Dafri takes on France’s war in Al­ge­ria

Writer-turned-di­rec­tor goes back to North African roots with look at bloody con­flict

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - ARTS & CULTURE - By Lau­rence Thomann and Fi­achra Gib­bons

PARIS: One of France’s most cel­e­brated screen­writ­ers is tak­ing on its big­gest taboo, the bloody con­flict in Al­ge­ria, in a new war film.

Ab­del Raouf Dafri told AFP that he had been itch­ing for years to broach the del­i­cate sub­ject.

The writer of the Os­car-nom­i­nated “A Prophet,” and the Em­my­win­ning tele­vi­sion se­ries “Braquo,” has Al­ge­rian roots but was born in the French port of Mar­seille, where many for­mer French “pied noir” colonists who were forced to flee Al­ge­ria set­tled.

The film’s ti­tle “May an Im­pure Blood …” is plucked from the most con­tro­ver­sial line in the French na­tional an­them, “La Mar­seil­laise,” which ends “… wa­ter our fields.”

Dafri clev­erly turns it around to re­fer to “the blood of the col­o­nized” who suf­fered un­der the French, which “just goes to show how uni­ver­sal our na­tional an­them is,” he ar­gued.

His story, how­ever, cen­ters on a group of French con­script sol­diers sent on a “grotesque mis­sion that none of them want to go on.

“Like a lot of mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions, it serves lit­tle or no pur­pose,” said Dafri, who also scripted the ac­claimed “Mes­rine” gang­ster films.

“When you make a film about World War II, you know who the good guys are,” the writer said.

“The war in Al­ge­ria is more com­pli­cated, be­cause no­body was nice.”

The film opens with a bru­tal in­ter­ro­ga­tion of three Al­ge­rian vil­lagers – the sort of vi­o­lent ques­tion­ing that the founder of France’s far-right Na­tional Front party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, said he proudly took part in.

It was only last year that the French gov­ern­ment fi­nally ac­knowl­edged that these in­ter­ro­ga­tions were part of an of­fi­cial sys­tem of rou­tine tor­ture dur­ing the bloody seven-year war, be­fore Al­ge­ria de­clared in­de­pen­dence from France in 1962.

“All the vi­o­lence which I show in the film hap­pened in re­al­ity,” Dafri in­sisted. Yet the film’s lead char­ac­ter – a tough non­com­mis­sioned of­fi­cer who has sur­vived France’s ear­lier colo­nial de­feat in In­dochina – is in­spired by the rather more sym­pa­thetic fig­ure of Roger Van­den­berghe.

Van­den­berghe, a tragic and highly dec­o­rated hero of that ear­lier con­flict, died aged 24 in Viet­nam.

“I wanted a hero, but not a Rambo,” the first-time di­rec­tor said.

“A man who was both frag­ile deep down but who was also ca­pa­ble of cru­elty.”

With France and Al­ge­ria still un­able to agree on a death toll more than half a cen­tury after the war ended, Dafri in­sisted he wanted “to be as hon­est and as just as pos­si­ble.”

After much re­search, he bor­rowed a phrase from the eth­nol­o­gist Ger­maine Til­lion as his guid­ing light.

Til­lion was a French re­sis­tance hero and con­cen­tra­tion camp sur­vivor who se­cretly met Al­ge­rian guer­rilla lead­ers in a bid to end the blood­shed. She tried to win hearts and minds as the mil­i­tary stepped up their re­pres­sion.

“When in 1828 our an­ces­tors crossed the sea to seek re­venge for a slap with a fly-whisk, Al­ge­ria was an ar­chaic coun­try, and France was too,” Til­lion wrote.

The quo­ta­tion refers to how France used a clash be­tween the coun­try’s for­mer Ot­toman ruler Hus­sein Dey and the French con­sul in Al­giers as a pre­text to in­vade.

Til­lion tried to bring health ser­vices and ed­u­ca­tion to Al­ge­ria’s “pau­per­ized” indige­nous pop­u­la­tion as the war raged. She was among the first to con­demn the sys­tem­atic tor­ture of sus­pects.

To un­der­stand the Al­ge­rian war, “you have to go back to the be­gin­nings of the his­tory of France and its prin­ci­pal colony,” Dafri said.

But writ­ing the film he also had to con­front his own per­sonal his­tory and iden­tity as the French-born son of Al­ge­rian em­i­grants.

“I wanted to un­der­stand why my par­ents brought me into the world in France in 1963” – a year after the war ended – “when their own coun­try had just been lib­er­ated from its op­pres­sors,” he said.

Dafri said he is ded­i­cat­ing the film, which will be re­leased later this year, both to the Al­ge­rian peo­ple and to the young French con­scripts who were forced to serve there, “thrown into a dis­as­ter” that was not of their own mak­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to the French his­to­rian Ben­jamin Stora, con­scripts made up two-thirds of the 23,000 French sol­diers killed in Al­ge­ria. Es­ti­mates of the num­ber of Al­ge­ri­ans who died ranges from around one mil­lion to be­tween 300,000 and 400,000, three per­cent of the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion at the time.

Dafri is less for­giv­ing of those in power. “The Al­ge­rian peo­ple suf­fered from col­o­niza­tion and then in­de­pen­dence led by cor­rupt men who are still in power,” he said.

“I don’t want peo­ple to say that I have taken sides” when they see the movie, Dafri said. “I do not have a side to take: France is my coun­try.”

This is Dafri’s first foray into di­rect­ing, hav­ing had suc­cess as the writer of “A Prophet” and “Braquo.”

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