Cultural assimilation has been a driving force in the career of Rachid Bouchareb, an Algerian filmmaker born to a family of immigrants in France. Whether dealing with Harlem’s community of Little Senegal, the plight of Amerasian children in the Oscar-nominated Dust of Life, or an Englishwoman and Muslim dealing with the personal devastation of terrorism in London River, Bouchareb’s perceptive and moving work has rarely failed to receive international acclaim. But none of Rachib’s movies literally changed the lives of his countrymen like his second Oscar-nominated movie, Days of Glory. Depicting North African soldiers’ sacrifices for the French during World War II, Rachib’s wrenching tale of discrimination and valor brought new respect from France for these veterans, not to mention deserved pension increases.
Now, Rachib has used much of the same cast from Days of Glory to engage in the far more provocative historical battle of Outside the Law, where the struggle to liberate Algeria from French colonization is taken into the city’s streets. It’s a war of independence that will cost both sides dearly, as Rachib once again demonstrates a suspenseful, epic sweep in a saga of brotherly bonds under siege that draws upon the filmmaker’s love of Once Upon a Time in America and The Godfather Part II. But while our audiences might know little about the Algerian War of Independence, making France deal again with their own version of Vietnam has made Outside the Law into a cause celebre.
“Everyone was okay with Days of Glory because it was about North African people going against the Nazis,” Bouchareb remarks. ”This is the second part of this story, and I knew something was going to happen from the start because this is how Algerian fighters managed to take the war from their country into the streets of Paris, because that's where the money was and that's what makes people win a war. But I didn’t expect our film to be so controversial, especially since such French movies as The Battle of Algiers and The Little Soldier came out shortly after the war ended. So it never crossed my mind that 50 years later people would want to ban Outside the Law. It proved the Algerian war is still a taboo for many French people. But while the release of Battle and Soldier was prevented for years, I knew that kind of censorship wouldn't go well in today’s France, yet people forgot to talk about Outside the Law as a movie and it became just a political subject on French radio and television. The actual film sidetracked in all of the controversy.”
While it’s likely that American audiences won’t have the same reaction to seeing the bloody nature of the Algerian war and the French government’s brutal response to the immigrant attacks on its policemen, some viewers here might find themselves troubled at empathizing with heroes who fight back with acts that they might view as terrorism--especially coming from Arabic characters whose targets include whites, as well as many from their own in-fighting ranks.
“Nothing good can come out of invading another country and taking it over. Algeria went through 132 years of French occupation. So people can understand how, after all of this abuse and apartheid, one family will just say no. That’s why I think you root for the brothers,” Bouchareb explains. “You could even look back to the original film of John Steinbeck's, The Grapes of Wrath. It starts out with landowners kicking a family out of their home. Henry Fonda's character starts realizing what happened to them, and the movie ends with him telling his mother that he's going to change the country. That's the same thing I wanted to do with my movie, where these brothers have a political wake-up call that what happened to them isn't fair, and now they're going to take their country back. However, there’s a really big difference between the Muslim extremists of today with the Maghreb people of Algeria who were fighting with guerilla actions 50 years ago against the French army and the police--not civilian people. Today we’re stuck with the notion that religious extremists are only Arabs and Muslims, but terrorists come from many different countries and beliefs, so I think that view of Arabs is a problem of western misperception.”
Now splitting his time between residences in France, Algeria, and Brentwood, Bouchareb’s next American-set film will be far less volatile in depicting its culture clash, as Just Like A Woman looks at how a white woman and a North African woman bond amidst the backdrop of Oriental dance.
“It will be independent, like all my movies, and it will deal with the question of how people in America view Arabs and Muslims as terrorists because they don't know more,” Bouchareb reveals. “In that way, I think it’s important for the cinema to inform people because, if the only thing you show America is one side, you won’t know there’s more to Arab people. It’s important for me to make a film about a positive friendship where people aren't always afraid of 'the other.'”
'Outside the Law' is playing now in limited release
Special thanks to Nancy Bishop and Venice Magazine.