An interview with French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb
Everyone dreams of making a movie that will change the world, but one of the few who actually has is French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb, a special guest at this year’s Stockfish film festival. His 2006 film Days of Glory not only made then-President of France Jacques Chirac cry, but also contributed to improving the lot of French veterans. As Stockfish got going, we met up with Rachid at Bíó Paradís for a chat.
“It‘s not a good title in English,” he says.” In French it’s called “Indigénes” [which roughly means “Locals,” closer to the Icelandic title “Heimamenn”], but when it was released by the Weinstein company in the US they changed it to what they saw as a more commercial title.”
While the movie is mainly about North African soldiers in World War II, it also shows the hierarchy within the colonial troops. “I once made an animated short movie about Senegalese soldiers, but I would have liked to make a more all-encompassing mini-series involving different groups. Algerian troops would usually not rise in rank, instead they were led by Algerian-born Frenchmen. Ben Bella, the first president of Algeria, had been a soldier for France in World War II, but when he handed in his uniform he went back to the same level of misery he had come from. Similar things happened in the British Empire. When Gandhi was travelling in South Africa, he was thrown out of first class, even if he had a ticket. Sometimes you only need a little discrimination to become a revolutionary.”
Bouchareb was born in France, but is of Algerian descent. In 2010, he made a sequel of sorts to Indigénes, called Outside the Law, which deals more directly with the Algerian struggle for Independence.
“The movie starts on the 8th of May in 1945. The War in Europe is over and in Algiers everyone goes out into the streets to celebrate. Over half a million Algerian soldiers have contributed in the fight against fascism, and now they feel that they should have the right to vote too. In the town of Setif, protests break out and in the course of a few weeks, 45.000 people are killed by French forces. Officially, the War of Independence started in 1954, but actually it began here. Ben Bela and others realised that they weren‘t being treated like the French and the only way for people to get their rights was to become independent.
So the Algerian struggle for independence was a direct continuation of World War II?
“Actually, there were 80.000 Algerian soldiers sent to fight in Indo-China against the independence movement there. Some of them were sent directly from the battlefields of Europe without so much as a break in between. This was the best school for Algerians to learn how to become soldiers, and then they were ready to start their own war against France in 1954.
Days of Glory shows co-operation between ethnic groups, for example when the Algerians demand that the Senegalese also get tomato rations…
“Yes, and that did happen. But in the Algerian War, the French used Senegalese soldiers, pitting African against African. They could not rely upon Algerian troops here to kill their own countrymen. In Indo-China, the French used Algerian troops against the population there, but the idea started to grow that all colonial troops were fighting for the same thing. And then when the Algerians saw that the Vietnamese could win the French, using bombs thrown from bicycles, they realised they could do the same [the French War in Vietnam ended in 1954, at the same time the independence movement in Algeria really started to gain ground].”
Do you think there was ever a chance for Algeria to have been united with France on more equal terms, if the French would have behaved differently?
“Algerians didn‘t want the war, and over a million of them died. There were around a million Algerian-born Frenchmen, known as “pied-noir” or blackfeet living in Algeria at the time, compared to around 8 million Muslims. If there would have been free elections in 1945, there probably would have been an Algerian leader, and this would have been very hard for the pied-noir to accept. It is difficult to say what could have happened, but perhaps the situation could have become more like South Africa, with strict segregation.
One of the best known of blackfeet is the writer Albert Camus…
“Some people in France took the Algerian side. There were actually French communists who went to Algiers to support the revolution and many of these were killed by French forces. There was so much hate and violence unleashed in those eight years (until 1962) that most of the pied noir left when the war was over. But they weren‘t appreciated back in France, and they still form a vocal minority there. During every presidential election, they point out that there are still unsolved matters from the war and calls for getting their property back.”
CHIRAC CRYING, A MIRACLE
At the end of Days of Glory, you show the local population in France posing with white soldiers, as if to say that the North African contribution has been airbrushed out of history.
“Yes, the aim was to recreate pictures that didn‘t exist. You only see white soldiers in pictures from World War II, in the same way that in pictures from Vietnam you mostly see white US troops. Our original goal was to honour our grandparents who fought in the war, but we secretly hoped the film could also become a tool to fix the injustice they suffered. When the former colonies became independent in the ‘60s, all their pensions from the French state were frozen.”
And this is where the famous story of Chirac crying comes in.
“Actually, it was a little bit more complicated. We premiered the film at Cannes in 2006, and the premiere was attended by three North-African and one French World War II veterans. The film won the best acting prize and got a lot of attention. This allowed us to give a special screening to Chirac, his wife and several ministers. The actor Jamel Debbouze and I sat on each side of the President and grabbed his arms and said: “Are you going to do something about this?” “Yes,” he said. “Do you promise?” we said. “Yes,” he answered. Chirac’s wife said that she didn’t know anything about this, and also asked him to do something. Still, we didn’t entirely trust him. This was in April and in September there was a special screening in Marseilles, there was a parade of old soldiers in support of returning the pensions and petitions were signed, we pulled all the strings. Just two hours before the film had its proper premiere, the government announced that it would indeed be returning the pensions. It was a miracle.”
Even though you are born in France, you often have Algerian themes in your films. Which do you consider yourself as, and is it an important distinction?
“I was born in France, so I am French, but the history between France and Algeria is not finished. For example, when Algeria made the World Cup last year, there were huge celebrations in Marseilles. You could almost create a combined French-Algerian nationality, which should have its own passport.”
Do you feel that your film relates to conflicts in the Middle East today?
“It is important to underline that the soldiers in the film are Muslim soldiers fighting against fascism. We shouldn‘t connect Muslim soldiers only to Jihadism, but also to the fight against Jihadism and they have taken part in many other conflicts. Muslims fought in for France in the Napoleonic Wars, in World War I, in World War II, and people forget that and think they are just fighting against the West today.”
In our conversation, I learn that this is Rachid’s third visit to Iceland, and that he at one time thought about making a movie here. “I wanted to make a movie that was set between Iceland and Texas, about an old African man who works in a library in the countryside and sends books to a prisoner on death row in Texas. Sadly, the actor I wrote it for died, so I don’t know if I will ever make it. In France, only the sky moves, but in Iceland, the nature is always moving. Your country is sculpture, always taking new shapes.”
We can only hope that Rachid Bouchareb will return one day to make his Iceland-Texas film.