Recent French movies and North Africa By Luc Chaput

in 49th San Francisco International Film Festival

by Luc Chaput

Arriving in San Francisco as part of the Fipresci jury, I knew that the first movie in the selection of those I would watch for our award was a movie about the “Guerre d’Algérie” called October 17 1961 (Nuit Noire, 17 octobre 1961) by Alain Tasma that I had already seen at the Toronto film festival last year. This French TV movie about the events leading to and including that fateful dark night in which as many as 200 French people of Algerian descent might have died during the repression of a peaceful rally organized in Paris by the FLN (Algerian Liberation Front) is more interesting in what it says than how it says it in a plodding way about those days when the Algerian independence struggle was causing in France more and more internal conflicts.

The Algerian Independence war has been called The Undeclared War (La Guerre sans nom), the title of a movie by Bertrand Tavernier and Patrick Rotman which is an almost four hours long documentary of interviews with drafted soldiers from the Grenoble region who fought in that war which the French government called “une simple opération de maintien de l’ordre” (“a simple police operation”). Patrick Rotman is one of the screenwriters of October 17 1961 and is part of the French intellectuals who have used movies to say something about that conflict. This theme goes at least back to Godard’s The Little Soldier (Le Petit Soldat) with Michel Drach ‘s Elise, or Real Life (Élise ou la vraie vie), René Vautier ‘s To Be Twenty in the Aures (Avoir vingt ans dans les Aurès); Laurent Heyneman’s The Question (La Question), Yves Boisset’s Nothing to Report (R.A.S.) and Philippe Monnier and Yves Courrière’s The Algerian War (La Guerre d’Algérie) being the more important in a critical way. There have also been movies like Pierre Schoendoerffer’s A Captain’s Honor (L’Honneur d’un capitaine) showing the French army in a better light.

October 17 1961 is also a hidden crucial moment in Michael Haneke’s Hidden (Caché). Majid ‘s parents disappeared on that day and thus to paraphrase one of Truman Capote’s sayings in Capote, Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil’s character) gets out the front door to a good life and pushes Majid out the back door (Maurice Bénichou) into an orphanage where being of Algerian descent must not have been the best pedigree at that time. Haneke’s movie thus shows how history comes back to haunt you and how things that have been repressed, forced back can suddenly surge back up to trouble you.

Both the official files on October 17 1961 and on Ben Barka’s disappearance have been hard to get to or their contents have been considerably diminished by the “Secret Défense” line of government response which might explain why it took so long for more fleshed out movies to be shot about these subjects. Screenwriters Serge Le Péron, Frédéric Moreau and Saïd Smihi use the movie in production idea in Serge Le Péron’s I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed (J’ai vu tuer Ben Barka): their investigation of that famous Moroccan leader’s death was a movie project to be written by Marguerite Duras and directed by Georges Franju of which Ben Barka would have been an important part – that was the bait used to trap him. The chapters system used to tell the story is too fragmented to engage many viewers who don’t already know something about the story told. Charles Berling’s brilliant portrayal of con artist Georges Figon is one of the better assets of this movie which also has references to Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and to thrillers by Jean-Pierre Melville.

Philippe Faucon’s The Betrayal (La Trahison) was presented as “an understated thriller” in the program notes of the San Francisco Film Festival. In the discussion after the first presentation, audience members berated the fact that the crime of which the French soldiers of Algerian descent were accused of was never shown or proven but that the French commanding officers told the lieutenant it had happened. Showing a great sense of time and place, Philippe Faucon’s work tells how men can change sides when they feel that the official discourse sounds empty. The racist epithets shouted at these soldiers are the same that are sometimes still shouted today at the second generation “beur”, French muslim young men and women forming part of the population -and thus Betrayal has echoes in France ‘s very recent history.

French filmmakers continue in many ways to look at their country’s evolution, refuting often the official version in a time when their most famous football player Zinédine Zidane is of North African origin.