Tag Archives: colonial film

Rebellion (L’ordre et la morale, France 2011)

Philippe (Mathieu Kassovitz) has the difficult role as negotiator

Philippe (Mathieu Kassovitz) has the difficult role as negotiator

One of the best films to be released in the UK in 2013 looks like being one of the least seen. That’s a shame. If you are one of what I imagine to be many cinephiles disappointed that Mathieu Kassovitz had seemed unable to make another film as powerful as La haine, here is proof to the contrary. L’order et la morale is a hugely ambitious film that took Kassovitz several years to make. It recounts what happened in the French overseas territory of New Caledonia in 1988 when an ‘uprising’ of Kanak people on one of the small islands of Melanesia resulted in a ‘hostage situation’ involving a group of French gendarmerie. Unfortunately, the timing of the events during the French presidential election backfired on the rebels. Despite the best efforts of the negotiation team led by Captain Philippe Legorjus of the GIGN (the counter-terrorist unit of the Gendarmerie), the situation was ‘resolved’ with overwhelming military firepower and loss of life. The script is largely based on the memoirs of Legorjus, played by Kassovitz himself in the film.

Kassovitz was once known as l’enfant terrible of French cinema. La haine (1995) was a great critical as well as commercial success in exposing police relations with the youth of les cités, the workers’ estates surrounding Paris where many second-generation migrants grew up. But Kassovitz’s next film Assassin(s) (1997) attacked the media and the young director was savaged by some of the same critics who had praised him for La haine. That film has never been released in the UK and I haven’t seen it. After that Kassovitz moved into directing English language genre films with steadily declining success – while at the same time developing a career as an actor, including an important role in Amélie, enabling him to develop an international profile as both actor and director. What is clear now is that he spent a great deal of time and effort in working on L’ordre et la morale. In the end he decided to play the central role himself, primarily for pragmatic reasons in that the production was so protracted that he couldn’t reasonably ask another actor to take the role. He’s extremely good at suggesting the highly professional approach of Philippe Legorjus (an approach he discusses in the film’s Press Pack).

I confess that the film does demand an audience willing to follow the complex rivalries between the different organisations that comprise the French armed forces and also the unique problems associated with the French political system and its electoral processes. Like the American president, the President of France can sometimes find himself (no women yet) constrained as an executive by the actions of a legislature run by the opposition. But in France the situation is even more crippling because of the cabinet government led by a Prime Minister. In 1988, socialist President Francois Mitterand faced a re-election contest against the candidate of the right, the Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac. This was the climax of the period known as ‘Co-habitation’. I don’t fully understand how the split of executive powers affected the events in New Caledonia. Mitterand should have had more power in dealing with events overseas, yet as a French ‘overseas territory’ perhaps New Caledonia was considered part of France and this was an ‘internal security’ issue?

The film narrative is essentially a long flashback to the events which led up to the nightmare conclusion. The first forward momentum is the ‘scrambling’ of the GIGN company and their flight from Paris to the other side of the world. When they arrive in New Caledonia they find that some local gendarmes are being held hostage by rebels but also that the French Army has arrived en masse and that any hopes of a peaceful negotiation are threatened by the gung-ho actions of the Army commanders.

Rebel leader Alphonse Dianou played by Iabe Lapacas

Rebel leader Alphonse Dianou played by Iabe Lapacas

It eventually transpires that Philipe Legorjus has contacts in Paris who are linked to Mitterand while the Army share the perspective of Chirac and Legorjus will eventually find himself faced by Chirac’s own minister Bernard Pons who is sent out to manage the crisis on the ground. The narrative driver is that Legorjus himself and a small number of his team of negotiators eventually meet the rebels – who are, of course, not the ‘fanatics’ portrayed by Chirac and the right-wing. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot but the gripping central narrative places Legorjus himself in an almost impossible position. He attempts to remain professional and a man of honour – but he finds himself participating in brutality. He meets his obligations to some but betrays others. There is no black and white only the murky greys of colonial repression. The central figure of the rebel leader (amazingly played by the real man’s cousin who was a post-grad student in France when Kassovitz found him) is an idealistic young man whose actions are undermined by the local nationalist leaders who are also playing political games. All of this is familiar from too many situations around the world but Kassovitz makes it all real and painful. It’s a long film, mostly talk but with some intense action sequences and an intriguing ‘score’ by the ‘industrial percussion’ group Les Tambours du Bronx. There is also some great community singing under the end credits.

Rebellion is a long film (136 minutes) and it represents a remarkable achievement by Mathieu Kassovitz. He plays the central character as a man who internalises and manages to stay cool under pressure (most of the time). As director he manages an enormous ensemble cast with some experienced French actors, but also many non-professionals. I was gripped throughout and fascinated by the depiction of events. Nobody comes out of the events themselves with much credit and by all accounts many of the leading participants have tried t claim that the film is inaccurate. This article by an Australian scholar and former diplomat with experience of New Caledonia suggests that the film does tell at least some of the ‘truth’ and also points out that Mitterand (who won the election) did attempt to develop ‘peace and reconciliation’ after signing the orders to end the hostage-taking with military force. The film was shot in French Polynesia rather than Melanesia but it was eventually shown in New Caledonia – and seemingly well-received. The final credits remind us that there will be votes in 2014 on a process leading towards possible future independence.

