Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Power of Film and Literature in France | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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French actor and comedian of Moroccan origin, Jamal Debbouze.

French actor and comedian of Moroccan origin, Jamal Debbouze.

French actor and comedian of Moroccan origin, Jamal Debbouze.

Paris, Asharq Al Awsat – In less than a month following its release, Rachid Bouchareb’s French film ‘Indigenes’ (Days of Glory – 2006) may have had more of a psychological and effective impact in France than last year’s civil riots in Paris’ suburbs did. However, what is compelling about this phenomenon is the fact that it did not stop after the production of this film; a number of other productions, books and articles have had a similar effect on French society recently. Interacting with these inspired works has propelled many among the French to adopt unexpected stances. It is well-known that films and books are popular within French culture, however, when film and literature contribute to major changes in society then one must acknowledge the significance of such artforms.

Robert Redeker is a philosophy teacher in France, who some have erroneously dubbed a philosopher. According to the great Gilles Deleuze’s definition of philosophy, it is the activity of creating concepts and everybody knows how powerful these concepts can be. Redeker came to realize, in the same way that other ignorant writers such as the Bangladeshi Taslima Nasrin and the Italian Orianna Fallaci had, that fame can be achieved by defaming a noble religion such as Islam. Redeker expressed his opinion that using a medieval style of writing is something that we have surely surpassed as humans and that familiarity, dialogue and understanding make up the sole basis for criticism that leads to revealing the Truth.

To understand his position and his hatred of Arabs, one should refer to Redeker’s article in the French magazine ‘Marianne’ published in June 2006, in which he acknowledged his mistake of supporting the American invasion of Iraq. He wrote, “I was obsessed with the inaction of democracies regarding dictatorships before the war. I also believed that the Iraqis would cordially welcome the Americans. Also, I overestimated the ability of the Americans to familiarize themselves with the country and was surprised by the lack of a comprehensive plan for the post-war period.”

Redeker eventually acknowledges the fact that “the situation nowadays is tragic, as the Americans can neither stay nor leave. Ultimately, they must a make a decision.” He reaches the climax of his hostility in his article that is devoid of any objectivity or scientific debate published in ‘Le Figaro’ in which he says, “Hatred and violence occupy the book upon which every Muslim is raised, namely, the Quran.” There is even an attempt of a surreal comparison between Christianity and Islam, in which he writes, “The return to Mohammed reinforces hatred and violence.”

The danger of such articles is that they present a grave ignorance of Islamic history and of the religion itself. Many who have read the philosophy teacher’s writings have stated that he had not even understood his sources effectively, particularly that of Maxime Rodinson, an Orientalist whose book about the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) has graced the libraries of the world.

Unfortunately, examples of articles such as those by Redeker will never become extinct; therefore, Arabs and Muslims would be incorrect to waste their time and efforts in addressing the ignorance and hatred demonstrated by such people. It seems that Arabs and Muslims have still not learnt and taken benefit from their experiences of the Danish cartoon row and Salman Rushdie.

On 27 September 2006, the French Minister Delegate for Veteran Affairs, Hamlaoui Mekachera announced that France would raise the pensions of non-French war veterans to be equal to their French counterparts’ as a result of the aftermath of the film ‘Indigenes’. French President Jacques Chirac stated that he wanted to end 40 years of injustice after a private screening of the film. Reportedly, the president’s wife, Bernadette Chirac turned to him during the film and said, “Jaques, we must do something.” As a result of the decision, Bouchareb and the cast of the film hailed the production their first victory.

‘Indigenes’, which was screened all over France, is an exceptional work of art. Starring Jamel Debbouze, Samy Naceri, Sami Bouajila and Roschdy Zem, it was awarded the Prix d’Interpretation Masculine at the Cannes Film Festival.

The film is based on a group of fighters, snipers and riflemen from North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) and Sub-Saharan Africa and their contribution to the liberation of France from the Nazi occupation during World War II. However, the film follows the lives of the war veterans to find that their full rights were never realized and that they had been forgotten by history as they struggled through life only just surviving on the bare necessities. The 80,000 non-French war veterans before the reform would live on one-tenth of what their French equivalents would receive.

‘Indigenes’ aims to remind French politicians and the French political class that their attempts to integrate the minorities have failed and that the grandchildren of those who had contributed to the liberation of France are the very victims of racism in that country.

