Cannes Film Festival's 'Hors la Loi': How Well Does France Face Its Past in Algeria?

By Marquand, Robert | The Christian Science Monitor, June 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Cannes Film Festival's 'Hors la Loi': How Well Does France Face Its Past in Algeria?


Marquand, Robert, The Christian Science Monitor


At the Cannes Film Festival last month, riot police reined in protests over 'Hors la Loi,' a film that sparked clashes over the French Army's 1945 massacre in Algeria of at least 10,000.

A new film by French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb has again opened a "clash of memory" over France's difficult colonial past in Algeria and its effect on millions who got caught in a bitter and bloody struggle that ended with Algerian independence in 1962.

"Hors La Loi," or "Outside the Law," aired at the Cannes Film Festival last month, bringing protests for being "a partisan, militant ... film that compares the French to the SS and the French police to the Gestapo," as politician Lionel Luca, who had not seen the film, described it.

French intellectuals immediately rejoined, saying, "We can fear the worst when political power commits to [re]writing the history that citizens see on film screens."

IN PICTURES: Cannes Film Festival 2010

Much of the controversy centers on Mr. Bouchareb's depiction of the Setif massacre, a slaughter by the French Army of at least 10,000 Algerians. In a tragic irony, the massacre started on May 8, 1945 - V-E Day in Europe, when allied forces were celebrating liberty, democracy, and the triumph over totalitarianism and fascism in Europe.

In Algerian memory, Setif planted the seeds for independence. It showed that French colonial masters would never offer better terms for Algerian self-rule, and it ushered in the insurgent National Liberation Front, or FLN.

Never mentioned in schools

But in French memory, Setif was brushed aside, never raised in schools.

"In my French education, I never heard of Setif, which is extraordinary," says Claire Edey, a socialist politician in Paris. "So much about the war no one talks about." Not until 2005 did France officially acknowledge responsibility for Setif.

"The Algerian war is still not over in our minds and hearts, because it hasn't been sufficiently named, shown, come to terms with in and by collective memory," comments historian Benjamin Stora, a preeminent authority on Algeria.

Reaction to "Outside the Law," which traces the lives of three Algerian brothers who survive Setif, may make Mr. Stora's point. Commentator Frederic Pons argues it is "the herald of a one-sided and hateful reading of history - that of the FLN ... [which] has controlled and ruined Algeria since 1962."

In American cultural terms, France's post-colonial struggle for Algeria, and the bitterness over its loss, might be said to have the force of a dozen Vietnams.

Jewel in the French crown

Algeria was the North African jewel in the French crown, home to nearly a million European colonists at mid-century. …

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