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The horrors of the Algerian war for independence haunt recent French films

By Renaud de Rochebrune
Posted on Thursday, 24 June 2021 12:24

“Des Hommes”, actors, often unwillingly, of an ultraviolet conflict in Algeria © David Koskas/Synecdoche/Artemis Prod

Several recently released films look back over the Algerian War, which does not seem to have ended in 1962. One of them is “Des Hommes”, by Lucas Belvaux, which explores the deep trauma linked to this period and that is still present in today’s society.

As the Stora report, which has been the subject of controversy since its publication in January 2021, can attest, the Algerian War is far from over, despite the fact that it’s been nearly 60 years since the ceasefire was declared in 1962. This is as much the case in France, as it is in Algeria. French cinema today is also a witness to this, as France’s cinemas have reopened after a long period of closure.

For instance, Maïwenn’s ADN, which had only been in theatres for a few days before last autumn’s confinement was introduced, has returned to the big screen. This film evokes the repercussions surrounding the death of a grandfather, a former mujahid, on an Algerian immigrant family in France.

Des Hommes, which was also released at the beginning of June, is an even more ambitious feature film. It tells the story of former soldiers from a village in rural France, who, decades after they left to fight the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) across the Mediterranean, suddenly notice that traumatic memories from the war are resurfacing, ones that they had long suppressed. Like ADN, this film was selected by the Cannes Film Festival for its 2020 edition, which did not take place.

Isabelle Adjani in Yamina Benguigui’s Soeurs

Yamina Benguigui’s Soeurs – which features a star-studded cast of some of the most famous actresses of Algerian origin: Isabelle Adjani, Rachida Brakni, Maïwenn and Hafsia Herzi – was released in France at the start of June. This film signals Benguigui’s return to the world of cinema, as her last film, Inch’Allah Dimanche, came out 20 years ago. Soeurs does not deal with the war of independence directly but rather evokes its distant aftermath, which was the period leading up to the Hirak popular protests that pressured former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down. It also examines Franco-Algerian relations through a story involving a former independence fighter who kidnaps his child.

 

Gérard Depardieu in Des Hommes by Lucas Belvaux

Des Hommes was originally a book published by Laurent Mauvignier in 2009, a time when fiction about the war for independence was rare. The book was a huge success, winning various prizes including the Goncourt des Lycéens.

Its film adaptation offers an unflinching account, through long flashbacks, of what the young French soldiers – who left to become, often unwillingly, the actors of an ultra-violent conflict on Algerian soil – experienced and tried in vain to forget. Everything is there, or at least evoked, from rapes and extrajudicial killings, to torture, the harkis’ (paramilitary troops supporting the French) disastrous fate once the FLN declared victory and the napalm poured on all living beings within the “forbidden zones.” These scenes are often unbearable to watch.

These flashbacks are all the more violent as they demonstrate the fact that these repressed men weren’t able to share any of their thoughts when they returned home from Algeria. Because, as one of them says, “nobody wanted to know anything [about the war]” and, as a result, “we were only asked stupid questions.” Some of which were “is a camel big, bigger than a cow?” or “is it true that Muslim women shave their vaginas?”.

Everything starts to fall apart after Bernard (aka “Feu-de-Bois), who has become a loner that only speaks to his dog and his hunting rifle, gets drunk at his sister’s 60th birthday party – to which he was not invited – and starts shouting racist abuse towards the only North African family in the village. This party, incidentally, took place half a century after the end of hostilities.

This triggers a series of incidents that lead to a flashback of what happened in the early 1960s, across the Mediterranean. But neither the colossus Feu-de-Bois, his self-effacing cousin Rabut, nor the former farmer – who once compared French soldiers’ behaviour to that of the Nazis – are really in a position to turn a page. Their wounds will remain with them forever.

 

 

Both a war film and a psychological drama, but without any pathos, Des Hommes suffers from its somewhat complicated plot, as it constantly goes back-and-forth between past and present. This is probably due to the fact that it tries too hard to remain faithful to Mauvignier’s text.

Fortunately, the lead actors’ superb performances, from Gérard Depardieu as the remarkable Feu-de-Bois to Jean-Pierre Daroussin (Rabut) and Catherine Frot (Feu-de-Bois’ sister), give great depth to all the characters. The result is a very interesting film that examines both the colonial conflict and its long-term consequences, which France has still not forgotten.

This is a first for French cinema. Perhaps because, as we have already seen with regard to World War II and Nazi barbarism, as well as with the Holocaust, we often have to wait two generations before we can fully appreciate the impact that a horrific war has had on the people involved. In other words, this film tells us in its own way that in France – as far as memory is concerned, the Algerian war is, in a way, just beginning. This also seems to be the case in Algeria, where Hirak demonstrators have repeatedly shown that they too want to revisit history.

ADN by Maïwenn, Des Hommes by Lucas Belvaux & Soeurs by Yamina Benguigui were all released in France on 2 June.

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