A successful film is a result of the harmonious union of several factors, the most important of which are an intelligent director, a professional cast, secure funding and the presence of an audience. Rachid Bouchareb, the director of ‘Indigenes’ who is of Algerian origin, is one of today’s most talented young directors. Featured actors Samy Naceri, of ‘Taxi’ and ‘Taxi 2’ fame and the Moroccan comedian Jamel Debbouze, the latter of whom contributed to the funding of the film after French officials and television channels refused to sponsor the production.

Pascale Blanchard, a French historian states that ‘Indigenes’ “carries out an intelligent educational role within a specific historical framework.” Blanchard maintains that the film has managed to fill a gap in history saying, “This vacuum and absence in drama that dates back to several decades ago is solely responsible, with its limited ideology, for dominating this history. This film that will not leave anyone uncharged, will continue to cause much debate.” ‘Indigenes’ opens up old wounds that France has yet to address efficiently. It also constitutes a blow against right-wing members of parliament who voted in favor of a parliamentary resolution that acknowledged “the positive role of French colonialism”, an article that Chirac was quick to abolish.

French far-right nationalist politician, Jean-Marie Le Pen had expressed his wish to watch the film; however it is unlikely that he will agree with the concept behind the production. Le Pen is not the only one who is likely to oppose the film in fear of its consequences, in particular, the normalization of non-French citizens in France.

Even the French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his doubts surrounding the success of the film and did not hesitate to talk about the film’s failure to profit from revenues. The interior minister caused upset when he attributed the drop in sales of the ‘Nouvel Observateur’ magazine to the image on its front cover which featured Jamel Debbouze against the backdrop of the French flag. The magazine firmly refuted this claim.

Nathaniel Herzberg of the French newspaper ‘Le Monde’ believes that the film ‘Indigenes’ is not the only example of artwork that has had an impact upon politics. Victor Hugo’s ‘Le Notre Dame de Paris’ contributed to the establishment of an investigative body for historical monuments and Mervyn LeRoy’s film ‘Escape’ played a significant role in the criminalization of penal labor in the United States. Herzberg stated that the production team and the crew of ‘Indigenes’ have “defeated policies and is a reminder that film can change the world in difficult times.”

Last years French riots in suburban Paris erupted after two youngsters were electrocuted in a power substation where they hid from police who had wrongly accused the teenagers of theft. This time last year, a number of French suburbs were blazing as the rioters had had enough of the “unjust’ and “insensitive” laws of the French Republic.

One year on the situation has remained more or less unchanged. The promises of aid in the form of millions of Euros have gone unfulfilled, tension is still rife and there is nothing to prevent a similar outbreak of rage again. Intelligence authorities in France recently issued a report that the conditions are set for another round of riots. Tens of thousands of complaints reached parliament, an indicator that the rioters from the suburbs can do more than just start fires and cause destruction, however these complaints were coldly received by politicians.

Considering that matters are yet to be resolved since last year’s riots, new conflicts have arisen between security authorities and the youth in France. However, opinion polls have indicated that Sarkozy’s tough security approach has won support from French electorates.

A new voice has emerged in the form of writing to rectify another historical mistake with reference to the ‘Harkis’, a term used for Algerians who served in the French Army during Algeria’s war of Independence against the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN). Descendants of Harkis as historians and young novelists are beginning to reveal a number of tragic facts that humans rights advocators and those who support France would never have imagined.

It is well known that many of those who fell into the category of Harkis had left Algeria to confront their lethal fates at the hands of the FLN. Many of them endured difficult circumstances for decades in camps surrounded by barbed wire and were prevented from mixing with French society. They were subjected to cruelty at the hands of soldiers of the camps.

Dalila Kerchouche, the author of ‘Mon Père, Ce Harki’ (My Father, This Harki), tackles the “shameful” history by relating the story of her father, a descendant of the mountains of Shlif who betrayed his country when he was recruited into the French army in 1956. She tells the story of her brother who hung himself in 1996 at the age of 35. Kerchouche writes about her experience with her brothers and sisters in one of the internment camps in the south of France when the country was enjoying ‘Les Trente Glorieuses’, the 30 consecutive years of economic prosperity between 1945 and 1975.

Kerchouche, in her early thirties, is also the author of ‘Leila: Avoir dix-sept ans dans un camp de harkis’ (Leila: 17 Years in a Harki Camp), which is an autobiography that revolves around her personal experience in the camp. The author was able to acquire further funding to produce a film based on her writings that is said to have moved the French and revealed to them the shameful happenings in their history.

Like ‘Indigenes’, the issue of Harkis is no longer considered a taboo. France has begun to release documents addressing the responsibility of its actions, which only provides further proof that the mediums of writing and film production can change the face of politics to rectify the inaccuracies of history.