UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
These are two articles which were published in the GURDIAN WEEKLY. Enjoy!
The war the French would prefer to forget
By Jacques Amalric
Thirty years ago, on March 19, 1962, the cease fire that ended the Algerian War was signed in Evian. The war, which had started in 1954, left an estimated 500,000 dead* (soldiers and civilians on both sides). Yet it was officially described not as a war at all, but as 'an operation to maintain law and order'.
The conflict is the subject of a new documentary, 'La Guerre sans Nom' ('The War without a Name'), by director Bertrand Tavernier and historian Patrick Rotman. Consisting almost entirely of interviews with French veterans, it is the first film to take a serious look at the scars the war left on the nation. It also touches on the taboo subject of torture.
Over 2.5 million French conscripts and reservists took part in the Algerian war, which Bertrand Tavernier and Patrick Rotman call "the war without a name." Some of them went through hell, many were bored, while others, wrenched for the first time from their farms and factories, experienced the one and only great adventure of their lives. But for almost all of them, the war was an incom- prehensible, absurd and often painful epi- sode, which ended quickly but was never forgotten.
Thirty years after what were described at the time as the "events" in Algeria, Tavernier and Rotman managed to find largely thanks to Georges Mattei, a leading opponent of the warQ28 people who, willy-nilly, played minor roles in one of the most anachronistic of wars. Workers, farmers, shopkeepers and executives, they all came from the area round Grenoble, which in 1956 saw the biggest demonstrations against the sending of reservists to Algeria.
For the four hours of the film (but in fact for much longer:Tavernier and Rotman shot over 50 hours of interviews) these people seem stunned by what they are saying. For the first time ever, people film-makers as it happens Qwho were not involved at all in their misadventure are showing an inter- est in that wasted but crucial episode of their lives, an episode which long tended to be avoided in conversation, probably because it was a national war (half-heartedly supported by most parties) that ended in political defeat.
We see here an upsurge of emotions. Movingly, hesitatingly, the men gradually reveal the psychological wounds they suffered and the illusions they lost. Memories flood back: of drowning their sorrows in beer, night ambushes, bleak barracks, inhospitable mountains, interminable guard duty, dead or maimed friends, the gaze of the Algerians they rounded up, the all-too-audible screams of those under "interrogation".
The brunt of the Algerian War on the French side was borne by conscripts and reservists.Most knew nothing of Algeria and felt they had no business to be there. That was particularly true of the reservists, who felt they had already served their country. Yet few refused to fight on ideological grounds, and those that did acted alone: the Communist Party never encouraged people to ignore their mobilisation orders, let alone desert.
Tavernier and Rotman nevertheless managed to track down one such rebel, a militant Communist who got sent to prison for two years for insubordination in other words, for refusing to serve in Algeria. After serving his sentence, he gave up the struggle and joined the troops. He now regrets that decision. "I didn't have the courage to desert," he simply says.
The great majority of soldiers, when they set off for North Africa, were worried and sometimes curious, but hardly wracked by serious doubts. Many were easily influenced, and in any case terribly isolated, by the army's primitive, infantilising structures. Some enjoyed the initiatory kicks of the war game. Many just tried to save their skins: they knew that the freedom fighters of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) took almost no prisoners, and were aware of the appalling way they mutilated bodies.
In the field or in their offices, the soldiers all looked forward to being demobbed. In letters to their families, many painted a deceptively rosy picture so as not to alarm a civilian population that had accepted the war without protesting too much because they saw it as a law-and- order operation. When the soldiers got home, they continued to lie by omission; and no one really asked them probing questions anyway.
In that respect, the Algerian war bore no similarity to the Vietnam war, which was experienced live on television by a whole nation. Footage from the front took a long time to reach the French public, and was then censured anyway. And the strictly controlled press all too often went along with that fudging of the truth.
The odd men out in the gallery of portraits presented by Tavernier and Rotman are one or two junior officers who favoured "Algerie francaise". One admits almost regretfully that he has never since then felt so power- ful.
Most soldiers had little contact with the Algerians, who were perceived as a kind of abstraction, albeit a possibly lethal one. There were exceptions: a doctor who was in charge of a camp of prisoners on the Moroccan border is in tears describing handing over to the Algerian army after the cease fire of March 19,1962- and officers who were in charge of harki units (Algerians fighting on the French side) say they detest de Gaulle to this day, not only because he tricked them but because he betrayed the harki community thousands were massacred in Algeria after the cease fire when France refused to grant their families asylum.
