With Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi, 2010; an Algerian, French, Belgian and Tunisian co-production) director and co-writer Rachid Bouchareb follows up his Days of Glory (Indigènes, 2006). The latter film dealt with the discrimination against North African colonial soldiers fighting for France in World War Two. After a brief prologue set in 1925, Outside the Law begins with the Sétif massacre, which broke out in the northern Algerian market town of that name on May 8, 1945, the very day of German capitulation. A parade by Algerians celebrating the victory, but also demanding independence, was attacked by French gendarmes, leaving tens of deaths on both sides. When violent protests spread throughout the nearby countryside, reprisals by the French authorities as well as vigilantes probably killed somewhere between 17,000 Algerians (according to a contemporary report by the US secret service) and 45,000 (the figure given by the Algerian government), though the French authorities admitted only 1,165 deaths.
The film follows three brothers – Said, Messaoud and Abdelkader – whose father and sisters are killed in Sétif. The brothers and their mother eventually end up in France, where two of the brothers become involved with the independence movement, FLN. That the history of colonialism is still a raw nerve in parts of French society was made clear by the heated debate that followed upon the release of the film (it was first shown in Cannes last spring, with general release in September). Ostensibly criticisms from mainly right-wing historians and politicians concerned alleged historical inaccuracies. But their feeble arguments demonstrate rather interestingly the widespread inability of the western ruling class to face up to the crimes of colonialism. In almost every case, the artistic liberties that Bouchareb took with historical surface facts allow Outside the Law to capture the historical processes of colonialism more accurately than a more superficially correct depiction might have done. Let me demonstrate what I mean by a few examples.
It has been argued that the film incorrectly gives a black and white picture of the Sétif massacre by not including violent attacks by Algerians on French settlers – attacks that arguably were the direct reason for the massacre. But starting a film off with Algerians killing French settlers would have risked creating a moral equivalence – or worse – between colonisers and colonised, obscuring the fact that the violence of the coloniser is always the initial violence and that colonialism is in itself a form of ongoing structural violence. Short of making a film going back to the French invasion of 1830, Bouchareb had to choose a point of entry that corresponded to a correct image of the longer historic process, and this he did. It is also very possible that French civilians did not hung out of their windows firing at unarmed demonstrators, as they do in the film. But seen as shorthand for the racist and dehumanising logic of colonialism this remains true either way.
Later on in the film there is no shortage of depictions of Algerian/FLN violence, both against Frenchmen and fellow Algerians, including disciplinary executions of ‘traitors’ that lead the thoughts to similar, gruesome scenes in the classic French resistance drama, Army of Shadows (1969). This is certainly anything but a romantic view of anti-colonial resistance – a fact I will return to below. The film even exaggerates the extent to which FLN brought the war to French soil. Scenes involving violence – assassinations, torture – by French police in France, are, on the other hand, generally presented in a matter-of-factly fashion, they are brief and free from demonization. Bouchareb also shows how France is a divided nation, with French people risking and losing their lives in the fight for Algerian independence and former comrades in the anti-German resistance movement now finding each other on opposite sides.
Another missing historical fact that has been remarked upon is the participation of Senegalese colonial soldiers in the French troops that committed the Sétif massacre. But the inclusion of black soldiers here would hardly have accomplished anything other than possibly strengthening anti-black racism, unless Bouchareb had also included a storyline that historically explained the presence of, and humanised, these soldiers – a solution which there is simply no artistic room for in the film. Instead Bouchareb confronts the issue of the participation of the oppressed in the deeds of oppression through having one of the brothers join the French army and fight in Vietnam, where he learns the lesson that Europeans can be defeated.
Writing history is largely about uncovering the significant driving forces that are often initially invisible behind a mass of apparently random details. When history is written in the form of art, as in a film, the mission is also to capture the emotional content of human experience, to foster empathy – emotional understanding – in the audience. It is about uncovering not just what took place, but how it was experienced. This is why art – poetic truth – is a necessary complement to ‘straight’ history writing, rather than opposed to it as by necessity less true. As the impact of watching someone else experience an event on screen cannot be compared in intensity to actually living the moment, art must occasionally find ways of intensifying the emotional impact on audiences to foster empathy and thereby understanding of the emotional motivation of characters. One way of doing so is by compressing timescales. In the prologue of Outside the Law, set in 1925, the family’s land is expropriated in favour of a French settler, something that we see the three brothers experience. It is possibly true that such an expropriation would have been more likely to occur a generation earlier. But it also seems to me entirely justified to compress this historical process in a work of art in order to illustrate the continued emotional impact of the loss of land on the family and make clear how short a time decades and even centuries can be in the memory of a nation.
But perhaps the most ideologically charged element of the criticism of Outside the Law is that of the film’s overt comparison between the Algerian liberation struggle and the French resistance against Nazi occupation. Such a comparison strikes at the heart of the ideological dichotomy positing as absolute opposites, on the one hand, western bourgeois democracies that are also the representatives of liberal capitalism, and on the other hand, ‘totalitarianisms’, mainly fascism/Nazism and ‘communism’/Stalinism. If the western ruling class would have to admit in fullness the crimes of colonialism then the moral superiority that serves to justify neoliberal globalisation and neo-colonial, ‘humanitarian’, wars would evaporate. That is certainly why some critics come down hard on Bouchareb’s portrayal of colonial violence. And yet, the film treats colonialism almost with kid gloves in comparison with the true horrors that could have been brought to the screen. Bouchareb could have made a film about the famines of the late 19th century, when land expropriation and forcible introduction into the ‘world market’ turned drought into mass starvation (as demonstrated in Mike Davis’ history of how colonialism engendered the ‘Third World’, Late Victorian Holocausts). But such ‘systemic’ responsibility is of course reserved for the famines of ‘totalitarian’ systems.
Outside the Law was a disappointment in terms of box office results in France. Whilst Days of Glory sold over three million tickets, Outside the Law sold barely 400,000. Part of the reason may lie in an unwillingness to confront the recent colonial past. But it must also be said that Outside the Law offers viewers a very bleak universe. Not only is the film not overly romanticized, it is, I would say, too uniformly sombre in its portrayal of the liberation struggle and the lives of its participants. The latter give up everything: family, social life, pleasures like alcohol and tobacco according to the moral demands of the FLN, their personal safety and often their lives. Here there is no equivalent of the rich social life of the casbah underpinning the sacrifices of Ali La Pointe and his comrades in The Battle of Algiers (1965). On the contrary, what family and social life exists in the Algerian shantytown outside of Nanterre, where the brothers live, is just one more aspect of life they have to forsake. Poverty, frugality and solitude are their lot. Neither do we see much evidence of the kind of dreams and utopian expectations of the future that could sustain such enormous sacrifices over time. Nor do we see any evidence of the kind of comradeship-in-arms, camaraderie and exhilarating solidarity that – even if only as drunken, false dreams – might feed the courage of those who daily risk everything. Though I have never taken part in war of any kind I do feel that one condition for voluntarily engaging in the kind of struggle we see here is some form of energy-giving, positive, experience of hope, comradeship, even illusions of glory, that can intermittently replenish the stores of courage. In this way, Bouchareb’s film seems unrealistically unromantic.
Yet, Outside the Law remains a valuable attempt to address aspects of the still repressed history of colonialism, as well as an illuminating depiction of the harsh conditions of life that met Algerian immigrants in France. For these reasons it deserves our attention, even if it is not without faults.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International‘s editor-in-chief.