film does admittedly tread on dangerous territory, I don’t think it paints a biased view in this particular respect (if anything, it fails to fully establish the third angle – i.e. the French settlers – which is kind of like doing a story about the IRA conflict in Ireland and failing to mention the Unionists).
The characters themselves are fairly well-rounded, and all given dimension by the solid acting talent here. Abdelkader is the most strong-minded of the brothers – the eldest of the three – and the one who will sacrifice anything for his cause. To this end, Tunisian actor Sami Bouajila (previously integral to Days of Glory) perfectly captures the determined spirit of the man who, early on, is almost executed for his beliefs, which only prompts him to get further entrenched him in his idea(l)s. His character embodies everything bad about extremist beliefs – not just in the wholly unnecessary sanctions against your own people, but also in the utter hypocrisy of his actions (whilst he will execute somebody for buying a fridge from the French, he seems happy to have his own illicit affair, so long as nobody finds out about it!). Messoud, the solider and POW, returning to a broken country, soon becomes Abdelkader’s enforcer of sorts – doing all his dirty work despite the fact that his own moral compass is crying out against this kind of horrific action. Roschdy Zem, another familiar face from Days of Glory (and who is also in the recent acclaimed French thriller, Point Blank) manages to bring the sheer physicality home to bear here, accompanied by just enough of a moral quandary to make the character one of the more tragic ones. The third brother, Said – the one who stays behind to take care of the mother – is played by James Debbouze, perhaps the most famous actor of the three (a celebrated French comedian who took the starring role in Luc ‘Leon’ Besson’s flawed Angel-A, as well as – you guessed it – also starring in Days of Glory). Said is easily the most sympathetic of the three; whilst his actions appear to just be self-serving, he often seeks to fight for the Algerian cause in his own way – and perhaps the most tragic moment in the movie is where he attempts to stand up to his brothers to show that he can make a difference, his own way. Just to balance things out, although the French do not get all that many key players, the police inspectors are portrayed as more than just one-dimensional, and particularly the second inspector assigned to the ‘terrorist’ case is given that extra layer – having previously served alongside the Algerians in the Resistance, he is certainly an honourable, worthy foe; even if, quite interestingly, this does not stop him being ultimately very ruthless. At one point the independence-seeking brothers meet with this police inspector, both having their own expectations as to what the outcome should be, and the officer makes it clear that he agrees with the notion of Algerian independence, and feels that it is inevitable end result, but he will not allow the continued terrorist acts to take place. This short scene just about sums up how the war managed to keep going for so long: the Algerians wanted freedom, many French assumed they would eventually get it, the Algerian ‘freedom fighters’ thought the only way to get it was through terrorist activity, and the French authorities could not allow these actions, however justified, to continue unaddressed. The continuous circle of violence, conflict and bloodshed was almost impossible to abate.
The Director, Bouchareb, does not rely solely on political substance and weighty moral conflicts to fuel his historical drama, however, also further incorporating plenty of thrilling setpieces – both to show the lives lost (the first act massacre; the retributive bombings littered throughout; the final act mayhem) and the strategies employed by the independence movement to take the fight to the French on their turf. The assault on the police station is a great action scene, and reminds us just how daring these ‘freedom fighters’ could be, whilst also not ignoring the consequences of such assassinations. Outside the Law also marks the third film that I have covered in the last couple of months which shows us a snapshot of past historical tragedy – one which can be juxtaposed with current events. Born on the Fourth of July mirrored the Middle-East conflict with the Vietnam War, Boyz n the Hood further reminded us of the troubles back home which often go ignored, and now Outside the Law painting a time of civil unrest which clearly mirrors the recent Arab Spring (albeit without the colonialism aspect) – a wave of revolutionary protests which, just this year, has swept across much of the Arab world. Again, I ask, will we never learn?
Despite its obviously artistic licence with regards to painting the historical truth in a more easily digestible, accessible, and ultimately more entertaining way (though, it’s by no means Braveheart!) Outside the Law remains a compelling, if far from perfect, drama focussing on the Algerian War. Painting the conflict through the eyes of three united but very different brothers, we get to see the different sides of the equation, and certainly have a glimpse of the moral quandary and tough questions that some of these fighters had to ask themselves, and of the overall dilemma that both countries faced (it’s interesting because, the very same people who would arguably do whatever it takes to free France from German occupation, then ended up doing whatever it takes to free themselves of French ‘occupation’ – could the same principle be used when attempting to understand the actions of terrorists in the Middle East?).
Still, despite the questions it raises, and the angles it portrays, the film never goes as deep as you would have liked – and also largely ignores the third important angle, that of the French settlers, who had just as big a voice in this whole conflict (they even tried to killed the then-President, for attempting to negotiate with the Algerians). Overall it’s a good, but not great film, which makes for a solid companion-piece to the Director’s preceding Days of Glory, and is definitely worth checking out to continue the interesting historical story of Algeria.
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