Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Films about France's dark colonial past

On Sunday night I watched the excellent French movie The Colonel on SBS. Part murder mystery, part historical drama, the film explores the dark side of France's colonial past, specifically the legacy of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), which led Algeria to gain its independence from France.

The Algerian War of Independence lasted 8 years and cost some 1.5 million lives. The war saw countless atrocities by both sides and the systematic use of torture and targeting of civilians by the French military and the Algerian FLN.

The Colonel is one of a growing genre of outstanding and controversial French films that explore France's colonial legacy in Algeria. Some of these have been made by French film makers born in Algeria or Northern Africa. Although the war in Algeria left a bitter legacy in France, it is only recently that films are being been made about the subject, particularly the use by the French military of systematic torture and state sanctioned murder of civilians, and the use of weapons such as napalm.

These films are important, not just because they shine the light on France's colonial project, but also because they draw a parallel between past events and modern day warfare, the legality of torture and the "war on terror".

The Colonel (2006) Written by the legendary film director Costa Gavras , The Colonel juxtaposes two related narratives- the investigation of the murder of a famous retired French army Colonel who ordered atrocities and torture in Algeria, with the story of a young army officer who served in Algeria under the Colonel's command who went missing in action during the war. His story is told through a series of letters sent to an army officer investigating the murder of the Colonel.

Days of Glory (2006) exposes the discriminatory treatment by the French military and French authorities of Algerian soldiers who fought under French command during WW2. The film contrasts the courage of the Algerian men in fighting for France with their appalling treatment during and after the war. The film prompted the French Government to award pensions to the soldiers who had been denied pensions for over 60 years.

Hidden (2007) explores the individual and collective guilt associated with France's colonial past in Algeria. The film stars French actors Daniel Auteil and Juliette Binoche as a wealthy couple whose privileged lives are unsettled by a series of mysterious videos that keep appearing in the mail. Over time the videos expose more of the past of the character played by Daniel Auteil, who is implicated in a series of events inspired by an actual occurence in 1961 when French Police carried out a massacre of Algerian civilians in the middle of Paris. The true story of the massacre and the extent of the loss of life was covered up at the time and explained away as a riot.

Intimate Enemy (2007) explores the human costs of the civil war from the perspective of French soldiers, Algerian civilians and the Algerian combatants. Set in 1959, the film explores the experiences of a French battalion and its officers fighting in rural Algeria who are sent to liquidate a local FLN commander. The film shows the brutality and torture employed by both sides and exposes French use of systematic torture and napalm. The horrific consequences of such actions for the French soldiers, the Algerian civilians and combatants, is demonstrated.

Summer of 62 (2007) is a film about the final days of the Algerian War of Independence as viewed through the eyes of an 11 year old Algerian boy (whose father is fighting against the French) and his friendship with a French boy.

Outside the Law (2010) was released at the 2010 Cannes film Festival and is yet be seen in Australia. The film tells the story of three Algerian brothers who were forced out of Algeria by the French authorities in 1925 and who then grew up in mainland France. Eventually they end up joining the Algerian Independence movement inside France and stage attacks on Police and authorities within France. The film shows a number of massacres committed by the French authorities. The film sparked protests by army veterans groups and right wing groups who were outraged by what they claimed was an unjust portrayal of the French army's actions.

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