Cinema Junkie by Beth Accomando
Friday, March 2, 2007
Days of Glory
Days of Glory/ Indignes opens in 1943 as young North African Muslims, whove never set foot on French soil, decide to join the French army to fight the Nazis. Sad (Jamel Debbouze), Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) and Yassir (Sami Nacri) enlist in the French Army, along with 130,000 other indigenous soldiers, to liberate France from the Germans. Filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb presents these men as forgotten heroes who fought and won battles in Italy, Provence and the Vosges before finding themselves on their own to defend a small Alsatian village against a German battalion.
Although the film depicts historical events that are more than a half-century old, contemporary issues may have played an equally important role in prompting Bouchareb to make Days of Glory . As the filmmaker notes in a press statement: This film has been a dream for me It was not easy growing up in France as a descendent of North African Muslims. There was much racial tension and discrimination. Frustration about unequal treatment has been building for many years and finally exploded in the fall of 2005 when youth took to the streets.
The recent riots brought racial and economic inequalities to the forefront, and made it difficult to ignore the fact that these tensions had been smoldering for years. France is and has been a more racially diverse country than many may think. Boucharebs grandfather fought for the French in World War II and his great-grandfather fought for the French in World War I. Yet he says, if you grew up in France like me you did not realize that people that looked like you fought to free your French Nation. You didnt know because there are few books and photosindigene soldiers were even forbidden from being present at the liberation of Paris so they are not in the iconic photos of troops marching under the Arc de Triumph.
So Boucharebs current sense of injustice prompted him to look to the past to create a film that would pay tribute to people like his grandfather and great grandfather, and would help set the record straight. But the film proved to have an even greater impact. French President Jacques Chirac, after seeing the film, announced that the pensions of foreign soldiers who fought in the French army would finally be brought into line with those of French ones. In light of such impact, the films artistry may seem of less importance than its political influence.
The English title Days of Glory is not a particularly good choice for the film. It smacks a little too much of Hollywood gloss and lacks the political edge of Indignes , which means "natives" and is what the French called their colonial locals. The film shows how the French treated these colonials who volunteered to fight. The French army subjected them to racism and humiliation, as it denied them the same rations as French soldiers. Then after the war, the French government gave them pensions that could be as much as ten times lower than their French counterparts.
The Oscar-nominated Days of Glory
Days of Glory takes a similar tact as the American film Glory . Glory showed the role black soldiers played fighting for the North during the Civil War and tried to shine a spotlight on that particular chapter in history so as to give those soldiers the recognition they so rightly deserved but never really had. Bouchareb has similar objectives for his overlooked North African soldiers. Hes definitely driven by a sense of duty and his film sometimes plays out as a message picture. Yet this is such a fresh perspective on what has become a familiar genre that a little preaching can be forgiven. Plus he creates appealing and credible main characters that win our sympathy and draw us into their struggles.
Bouchareb has a good eye for capturing battlefield action. He conveys the contrast between the soldiers on the field and the officers overseeing the fighting. Theres a sense of panic and chaos but he doesnt linger on any carnage as Saving Private Ryan did. In the final action in a small Alsatian village, Bouchareb conveys a very different kind of fighting. In the village, the number of soldiers fighting is much smaller and the violence between them more intimatethey can see who they are shooting at and they know whether its their bullet that kills a particular enemy. The tension is higher in these scenes yet Bouchareb avoids sentimentality.
But what makes Days of Glory most impressive is the acting. The quartet of lead actors (who won a collective acting award at the Cannes Film Festival) are superb. Although Jamel Debbouze and Sami Nacri may be better known to audiences for more comedic work (Debbouze in Amelie and Nacri in the Taxi films), they display wonderful depth and humanity here. All the actors convey the conflicting sense of duty and outrage that these soldiers felt as they fought along side their French counterparts, facing the same dangers, yet they were treated as second class citizens not worthy of the same pay, advancement or even rations. The inability of the French officers to understand how these injustices were affecting the Muslim soldiers can be seen as from todays vantage point as part of the foundation for the current problems in France. The film offers some insights into the racial divisions that still plague France today. Bouchareb uses World War II as a means of exploring and raising more contemporary issues involving France's relationship to its millions of Muslim citizens.
Days of Glory (in French and Arabic with English subtitles, and rated R for war violence and some language) is a worthy entry into the World War canon of films as it presents a new perspective on historical events.
Companion viewing: The Battle of Algiers, The Big Red One, Little Senegal, Glory
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