Thursday, April 19, 2007


Jamel Debbouze, Bernard Blancan, Samy Naceri, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila

"The True Story so controversial, it couldn't be told until now"

"Indigenes" is the French word for "Natives" or Indigenous People. In this World War 2 film, it refers to the soldiers of North African descent, more specifically of Algerian and Moroccan heritage who fought for France against the Nazi Occupation. The story of the 7th Algerian Infantry Division, a unit composed of recruits from the Northern African region and trained by French officers. They faced fierce battles in Italy and helped liberate parts of the French countryside from the German forces. A closely knitted band composed of diverse group of men from different backgrounds but sharing one common Arab heritage.

The main focus is on 5 male characters. Saïd is a young naive yet idealistic man who joined the army straight from his village. Yassir, a protective big brother to Labri. Messaoud, the marksman who falls in love with a French woman, Irene. Their compassionate and educated leader, Corporal Abdelkader and Sgt. Martinez, the Pied Noir (French Algerian) squad leader who considers himself more French than an Arab. They are portrayed by talented French Algerian/Moroccan actors also from diverse acting background. The only one I am familiar with is Jamel Debbouze, a famous comedian in French cinema. He also had a brief role in "Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain" or simply "Amelie" as it is known outside of France. The actors won the best ensemble cast award in the 2006 Cannes Film Festival which is evident through the good rapport and camaraderie they projected on screen.

The film is slow paced and takes a while to get going, battle scenes wise. The dialogue is a sputtering of French with Arabic as the characters shift between the two languages, flawlessly. But there are English subtitles throughout the entire film so you won't be lost in translation.

It basically focused on the well developed characters who are all endearing to watch as different human emotions are reflected through them. Rage, bravery, fear, pride, honor - all notable characteristics expected from soldiers fighting a common enemy. But there is also an added poignant warmth and heartfelt emotions prevailing within each of them. The fact that they are Algerians fighting on behalf of France, a country most of them have never set foot on should tell you something about their ultimate sacrifice and dedication. OK granted that some of them joined to save them from poverty in Algeria. Case in point, Labri laments "They make us march like mules, why did you enlist us? Let us go home" His brother Yassir replied "For the money. So we can marry you off, bro". They also faced discrimination on all fronts. From the French officers who used them as pawns and sent them as the first infantry to take a hill in Italy where the battle ended with heavy casualties. As well as from within their own ranks, where the French Algerians (known as Pied Noir) look down on the Africans with some sense of superiority complex.

The scenes evolved from one setting to another by showing an aerial shot of a place which reminded me of a Google Earth satellite shot. The time frame is chronicled through big bold words flashed across the screen tracing their journey from Maroc 1943 to Alsace, France 1945. Not sure if this is historically accurate but there was a scene in the movie where the Germans dropped some propaganda fliers printed in Arabic into the Vosges forest which ironically only one of the Algerians could read which stated:

"Muslim soldier, know that you can cross to the German side where you will be warmly welcomed and your life will be saved. Your leaders send you to die rather than the French. Muslim soldier you were not born into slavery, Germany will give you freedom. The day of Independence has come for Africa."
Of course, the soldiers were not easily persuaded and one of them even stuffed the pamphlet into his boots for some protection against the biting wintry cold.

The most provocative moment of the film comes towards the end when their unit was assigned to Alsace to reinforce the US military's 37th division. The Algerian infantry was pivotal in securing this post. They were the first unit to retake Alsace which was a German stronghold. Probably swayed by false promises by a swell headed French commanding officer, the last few men left to guard the place were doubtlessly the most heroic soldiers in French military history in the second World War. The exciting last minutes of the film was a heart wrenching scene where the 5 remaining soldiers held off the Germans with sheer patriotic might. Hauntingly scored with an Arabic song which sounded like a pleading chant with sounds of heavy gunfire whizzing past for full dramatic effect, it is a beautifully filmed sequence which gave the entire film its much needed soul which until that moment seemed to be fluttering in the wind like a bullet ridden flag.

The main point this film wanted to convey was the grave injustice the Algerian troops suffered in the hands of the French government itself who didn't give them due recognition for their role in fighting against the German invasion. In 1959, the pensions of the soldiers from the countries who were to gain independence from France like Algeria and Morocco were cut off. It was only as late as 2002 when the French government decided to pay them back but I guess by then some of these soldiers would have been dead or living in miserable conditions in some poor village in Algeria. The best line came from Said who mentioned:

"I free a country, it's my country. Even if I've never seen it before, it's my country."

A socially relevant film with contemporary history theme about a small group of long forgotten heroes who fought for France during the second World War. Cinematic wise, it isn't without its flaws, but it did showcase a different perspective from the usual war movies which always feature Europeans fighting against well, the Germans. Their story deserved to be told to remind the younger generation as well as the generally unaware viewing public about the valiant efforts of the Algerian Infantry brigade in helping the French army secure a victory over the German invasion.

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