Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Outside the Law: Year of the Arab Diaspora at the Oscars

If Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972) and Gilles Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966) where to have a baby, and that baby was a film, that film would be Rachid Bouchareb's Outside the Law / Hors La Loi (2010).
The Godfather and The Battle of Algiers have a baby
When Outside the Law premiered at the Cannes film festival, there were French troops in full riot gear surrounding the Palais where the film screened. Parts of France's establishment disagree with the film and tried, unsuccessfully, to stop it from playing. Some claim there are historical inaccuracies in the film, but the controversy really is bound up in the issue of perspective on the subject matter.
Outside the Law--a controversy stirring Oscar contender--is that baby
Battle of Algiers was similarly conceived of as a threat by France's establishment. It received a Golden Lion award for Best Film and the Fipresci prize at the 1966 Venice Film Festival. Despite the positive attention, Battle of Algiers suffered a "distribution and publicity blackout in the United States" (Mellen, p. 41) and was banned in France for one year. “When it was finally scheduled, the OAS in France threatened to place bombs in the movie theaters where the film was on the program--and it was known to be serious.  For four years nobody felt up to trying to release it.”(Bignardi)

During the Q & A at the Toronto International Film Festival screening of Outside the Law, Rachid Bouchareb was asked about the controversy. He explained that films can't be censored like they used to be. He has established himself with previous critically acclaimed films dealing with a variety of themes--his work can not be sidelined and ignored.

Outside the Law is about three Algerian brothers who are first shown as children in 1925 watching their father as his home is stolen by colonial decree because they did not have French style legal deeds to their land. In a symbolic moment that could be set in many different colonized places, we see their father pick up the dirt and tell them to remember that this land is rightfully theirs. The film then shows the Setif massacre in 1945 as another spark that propels them toward France. In France the brothers eventually become part of the FLN wing that fights for Algerian independence on France's soil. They are depicted as complex (anti) heroes who, in 1965 win their battle for national liberation.
Brothers: can you spot the intellectual, the militant, and the nationalist?
The film is like an inter-generational and updated Battle of Algiers. It focuses on a family rather than on the movement at large. In families, not everyone is going to agree about ideology, so we get some intellectualizing, militance, nationalism and organized crime. Seeing the brothers divergent choices around tactics for survival and the friction it causes in their family reminded me of Ken Loach's Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006).
Another set of brothers disagreeing about revolutionary strategy in The Wind that Shakes the Barley
The bulk of the film takes place in France, and thus we watch the brothers as immigrants, like in the Godfather, they are trying to make a life, provide for their families, and sort out their masculinity in a place that rejects them. There is a scene in which a wedding celebration is interrupted by the French police. This is the ultimate symbolic intrusion into a culture--and is a common device in anti-colonial cinema, think of several Palestinian films, Michael Khelifi Wedding in Galilee (1987) or Hany Abu-Assad Rana's Wedding (2002)--it signals the loss of autonomy over social milestones and in some ways symbolizes a threat to the traditional patriarch order. In the film, it galvanized many men in the ghetto to join the FLN. Oddly, it does not have the same effect on the women in the film.

Sharing the visual style of gangsters from The Godfather or The Untouchables (1987) is a fortunate coincidence of shared time period and thus costume: fedoras, overcoats, three piece suits, and scenes of double-fisted-handgun-shooting their way out of the police stations. The film also shares in the metaphor of the gangster: men who are underdogs and part of the underclass in their new society. They do questionable things, but mostly because society is set up in a questionable way. These men live by a code that is bound up in family and honor. Although their actions are often outside of the law, it is in part because the law was created to exclude them. They become antiheroes that audiences sympathize with and cheer for.
Jamel Debbouze in Outside the Law: a man with all the right props
Revolutionary violence is not sanitized in Outside the Law. For example, a member of the FLN is murdered for stealing money to buy a refrigerator. Bouchareb represents this as an ugly moment: we feel sympathy for the man who lives in poverty--like all of the characters in the film, they live in what looks like a precursor to a ghetto, a shanty town with cardboard boxes for blankets in the snowy winter--yet we understand that without discipline, the party will never achieve it's goals. Individual suffering could occasionally be alleviated, but the systemic barriers that keep the community impoverished can only be overcome when they are organized and follow a unified strategy. 

Archival footage is used to situate the narrative in real history, and to relate that history to the international anti-imperialist movement of the time. Several films last year also used archival imagery, Olivier Assayas' Carlos (2010) comes to mind, but it used the archive for an entirely other political project.

The Battle of Algiers and The Godfather won several awards in their time. When Marlon Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor, he refused to attend the event and instead sent First Nations actress Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his award and give this anti-colonial speech in 1973 on his behalf:
                For 200 years we have said to the Indian people who are fighting for their land, their life, their families and their right to
         be free: ''Lay down your arms, my friends, and then we will remain together. Only if you lay down your arms, my
        friends, can we then talk of peace and come to an agreement which will be good for you.''
        When they laid down their arms, we murdered them. We lied to them. We cheated them out of their lands. We starved
        them into signing fraudulent agreements that we called treaties which we never kept. We turned them into beggars on a
        continent that gave life for as long as life can remember. And by any interpretation of history, however twisted, we did
        not do right. We were not lawful nor were we just in what we did.
Brando's speech, which Littlefeather was not allowed to complete at the awards ceremony (but you can read in entirety here), resonates with the Algeria cause, as it is represented in both Battle of Algiers and in Outside the Law. Interestingly, Brando starred in Pontecorvo's film Burn in 1969.

It was announced yesterday that Outside the Law it is a contender, with Incendies for the foreign language Oscar. How often have two politically exciting Arab diaspora films been recognized? I'm calling this the year of the Arab Diaspora at the Oscars. Can't wait to see who wins.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for these excellent reviews of Hors La Loi and Incendies. While not quite Arab Diaspora, I would add Iñárritu's Biutiful to the surprising political Oscar nods. Biutiful's sub-plot of African and Asian migrant workers in Spain is as raw and accurate on conditions faced by "illegal" migrants as the other two films are on the brutality of war and political violence. Throw in Dogtooth and you have a very unOscar-like collection of Foreign Film nominations!