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The Counter War Film: Rachid Bouchareb's "Indigenes"

I have always disliked Hollywood war films, especially World War 2 films.  They generally strike me as exercises in masculine heroism, macho boy stories that reify certain ideological understandings of war and the military.  Even those supposedly "critical" Vietnam War movies are suspect, all about American soldiers traumatized by an amorphous landscape of asians––and no, I really do not care if the most acclaimed of these films is an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novel.

But mainstream World War 2 films are the worst.  There is a narrative of WW2 that has become part of North American, and most specifically USAmerican, consciousness that is promoted by such movies.  A narrative I briefly critiqued in a previous post, a narrative that is still the dominant North American understanding of this war: "we fought fascism because it was evil and we are good."  This is an ahistorical comprehension of fascism as an evil menace abstracted from its concrete circumstances that prevents any critical engagement with the reality of WW2 and the imperialist nations' motivations for entering this war.

Other bizarre fictions are successively connected to this simplistic historical narrative.  A popular secondary fiction, for example, is the dogmatic belief that the US "liberated" France from Nazi occupation.  Most recently this vanity was promoted by Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds where an American sponsored Jewish and anti-fascist guerrilla squad become the liberators of occupied France.  Leaving aside the fact that the US army was at that point of time extremely anti-semitic (and not at all concerned about the impending Jewish genocide) as well as ur-fascist, the idea that Americans actually "liberated" France when they only arrived at the end (primarily as a propaganda ploy to appear as if they were putting as much effort into the European theatre as the other nations that composed the Allies) is gross [and intentional] historical amnesia.  This narrative denies the hard work of the French Resistance, as well as the fact that the French Free Army was actually responsible, in coordination with the resistance, for the liberation of France.

Which is why I appreciated Rachid Bouchareb's Indigenes [Days of Glory in English], a film that rejects not only the American narrative but also undermines the predominant triumphalist story that France tells of its own liberation.  Indigenes represents the type of war film that I respect––that is, the war film that excavates the concrete historical circumstances of war, tells those stories that are not part of the mainstream narrative, does not rely on simplistic moralism, and problematizes the very fact of imperialist militarism.  The war film that is told from either the point of view of radical dissidents or victims of imperial/colonial/capitalist oppression.  The war film that is only triumphalist if it is about revolutionary triumph, anti-triumphalist when investigating the reality of war and oppression, this "avalanche of murders."  The rebel war film, the truly critical war film.

Bouchareb's Indigenes is the precursor to his equally masterful Hors-la-loi [Outside the Law], currently up for an Academy Award and recently reviewed by my excellent comrade at All Killer.  Where Hors-la-loi was concerned with telling the history of the FLN's war within France's borders, however, Indigenes is concerned with investigating the role of France's colonized subjects during World War 2.  Furthermore, Indigenes not only disrupts the dominant US-narrative about France's liberation by demonstrating that the French Free Army was primarily responsible for the liberation of France, it reveals that this liberation was only possible through the use of colonized soldiers.  In other words, France was liberated by the very people it was oppressing and would continue to oppress after the war.

This is the secret history of the glorious World War 2 film that ascribes an angelic moralism to the nations fighting the Nazi threat.  It is an uneasy history, but one known to the majority of humankind stifled by colonialism.  A history that does not make a popular war film, at least in the centres of capitalism, for two reasons: 1) it demonstrates that the "noble" European nations were liberated by the sacrifices of "savage" peoples; 2) it reveals that all the "noble" talk of liberty, fraternity, equality––the anti-Nazi rallying cry––was contradicted by the fact that colonized subjects were used as expendable bodies, as cannon fodder, during the liberation of a European nation, treated as second-class soldiers despite their sacrifices, and then returned to colonial imprisonment directly following the fall of Nazi Germany.

In The Wretched of the Earth Frantz Fanon expends several pages quoting Keita Fodeba's prose poem about an African recruited by the European colonial army to fight in World War 2.  The poem's protagonist, Naman, leaves his village to liberate "the motherland" and believes that this liberation will bring honour to his people.  He distinguishes himself in battle, even receiving medals, only to be shot to death by white officers in the very colonial army he served.  Fanon explains that he has quoted this poem in its entirety because:
"There is not a single colonized person who will not recognize the message this poem holds.  Naman, the hero of the battlefields of Europe, Naman who eternally ensures the power and perenniality of the mother country, Naman is machine-gunned by the police force at the very moment that he comes back to the country of his birth: and this is Setif in 1945, this is Fort-la-France, this is Saigon, Dakar, and Lagos.  All those [colonized] who fought to defend the liberty of France or for British civilization recognize themselves in this poem by Keita Fodeba." (231-232)
Bouchareb's Indigenes keeps to the spirit of Fodeba's poem, highlighted by Fanon.  Colonized subjects enlist in the war because they believe that, by distinguishing themselves in the liberation of France, they will receive equal rights.  And yet they are kept segregated, given worse food, thrown into the most horrific combat situations, left to rot in unmarked graves, and removed from the official photographs of the territories they liberated.  And though Bouchareb's protagonists are never machine-gunned by their officers, they are callously sacrificed and then, at the end of the film, the survivors are metaphorically machine-gunned by being denied a military pension.

But Indigenes, and other similar war films, will never be as popular as the Hollywood spectacle of militarism because it jars with the dominant narrative of WW2: it makes us ask why, if the Allies were so morally superior to the Axis, they had no problem maintaining their vicious colonial properties after a war in which they claimed they were anti-fascist.  Indigenes is a war film that ends at the territory of anticolonialism, intrinsically promoting the necessity for decolonization and anticolonial violence.  Thus, it was only logical that Bouchareb's next film would be Hors-la-loi where the protagonists are played by the same actors but this time are characters at war with the colonial motherland rather than fighting under its banner.  The dream of liberty espoused by the colonized soldiers in the French Free Army, ultimately denied by their colonial generals, is a dream that needs to be taken.


  1. Thanks for this post - this film sounds great.

    Let's also not forget the hypocrisy of the U.S. army as it was fighting fascism with its segregated army units (is that the correct military term?).

    As somewhat of an aside, I was watching some PBS show awhile back talking about figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi's family history. I bring it up only because they talked about her grandfather, who served in an all-white unit (usually there were separate units for Japanese-American soldiers). He was decorated and all that, blah blah. Meanwhile, his family (along with other Japanese families and others considered possible "threats") were living in internment camps.

    I guess the Kristi Yamaguchi story isn't really central to my point. But I'll leave it anyways.

  2. Good point about the US military's segregated army units. Also, it's worth pointing out, that American's casualties in WW2 were not only the lowest of every Ally (super lower because they rarely got involved and preferred to let the rest of Europe to most of the fighting), but that, like France, these casualties were predominantly people of colour. In Settlers Sakai talks about the racist draft in the States: one of the things he mentions is the Japanese-American situation where not only the Japanese were interned, but they were drafted right out of the camps.

  3. This is wonderfully written. An excellent film. It's great that you linked it to Outside the Law.

    My favorite moments in the film are the way that the media is shown to collude with military and government in creating a certain image of the national military. As though all of the victories where won by 'white' French soldiers. The soldiers from colonies are pushed aside and snap shots are taken of smiling heroic Europeans. It's nice too that in the film it just happen and is not discussed. We know and the men know what is happening.


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