April 7, 2011

Finding a Free Algeria

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Outside the Law at Cornell Cinema.

As far as postcolonial films go, Outside the Law is as unsubtle as you’re likely to get in its blunt, stark portrayal of three Algerian brothers’ lives, twisted by their desire for Algerian independence. It is a film in the tradition of tragic crime movies like Public Enemies and Goodfellas, chronicling the rise and fall of a family engaged in activities inimical to the functioning of the state. Despite its unspirited craftsmanship and somewhat derivative premise, this film succeeds in portraying a powerful, albeit slightly clichéd, take on the conflicts that arise in the perennial saga of men pitting themselves against authority, whether for a noble cause or not.

Crime family as they might seem at first, brothers Saïd, Messaoud and Abdelkader, played by French actors Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem and Sami Bouajila, all of North African ancestry, fight against what they view as injustices brought upon them by the iniquities of the French colonial administration in their Algerian homeland. Massoud and Abdelkader join the FLN (National Liberation Front, pardon my French) and rise up the ranks as they plot and execute terrorist attacks on French soil, while Saïd, the seemingly more politically apathetic, cynical one of the lot, trains an Algerian boxer to win the French boxing championships as a way of thumbing his nose at the French. As one might expect in a film of this tenor, all does not work out well. Abdelkader, the ideologue, becomes so single-mindedly fixated to the cause of revolution that he eschews romance and becomes willing to entertain the prospect of murdering his brother in the name of Algerian independence. Massoud, having witnessed the horrors of Dien Bien Phu, is horrified that he is once again murdering his enemies for the revolutionary cause, and enters a minor crisis of conscience. Saïd, who dabbles not in revolution but in cabaret and boxing, is ironically the most well-adjusted of the three, but he is still forced to come to terms with the tragedy that gradually envelops his family.  In the end, tragedy does knock on their door, but is complemented by the backdrop of Algeria finally obtaining its independence. Amidst stock footage of cheering crowds and melancholic music, the viewer is left pondering whether all that bloodshed and violence was worth it.

Fuelled with vestiges of historical resentment at the still-brimming question of culpability, Outside the Law is unsubtle at portraying the atrocities of the French in Algeria — to the point, as some apologists have pointed out, that the film bends historical truth to enact a more visceral scene of frustration for the viewer. The first half an hour of the film sees the protagonists’ family being pitilessly evicted from their ancestral land by some unseen French pied noir. Years later in the film chronology, but only five minutes after that scene, French soldiers are seen blindly and mercilessly gunning down peaceful Algerian protesters in the streets of Sétif, Algeria, distributing weapons to the French colonists so that they can participate in the bloodbath and murdering women and children to boot.

Taken at face value, these scenes are well-shot montages of violence that might make the naïve and uninitiated viewer curse at the hypocrisies of Western civilization. The reality of the matter, as it usually is, was more nuanced. The film’s attempts at characterizing the driving forces behind the brothers’ extremism are unsubtle and shamelessly manipulative as they are viscerally effective. Fortunately, nuance is introduced later. As the scale and scope of the three brothers’ activities intensify, and violence begets counter-violence by the French police and their extra-judicial counter-terror squad, the Red Hand, the film asks the question of whether or not the ends justify the means, and whether the brothers have exchanged their souls, lives and families for the nebulous ideal of nationalism. It is not a film meant to be enjoyed for its cinematography or technical accomplishment. In methodical, workmanlike fashion, it deals out its thematic cards and follows them in its well-trod path towards their tragic denouements. Like crime dramas of its stripe, there can really only be one inevitable outcome. Outside the Law pushes all the right buttons, familial abandonment, personal moral corruption in seeking the general moral ideal for the people, the question of whether murder begets more murder, or violence more violence. There really is nothing all that novel, thematically. But what empowers this film and gives it narrative consistency is the film’s emotional power, brought to life by the actors, the historically-liberal script and the copious amounts of blood and death. In the end, one question resonates within the viewer’s mind: the question of whether it was all worth it. Algerian independence was affected in 1962, with or without the help of the F.L.N. and the bloody efforts of Abdelkader and Massoud: were their efforts, and that tragedy, in vain? As the film ends, the French counterterrorism officer Colonel Faivre, as close to the film’s major antagonist as one is likely to get in this snake’s nest of morally suspect characters, tells Abdelkader, spread-eagled in a French metro station with blood leaking out of his gut wound, “You won.” The viewer is left pondering the truth of that statement.

Original Author: Colin Chan