INTERVIEW: Days of Glory director Rachid Bouchareb


 

DIRECTOR Rachid Bouchareb’s critically acclaimed film Days of Glory is currently doing the rounds at cinemas across the country.

 

It is serving an important purpose for, while the field of literature is full of post-colonial narratives, the topic is noticably absent from Western-centric film study courses. This film, about the forgotten north African liberators of France in the second world war, is likely to change all that.

 

As Days of Glory was playing at the recent Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Bouchareb explained that his film is an attempt to counter "official French history" with what he calls "real French history."

 

"When I saw Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, I never saw African soldiers, but at the time there were 500,000 soldiers from Africa in France. In all the movies about World War II, where are the 250,000 black and Arab soldiers? There were 500,000 Americans in France and 250,000 from Africa. Where are they?"

 

Dressed casually in jeans and trainers, the quiet and unassuming Bouchareb notes: "In my movie, the camera sits in north Africa. It is not in France or Europe."

 

Born in France to Algerian immigrants, Bouchareb’s uncle fought for the French in Vietnam and his great grandfather fought in the first world war.

 

He spent a year researching the film, going through the army documentation department and interviewing over 100 north African veterans, synthesising his findings in the experiences of the four soldiers in the film – Algerian corporal Abdelkader, Moroccan mercenary Yassir, sniper Messaoud and Said, a simple goat-keeper.

 

Released as Indigenes – literally, natives – in France, Bouchareb is keen to stress that he didn’t choose the English title. Nevertheless, he feels that it is "a very good, ironic title," because "the past of the French colonies is not glorious and the treatment of people at this time in Africa was not glorious."

 

Indeed, Days of Glory seems to be a sly nod to Edward Zwiek’s 1989 film Glory, which eulogises the freed black slaves who fought for the north in the American civil war.

 

But Bouchareb believes that there is an important difference between the two films. Glory has black African characters, but the hero is white. "My characters are from Africa," says the director. "My movie is a vision from Africa, not a vision from Europe or from France."

 

When I suggest that, by celebrating and remembering the Africans who fought to liberate France, Days of Glory may encourage French youths of north African origin to join the French army today, Bouchareb is horrified.

 

"Never," he exclaims. "It is not saying: ‘We like France, we love France, we want to serve France.’ No. I made a big tour of France with the actors and we met a lot of children of immigrants and they are so angry about France and about what happened to our ancestors."

 

For Bouchareb, the current social and economic situation facing many young French Algerians means that they are more occupied burning cars in an expression of outrage than joining the French army.

 

However, he hopes that the three million French people who have seen Days of Glory will see his characters as "ordinary heroes," because, traditionally, "Arabs and French Algerians are not the faces of heroes in French society."

 

Like Mathieu Kassouvitz’s explosive La Haine, Days of Glory has had a direct impact on government policy. After seeing the film, French President Jacques Chirac agreed to restore the pensions of African veterans, which had been frozen in 1959, to the levels of those received by the French troops who they fought alongside.

 

Since then, Bouchareb has been lobbying the Ministry of Education to change the history books to include the role of Africans in defeating nazism in Europe. No doubt the 400 nationwide pre-release screenings that he organised just for history teachers will help this cause.

 

The director is currently in the middle of writing the follow-up to Days of Glory, about the Algerian war of independence, an episode that French cinema is focusing on increasingly, with the Costa-Gavras-penned Mon Colonel, La Trahison and Michael Haneke’s Hidden.

 

"My character Abdelkader, he wants to be in the French army to liberate France. De Gaulle says: ‘We fight the war to be free.’ He thinks it is for him too. For Algeria."

 

Then, the soldier returns home to Setif, Algeria on May 8 1945, VE Day. "Starting on the same day in Algeria," says Bouchareb, "the French army killed 30,000 people in two or three weeks."

 

According to Bouchareb, the Setif massacre was the beginning of the armed revolutionary struggle against French colonialism, ending with Algeria‘s independence in 1962.

 

Bouchareb says that he wanted to create an "earthquake" in France with Days of Glory. It seems likely that his next film will do the same.

 

Days of Glory is showing at selected cinemas nationwide. Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, England[email protected]. 

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