Wednesday 4 May 2011

Army in the shadows: "Outside the Law"

After the global success of Days of Glory, their film about those North Africans who fought for France in WWII and were roundly ignored upon their return to civilian life, the team of writer-director Rachid Bouchareb and his powerhouse trio of French-Algerian actors (Sami Bouajila, Roschdy Zem and Jamel Debbouze) scoot forward one decade in history with Outside the Law, concerning the birth of the FLN and the Algerian resistance movement. It is, to say the least, a riskier project: whereas their first collaboration highlighted an injustice la toute France felt compelled to make amends for (as it did, in the form of new legislation), the history of Outside the Law feels more raw, alive, debatable. On its Cannes premiere last year, the film prompted howls of outrage from the French right; viewed from the distance across the Channel, we might see it as France's very own Malcolm X - and spot precisely why the response has been so incendiary and divisive.

Bouchareb frames the independence movement in terms of a literal band of brothers, first observed being kicked off their forefathers' land at the behest of the colonialists. When the film jumps ahead to the post-War years, we find the central trio reunited at the site of a shantytown in a chilly Nanterre, sheltering in the shadow of the neighboring Renault plant that employs these migrants as cheap labour - the kind of dead-end ghetto, in other words, that has historically tended to foment resistence of one form or another. (When one's back is pressed against filthy, piss-stained, graffitoed walls, men have few choices but to stand and fight back.) The three brothers come to pool their military, ideological and organisation skills, picked up from, variously, spells fighting in Indochina (Zem's Messaoud), reading behind bars (Bouajila's Abdelkader, a very X-y figure), and pimping on the streets (Debbouze's Said, and this assimilation of bad-ass characteristics again feels very Spike Lee).

The movement's context and growth are dramatised in pointed, deliberately provocative ways; it's a film inclined to make heroes from assassins, and determined at all points to stick it to whitey. At an independence march in Algiers on the day Paris is liberated from the Germans, French agents are shown shooting first at the assembled protesters - and, more specifically, at a young Algerian carrying nothing more threatening than his national flag. When Abdelkader watches his countrymen being put to the guillotine from the window of his cell, Bouchareb ensures the basket and soon-to-be-severed heads are facing him - and, by extension, us, even if we're spared the bloody results. And as in countless films about the East End gangsters of the 1950s and 60s, the violent acts committed by the heroes are mitigated against by the fact the brothers are, to a man, thoroughly nice to their mum.

A fiery police raid on the shantytown is even filmed in such a way as to make parallels with the shock-and-awe tactics employed on certain contemporary Muslim groups (timing indeed, that it should reach UK cinemas in this of all weeks), yet it's at moments like these that Outside the Law risks the simplification that made Bouchareb's previous film, 2009's London River, so hard to swallow whole. Certainly, it's a little dramatically tidy that these brothers should count among their number a warrior, a prophet-intellectual, and a light-relief hustler; and yes, it's altogether on the nose that "See You Later, Alligator" should be playing on a jukebox in the background as Messaoud and Abdelkader garotte their first target, or that the action should come to a head during a boxing match between a French pugilist and a plucky Algerian challenger.

That said, the screenplay hardly glamorises the FLN, either, in the way countless leftists through history have: we watch them murdering their own to protect themselves, even as we're offered a sense of the sacrifices individual freedom fighters had to make for their cause. (As Abdelkader pronounces upon hearing Said's dreams of becoming a bigshot: "This is no time for personal passions.") Generally, the film remains muted and unsensational in its look, preferring (aptly enough) noirish tones as its characters duck in and out of gyms, alleyways and other retreats; even the assassination sequences - which would surely be the big action highlights of any other feature on this particular subject - prove commendably downbeat, finishing with a grim flourish as the surviving brothers are literally pursued underground and the authorities concede their impotence in the matter.

For all its provocation and attendant controversy, it is, then, an admirable work, not least for what it promises to younger viewers who may not have previously been aware of these struggles; for everyone else, Outside the Law should be a reminder of what a confident widescreen filmmaker Bouchareb can be when operating in his own language, with material close to his own heart - and a demonstration of what immense screen presences Bouajila and Zem in particular have become in collaboration with this director.

Outside the Law opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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