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LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: Hors-la-loi (Outside The Law)

By Jim Smith on 02 November 2010

Rachid Bouchareb’s often terrifyingly violent film about the war for Algerian independence has already proved controversial. It has been denounced by, amongst others, the official archive of the French military, for its depictions of the  actions of French police and troops. There was even picketing, by both French and Algerian demonstrators, of the film’s first screening at Cannes.

Perhaps more  interestingly, it’s also provoked a few scratched heads as to its continuity. Its narrative  depicts three brothers who are played by the same actors as the three central characters of the director’s earlier ‘Indigenes’. They also have the same names as the characters from the earlier film. Yet ‘Outside The Law’ gives them an origin story, and places them in events, that directly contradict much of the earlier film. It doesn’t matter except to the most literal minded. These are the same three characters in the sense that the characters themselves are archetypes and they all have roles to play in Bouchareb’s depiction of a stage in the Algerian colonial experience that directly followed on from that ‘fighting for France’ depicted in ‘Inigenes’.

‘Outside The Law’ begins in the 1920s, with three brothers being evicted, along with their ageing Father and Mother, from the farm land their family has occupied for generations. Their mistake is to not own it as far as the colonial definition of ‘ownership’ goes. They have nothing on paper and it seems that possession is not nine tenths of French law. They are forced to move into the town of Setif in order to survive.

The story then skips to VE Day in 1945, where celebrations in Algeria developed into a massacre after French troops attempted to confiscate nationalist symbols from a group of young men parading in favour of Algerian independence/came to the rescue after colonists were attacked by Algerian. (The actual details of the day are hotly contested, although it is clear that thousands, mostly indigenes, died that day. Within the film those shot dead include the brothers’ father.)

The intellectual brother Abdelkader (outstandingly played by Sam Bouajila) is imprisoned in France as a result of events in Setif and eventually his Mother and younger brother Said move to France to be near him. The middle brother, professional solider Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) is away fighting for France as he did against the Nazis. He’s on the losing side this time, as France loses its colonial war against Ho Ch Min. In time he too comes to Paris and there the family is reunited and, ultimately, radicalised into action by Abdelkader’s passion and eloquence and the conditions in which they are forced to live by circumstances (a shanty town) and law (the vote of an Algerian is worth 10% of that of a Frenchmen).

All three brothers give outstanding performances, particularly Jamel Debbouze as Saïd (who looks distractingly like my Great Uncle Lennie). He is no revolutionary in either Algeria or France. His loves are boxing and girls. Beginning as a bag man for a pimp, he slowly climbs the greasy poles of semi-legitimate business until he has an Algerian born fighter whom he believes could challenge for the championship of all France. This ambition, and ultimately his life, are threatened by his brothers’ by now very violent political struggle. How long can he stay on the sidelines as his livelihood and family are threatened by opposing sides?

I’m no authority on the Algerian war, although I have read around it a bit. What I can say with confidence is that ‘Outside The Law’ is not a one-sided film. Only someone who hadn’t seen this film could argue that it portrays any of the violence within it in a sanitised or heroic way. It would require equal levels of ignorance to claim that the violence of the Algerian FLN is any less horrifying, or shown to be any less dehumanising, than the violence of the French authorities or the  The brothers are the best drawn of the film’s characters, but primary antagonist and Messaoud’s former commanding officer,  Colonel Faivre (Bernard Blancan) is, at worst, a subtle monster and a best and an anti-hero with a sympathetic agenda of his own and an indisputably heroic past.

The film does seem to assert that the FLN’s cause was just but their methods were both often shockingly brutal and directed, on occasion, towards other Algerians, while the French government’s cause was ultimately unjust while their methods little different. This is hardly surprising for a film from an Algerian director, but it would disengenous in the extreme to call the film unsubtle, crass, wilfully false or one-sided. It doesn’t cover the exodus of French supporting groups from Algeria after independence because its narrative ends with independence. It doesn’t cover the actions of pro-French Algerian militia (Harkis) because most of its action takes place within France itself. It is selective, but so is all historical drama.   ’Braveheart’ it ain’t.

The parallels Bouchareb draws between the Algerians battle with France and the French’s own struggle, a decade before, against the Nazis do not seem misplaced. I cannot vouche for their historical veracity but neither do I feel like impugning the filmmakers’ integrity. It’s hardly a radical fringe opinion to suggest that of major European nations France has been one of the least interested in acknowledging the crimes of its colonial past.

Filmically, Outside The Law’ has its own aesthetic; glossy but never Hollywood, it’s full of sumptuous period detail that somehow emphasises the often horrifying violence and its blessed with an outstandingly great sound mix.

An excellent picture and a very suitable candidate for the best thing on offer at the 2010 London Film Festival.

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