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I’ve just been to see the film Indigènes. I don’t cry very often at the cinema, but I must admit that I had problems stopping weeping during the last part. I, and probably the rest of the audience, knew just too well how the film would end and how the story it self would go on for decades afterwards. I saw it on a cinema nearby, with pensioners (white) and local lycéens (of all colours). It shows on 31 cinemas in Paris, with 4-8 screenings each + two in the weekends.
Indigene is the shameful juridical assignation used for Muslims in French North Africa. Muslims, being indigenes and not citizens like the Christians and Jews, didn’t enjoy equal rights until 1945. It’s incredible, isn’t it, in the country priding itself with the slogan libérté, égalité, fraternité? The entire story of the combatants from the colonies is an incredible account of the failure of this beautiful idea… - Just for instance, this example of France in a nutshell: the soldiers get to view a classical ballet show at the casern, while teaching them to read and write, however, is not a concern.
The film starts with recruitment of soldiers in North Africa. A mother doesn’t want her son to go, as his father had died in the First World War, – for France, probably, and we later learn that the family has been left in misery). But he leaves to fight for La mère Patrie, together with fellow villagers as they shout Vive la France. (I probably got a tear in my eye already at this point, as one is to understand the disappointments that are to come…).
All the four protagonists represent various versions of the failure of France the idea: the petty criminal recollects with his brother how the village was killed by the French, to “pacify” them.
The handsome one falling in love with a white girl at the liberation of Marseille never gets her letters – nor she his – as they are being “censured”. As she is about to unbutton his shirt someone enters the room and he jumps up, in North Africa they’re not allowed to have anything to do with French women. But it’s different here in the mother country, at least for the men coming to liberate her…?
The last disappointment – or treason – is the saddest of them all, and it echoes somehow the disillusionment of all the non-whites with “non-French” surnames in the banlieues who have taken an education as the French dream says, but still see very little of the égalité they’ve been promised: The intelligent, but hèlas so naïve colonel decides to continue on an impossible mission into Alsace, because then, finally, “we will get what we merit” – as they over and over of course not has got until then. His troop gets killed. Another French regiment who enters when the German battalion has been beaten gets all the glory (except from a few of the villagers who thank the only surviving Tunisian), and then we jump 60 years in time and the film ends with the never-more-than-a-colonel sitting on the bed in his little, sparsely furnished room; living-conditions which most French probably recognise from TV reportages on the ancient combatants and migrant workers…
The captain also represents an interesting angle: He passes as a pied noir (a French born in Algeria), but we learn that he is in fact an Arab. That’s an aspect of his identity he keeps close to heart – literally, as a photo of his North African mother he keeps in his breast pocket, and as a secret, that would have kept him from advancing in the army hierarchy had it been known.
Last week, when the film opened, President Chirac decided that the pensions of the ancient combatants finally should be equal to that of the French veterans. Since 1959 their pensions have been “frozen”, as some kind of revenge for the independence…
The four protagonists, Sami Bouajila, Roschdy Zem, Samy Naceri and Jamel Debbouze are all French descendants of North Africans. At Cannes this year the four of them won the prize for the best male protagonist.
The film is not only important it is also very good, and as it concerns the liberation of the whole of Europe from Nazism, I suppose it will be screened in Norway as well. I wasn’t really aware of the important contribution of the soldiers form the colonies before I saw The English Patient, which perhaps not coincidentally, is written by a Sri Lankan author.
The film has created a discussion of course (read some of it in English in The Guardian) – for instance with L’Express devoting their frontpage to the headlines “Should we be ashamed of being French?”
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