The Algerian War on screen

The Algerian war is a war apart in the history of France. We were even able to talk about him as a “war without a name”, a formula that the filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier used to title the documentary he devoted to him in 1992. Indeed, the period from 1954 to 1962 has long been mentioned in France by the expression “events”, and the term war did not begin to replace it officially until 1999. To these elements of singularity is added the fact that the war in Algeria has also been a war without images. The French state has indeed long exercised powerful censorship, preventing the media in general, and filmmakers in particular, from reporting on it. A situation that has often been compared to the way in which American cinema, on the contrary, took hold of the Vietnam War. Another war of independence led by a nationalist movement and which aimed to free itself from the tutelage of a Western power, the conflict which opposed the United States to Vietnam from 1963 to 1975 offered many great directors a narrative material which allowed them to sign landmark films of war cinema.

In France, the cinema has therefore dealt with the Algerian war in a much more discreet way. In the 1960s, the few filmmakers who did so recurrently portrayed the figure of the soldier, conscript or officer. But whether through his departure, or his return and the possible remorse and psychological wounds that accompany it, these directors are forced to proceed by allusion to escape censorship. In the 1970s, filmmakers like René Vautier or Yves Boisset adopted a more political, even militant tone, with a more directly anti-colonial message and depicted young people called pacifists, revolted and deeply traumatized by the experience of war. Before, almost sixty years after the signing of the Evian Accords, French cinema once again turned its attention to this period of history, this time addressing the traces that the Algerian war left in memories, attempting to show the collective trauma that it represented, the family secrets and the weight of silence that deeply marked those who lived through it. This selection of programs invites you to listen to the testimonies of seven French directors who set out to report on the Algerian war, from René Vautier to Lucas Belvaux, via Bertrand Tavernier.

Emblematic film of the New Wave, Farewell Filipina recounts the last weeks of the civilian life of a young conscript, in 1960. A summer marked in particular by holidays in Corsica which brought together a young television operator who is about to leave for Algeria to do 27 months of military service and two young women, inseparable friends. During this interview, Jacques Rozier clarifies the political context in which he filmed, and the strong censorship that was exercised at the time. A censorship that forced him to proceed by allusions, Michel’s farewells to Liliane and Juliette not being in reality those that are exchanged at the end of the holidays, but those, darker, which prelude to a departure for war. (Private screening, 38 min)

On the set of Adieu Philippine by Jacques Rozier (1960)
  • The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, by Jacques Demy (1964)

Two years after the end of the Algerian war, Umbrellas of Cherbourg go out to the cinema. The film tells the story of a young couple separated by the Algerian war, of heartbreaking farewells on a station platform, and of an even sadder reunion, a few years later… all in song. Best-known French film about the Algerian war, Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1964, Umbrellas of Cherbourg allowed certain critics to see in the separation of Guy and Geneviève a parable of that operated by the war between France and Algeria. (The Paths of Philosophy, 58 min)

  • The Battle of Algiers, by Gillo Pontecorvo (1965)

Signed Gillo Pontecorvo, Italian filmmaker close to the Communist Party, The Battle of Algiers is filmed three years after Algerian independence. Its scenario is inspired by a book of memories of Yacef Saâdi, former leader of the FLN. Through the figure of Ali la Pointe, he retraces the struggle between Algerian nationalist militants and the French army, when the men of the 10th parachute division commanded by General Massu landed in Algiers, who had come to restore order in the Kasbah. Censored in France, considered propagandist (it will remain censored on French television until 2004), it has become a cult film in Algeria. Widely shown in cinemas and on television (twice a year, on November 1 to commemorate the outbreak of the revolution in 1954, and on July 5, the date of commemoration of independence in 1962), The Battle of Algiers marked a whole generation of Algerians who knew the dialogues by heart or replayed the scenes as children. This documentary retraces the story of this shooting. (The History Factory, 52 min)

  • To be twenty years old in the Aurès, by René Vautier (1972)

Figure of militant cinema, director among the most censored in France but little known to the general public, René Vautier (1928-2015) was involved as a filmmaker in the Algerian war. Ten years later, after having recorded nearly 800 hours of testimonies from 600 conscripts, he signed To be 20 years old in the Aurès. A film which tells the adventure of a commando of young people called Bretons, pacifists before their departure and that the war will transform. During this interview conducted in 2010, five years before his death, René Vautier looks back on the set of this film, shot in just 9 days, and which received the Grand Prix de la critique internationale at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972. (On the docks, 53 min)

  • RAS by Yves Boisset (1973)

After To be 20 years old in the Aurès by Rene Vautier, RAS is one of the very first French films to describe in detail the extremely violent daily life of French soldiers and their feeling that they are fighting an “absurd” war. From their landing in Algiers to the confrontation with death in the depths of a djebel, the film reflects the traumatic experience lived by a generation of conscripts. A film with a disturbing subject that some critics have compared to Full Metal Jacket by Stanley Kubrick (1987). During this interview, director Yves Boisset talks about the release of RAS, and on the censorship that forced him to cut many scenes. (A bare voice, 29 min)

  • The Nameless War, by Bertrand Tavernier and Patrick Rotman (1992)

Committed filmmaker, best known for his historical fiction films like The Beatrice Passion (1980) or Captain Conan (1996), Bertrand Tavernier (1941-2021) was one of the first to collect the words of former soldiers of the Algerian war in the documentary The Nameless War co-directed with Patrick Rotman. (Bad genres, 1h59)

  • Of Men, by Lucas Belvaux (2021)

Adapted from the novel by Laurent Mauvignier, Men shows the sudden emergence of the memory of the Algerian war within a French family, after more than thirty years of silence. And shows the way in which French society tried to turn the page after the trauma represented by this war, a repression which led the vast majority of conscripts to remain silent, on their return in 1962, about the violence committed or of which they were witnesses. During this interview, Lucas Belvaux explains that he wanted to make a restorative film, and, by confronting the points of view and experiences of the characters, to appease the speeches and the memories, almost sixty years after the end of the war of Algeria. (The Big Table, 27 mins)

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The Algerian War on screen