Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Indigènes (2006)

Director: Rachid Bouchareb                            Writers: Rachid Bouchareb & Olivier Lorelle
Film Score: Armand Amar                              Cinematography: Patrick Blossier
Starring: Jamel Debbouze, Samy Naceri, Roschdy Zem and Sami Bouajila

Is there any place without racism? I read a lot of jazz history and it’s fascinating the way so many great black jazz musicians in the forties and fifties moved to Europe, especially France, to escape the racism that they encountered here in the States. Yet France is far from free of racism. Indigènes (Days of Glory) is like a French version of A Soldier’s Story, but this time it is French North Africans who suffer discrimination at the hands of the very people they are fighting and dying for. For the Muslims the motivation is the same as blacks soldiers from the States: perhaps if they show their valor, their bravery, their humanity, the French will begin to treat them as equals.

What’s interesting about this compared with other, similar World War II films is that the war is already half over by the time the North Africans are called to duty. The first place they fight is in Italy. Not knowing what to expect, many of them are scared and hide during the shooting, but eventually they capture their objective. Next, however, the scene shifts to France, after the Germans have been driven out. The Muslims participate in the liberating of French towns, much to the delight of the women there. One of them brings Roschdy Zem to her room for the night and he falls in love. But the conflict is not just with the French. Zem taunts Jamel Debbouze for being a personal servant to the sergeant of the company and Debbouze puts a knife to his throat and threatens to kill him. Before they see heavy action in the Battle of the Bulge, however, they pulled out of action to go on leave.

Jamel Debbouze was co-producer on the film and was one of the prime movers in getting the story to the screen. A son of Moroccan immigrants himself, the story held a personal meaning for him because his great-grandfather had fought in the war, and he won the best actor award at the Canne Film Festival that year. Though Debbouze lost the use of his right arm in a train accident before his career began, he goes right on acting, everyone cheerfully ignoring his hand stuffed into his coat pocket. This was his next project after his brilliant appearance in Angel-A for Luc Besson and was followed by a sequel, Outside the Law, four years later. All the principals do an exceptional job, though, bringing a lot of emotion to the screen, and the film was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film.

The English title of the film is puzzling and I don’t like it. The French title means “indigenous” but uses it as a noun instead of an adjective, and what I take from that is the story of people who are from countries that were French colonies and while seemingly having a divided allegiance are nevertheless patriots for their mother country in spite of the difference in religion. The English title, Days of Glory, is not only ridiculous, but borders on offensive, entirely missing the internal and external conflicts inherent in the story of these soldiers. The ending is incredibly intimate and intensely moving precisely because of those conflicts. While a small film, as modern war epics go, Indigènes is decidedly one of the best and can hold its own against any of its Hollywood brethren.

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