I’m not sure if the film will get more cinema screenings in the UK but I urge you to seek it out on DVD when it appears on September 2nd (why so long, Lionsgate?). I think I’d like to return to the film then when a few more people have seen it. Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite:

Tabu (Portugal/Germany/Brazil/France 2012)

Gianluca and Mario race across the savannah in Northern Mozambique

Tabu has been a critical success with reactions to it, first at Berlin and then on release here in the UK, that are similar in some ways (but very different in others) to those that greeted The Artist at Cannes last year. It’s another film in beautiful Black and White, shot on 35mm and 16mm film and presented in Academy format (1.37: 1). Part of it is played without dialogue (but with some sound effects and supposedly diegetic music). But overall it is much more interesting and, for me at least, much more entertaining than The Artist.

The original Tabu was a 1931 romance/drama or melodrama created by the pairing of F. W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty – in some ways a very odd combination. It tells the tale of two lovers (local people not colonialists) on a South Seas island who pursue their love despite a taboo placed upon it – with the expected tragic conclusion. That film was in two parts: ‘Paradise’ and ‘Paradise Lost’. Miguel Gomes’ 2012 Portuguese film reverses the order of the two parts and adds a prologue which in turn leads into ‘Paradise Lost’ in which we meet a ‘good woman’, Pilar, who finds herself having to attend to her elderly neighbour Aurora in contemporary Lisbon. Aurora was once a wealthy settler in Mozambique and aspects of her past are starting to haunt her. In the second part of the film, ‘Paradise’, Pilar imagines the kind of life that Aurora led while she listens to Aurora’s ex-lover from the early 1960s. Gianluca tells us about their affair in a voiceover as the story unfolds on screen without dialogue.

I’ve seen a quote from Gomes where he suggests that there is no deep meaning in the film and several critics go along with the idea that this is a playful film that moves from humanist drama/social realism in ‘Paradise Lost’ to sometimes comic surrealism in ‘Paradise’. For me, however, the whole narrative appeared to be about the colonial experience. This is a very rich text and Gomes must be a witty man as he makes a number of jokes which play on the conventions of the colonial melodrama and the specifics of Portuguese colonialism as well as the general colonial activities of Europeans in Africa. I’ll try and explain some of the ways in which Gomes presents this ‘colonial imagination’.

Aurora as an older woman with Santa her carer.

The film’s prologue refers to a trait of European colonial narratives, especially about Africa and the ‘heart of the continent’. What we see is then revealed to be a film being watched (seemingly on her own in a cinema) by Pilar who we later realise is a single woman with an interest in human rights issues around the world. She is, we assume, an internationalist Catholic, at one point dealing with a ‘Polish nun’ who may be coming to visit her in Lisbon and at other times perusing websites or taking part in peaceful demonstrations. Yet Pilar is still subject to the circulation of colonial narratives within which Aurora is forever trapped. Aurora has a carer/housekeeper, an intriguing character called Santa. Is Santa from Mozambique? Aspects of the narrative suggest not. In a revealing scene we see Santa reading Robinson Crusoe and then later attending a class in which she tells the teacher what she has been reading. “Extraordinary!” is the teacher’s response – and indeed it is. What should we make of this? One suggestion is that Santa is ‘free’ of the past and able to study it dispassionately, while Aurora is still caught up in it. Santa isn’t a naïve young woman. She’s older and wiser and carries out her duties in a professional way, betraying no sense of the legacy of a colonial relationship.

This reading of the Santa character is complemented by aspects of the style of the ‘Paradise’ story. Set, we presume, in the 1950s and early 1960s we see the young Aurora as a teenager and then as a young married woman, having met her husband, a tea planter, at university. This second story is filmed in 16mm which has more grain, slightly less definition and range of grey shades. The overall effect is to emphasise the history/memory feel of the experience. Yet, in the story that is presented, Gomes deliberately separates the white settlers and the local Africans. The settlers are shown in ‘authentic’ 1960s costumes and act as if they are in a historical drama – whereas the servants and the villagers/tea pickers etc. are shot in an almost documentary style, complete with 21st century clothes including the ubiquitous football shirts (I’m sure one small boy was wearing a Samsung shirt) found everywhere in contemporary Africa. This surreal juxtaposition adds to the dreamlike, playful nature of the film but also points to questions about the history of colonialism in Portuguese society.

The excellent Ana Moreira as the young Aurora.

I was struck by the similarity of some scenes in ‘Paradise’ to those in the Claire Denis film Chocolat (1988). In the Denis film we see the antics of the white colonialists through the eyes of the child of a French colonial administrator. In ‘Paradise’ there seems to be a similar slightly distanced gaze. I definitely felt a ‘difference’ in the colonialist culture represented in this film compared to those in British cinema. There is no presence of the British-style District Officer and none of the confrontational exchanges between settlers and servants/workers. The settler lifestyle, at least for the women seems languid and mildly decadent. Yet Mozambique and Angola were at this time preparing for the conclusion of the independence struggle which would culminate in the 25 April 1974 Revolution in Portugal and the subsequent independence of Mozambique along with Angola, Guinea-Bissau and other Portuguese colonial possessions.

I need to watch this film again to appreciate every aspect of its very clever and subtle presentation. This is another of this year’s crop of left-field movies from unusual film production contexts. Plaudits to director, writers, actors and cinematographer – great music too. Portugal joins Canada and Hong Kong as winners in our personal poll of this year’s best films.