I was looking forward to this film and it didn’t disappoint. I was on the edge of my seat for over two hours and emotionally engaged throughout. I’m amazed at the lukewarm reaction by many UK and US critics. The film was controversial in France where the right protested at something close to the reality of what happened. It was interesting to view the film after working on colonialist films about Africa. Writer-director Rachid Bouchareb makes two profound points in the opening sequences of the film which impressed me immediately. I’ve seen the film criticised as ‘too conventional’ which although not inaccurate is rather a crass comment. There is a place for an epic action film representing the personal sacrifice that many Algerians clearly made in fighting for their independence from a vicious colonialist settler regime.
Plot outline (no spoilers)
The film begins in 1925 when the land held by an Algerian family is seized by the colonial regime and given to a settler. It then moves forward to 1945 and VE day followed by the massacre by settlers and colonial security forces of Algerians demonstrating in the city of Sétif. Eight years on the three brothers who were children when their land was seized are now separated. One is in a French gaol, one in the French Army losing the war against the Vietnamese in Indochina and the other has taken his mother to Nanterre where Algerians are now beginning to get work in the Renault factory. From here on in we follow the three brothers as they come together and split again. Two become senior organisers in the revolutionary campaign of the FLN (National Liberation Front) carrying out actions against the state in France. The other brother pursues his own aim of producing a boxing champion. The film ends at the moment of Algerian Independence on 5 July 1962.
The two points Bouchareb highlights at the beginning are the stolen land – the solid basis for the moral right of the independence struggle – and the moment when the Vietnamese appeal to the colonial troops in the French Army in Indochina to rebel and fight for their own freedom. This representation of solidarity is too rarely seen in historical films and needs to be commemorated. In this respect, Hors la loi follows Bouchareb’s previous film Indigènes which looked at the sacrifices made by both North African and West African colonial troops in the liberation of France – something not appreciated by the French at the time. However, despite featuring the same three stars as the earlier film (Roschdy Zem, Jamel Debbouze and Sami Bouajila), Hors la loi turns out to be rather different. The three brothers are not together in the same way (in the earlier film they are friends not real brothers) and they are engaged in actions where they are having to operate within metropolitan France without any official sanction.
Inevitably this film has been compared to Battle of Algiers. Bouchareb does pay hommage to that iconic film in two scenes – the demonstration on the streets of Sétif and a scene when Abdelkader looks out of his prison cell to see one of his prison comrades being executed by guillotine. There are other possibilities where parallels could have been drawn. Gillo Pontecorvo in Battle of Algiers spends nearly as much time with the colonisers as with the colonised. Bouchareb gives us only glimpses of the French security forces and only one, Colonel Faivre (brilliantly played by Bernard Blancan who was also in Indigènes), is significantly ‘individuated’. I think that this is to give us the chance to make the moral connections between a character who was a Resistance hero in France, fought in Indochina and finally became involved in the ‘secret army’ operations against the FLN in Paris. In this sense Faivre is like the Colonel Mathieu character in Battle of Algiers – but less charismatic and more tragic perhaps. Bouchareb also declines to spend too much time on the torture scenes (by the police on Algerian suspects) but the key ‘omission’ is the role of the women in the FLN.
I think Bouchareb is caught in a trap here. He has decided to focus on the three brothers in order to show the personal sacrifices and level of commitment of each of the three to family and independence struggle. This is the main difference between this film and Battle of Algiers with the latter dealing with the overall battle across the city and the collective struggle. One of the most famous scenes in that film is the preparation of Arab women as ‘Europeans’ to enable them to penetrate the French part of the city and plant bombs. Not only is this a key passage in terms of ‘identity’ but it shows the bravery of the women in pursuing the struggle. In Hors la loi, the women are much less visible. The brothers lost their sisters in the massacre in Sétif. Mother remains as the focal point of the family but only one of the brothers marries and he barely sees his wife and child. The other brothers appear not to have the time or inclination for relationships.
The trap is concerned with realism, history etc. and the kind of message that Bouchareb wants to construct. He opts for a mix of the historical and the symbolic (the only option I think) so that partly the narrative explores the procedures of armed struggle within metropolitan France and partly it focuses on the personal struggles of the three men – the sickening effect of being forced by circumstance to kill (anybody, but especially your colleagues who falter in revolutionary zeal), the personal discipline required to follow orders from the party heirarchy and the need to repress all personal ambitions in order to work for the cause. The irony is that the only woman who has a significant active role in the campaign is a white Communist Party member. I’m assuming that her role is based on a historical figure. The brother who chooses boxing as his way of promoting the Algerian cause is the most conflicted over his support for the FLN and in the end it is family ties rather than party which determines his actions.
Bouchareb has spoken about his debt to Jean-Pierre Melville in constructing the narrative and it is very clear in several scenes. Melville, the ‘father of the New Wave’ and one of the greatest directors of the polar in French Cinema. Melville had been in the Resistance and in two of his films he used the iconography and characterisations of the gangster/polar in representing the Resistance fighters. In an interview in Sight and Sound (June 2011) Bouchareb explains how a scene in Hors la loi, in which the newly-formed FLN group struggle to assassinate a leader of the rival Algerian political organisation the MNA, was based on a similar scene in Melville’s L’armée des ombres. The Melville connection points to what I think is most successful in Hors la loi – the way in which Bouchareb invites us to feel the struggle of each of the brothers. But I think this only works if you share at least some of their political views. I’m not sure I could ever ‘obey’ any political party as these men do but I found that the film immersed me in the personal responses to issues in much the same way as I Killed Ben Barka (2005) and (on just a couple of occasions) Carlos (2010).
I would recommend Hors la loi to anyone who wants to know something about the Algerian history of independence struggle, so if you are still wondering about the ‘secrets’ in Michael Haneke’s Hidden, here is your chance to find out something. My only slight reservation is that the title is not helpful. Outside the Law puts too much stress on the gangster iconography and it is the politics that is most important.
If you can ignore the terrible voiceover, this trailer gives a sense of the epic feel of the film.