Also more or less absent from the picture are the Pieds Noirs (Algerian- born French) who are remembered as objects of fun by certain conscripts, and whom the officers distrust retrospectively because "they were chiefly interested in marrying off their daughters."
Torture in Algeria - conscripts confront their memories Interview with Bertrand Tavernier and Patrick Rotman
Q:Why does your film last four hours?
Rotman: For the film to have any meaning, it was vital to give the people time to discover what it was they were trying to say, time to settle into their roles. The moment we started shooting, we were struck by the extraordinary quality of their testimony by the intensity, the emotion, the accuracy of their memory, the way they had clearly been mulling over their experiences.
We had to ensure that this slow process of introspection and maturation was visible in the film. It very soon became apparent to us that it was more important to bring out the characters of those interviewed than to adopt a chronological approach.
Tavernier: The producers were worried about the length of the film. It was thanks to Rene Bonnel, of the TV channel Canal Plus, that we were able to bring it out in its present version. Had it not been for Canal Plus Patrick's project, which had been lying forgotten in some producer's drawer for two years, would never have got off the ground.
Q:How did you choose your interviewees
Tavernier: Our only criterion was the interest of what they had to say. We didn't try to establish a systematic cross-section of people according to their opinions, where they were stationed, or how long they spent in Algeria. It so happens that the film ends up giving a fairly accurate picture of what the war was like for conscripts.
There's nothing about Algerian cities in war-time. That's not surprising because, apart from Algiers, where operations were carried out by paratroopers, the war wasn't being waged in the cities. The film's subject is: what did it feel like going off to war at the age of 20?
Q:Why have you included scenes of the Algerian countryside as it is today?
Tavernier: I was struck by the way our interviewees talked of their feelings of loneliness, of their lack of contact with people. When I went to film those landscapes I was in a sense, putting myself in the same position as them, when they discovered a country that was unfamiliar to them.
Q:Was there any hostility from the French authorities while you were shooting? Any banana skins?
Tavernier: Yes, from the regular army. A general in Grenoble refused us permission, which had been requested by four of his officers, to shoot in the mess.
And one witness backed down: a Grenoble municipal official who was probably at some point involved in the OAS [Organisation de l'Armee Secrete, an illegal military organi- sation supporting French rule in Algeria].
But what struck us most weren't the various minor obstacles put in our way, but the indifference of politicians. While we were shooting in Grenoble, the mayor, Alain Carignon, didn't bother to turn up once on set, whereas when I was making "La Passion Beatrice", a film that takes place in the Middle Ages, all the local councillors came along to see how things were going.
We have invited countless politicians to the previews, but so far only Defence Minister Pierre Joxe has turned up. Yet practically the whole present generation of Socialist leaders cut their political teeth at the time of the Algerian War. Those on the right of the political spectrum were no keener to see the film, either. And so far no television channel except Canal Plus has shown interest.
Q:The contrast between that indifference and your interviewees' desire to talk about their experiences is very striking.
Tavernier: They feel terribly resentful about the way that episode of French history has been swept under the carpet. I think that French society is deeply flawed because of that.
Rotman: It's a shameful page of French history that people decide either to turn or to rip out. And to think it was an experience endured by 2.5 million young Frenchmen! The film tries to get them simply to talk about it, and is not interested in denouncing anything.
Q:Did you talk to them a lot before filming?
Rotman: Georges Mattei did all the research and talked to them. I saw almost everyone before shooting, though one or two came in once we'd started. I knew one or two things about them. But we had to keep what they were going to say intact until they were in front of the camera. A story like Serge Puygrenier's, for example, can't be told twice. I knew he'd lost a leg, but was unaware that another of our interviewees, Bruno Enrietti, was the man who had saved his life. Things gradually emerge when you have plenty of time at your disposal.
Similarly, we were completely taken aback by the unexpected testimony of Noel Trouilloud's brother, Jean, when he described the state of an Algerian village after the RIMa (the marines) had cleaned it up: "There was nothing left. Nothing living left. Not even a dog. The population had been machine-gunned. The RIMa had shown no mercy." He didn't say that just because he wanted to be the focus of attention or to show that he too had seen the horrors of war.
A lot of them talk about torture, refer to the fact it existed, but never admit to having carried it out.
Tavernier: One person owns up: Jacques Bec.
Rotman: The film is quite clear on the issue of torture. If almost all of the 28 people we questioned knew about it more or less at first hand, it must have been widespread. They all knew it went on. My second point is that it wasn't only carried out by conscripts. As early as 1957, there were special places for that kind of thing known as Operational Protection Systems.
I'm not saying conscripts didn't beat up prisoners, or even finish them off such behaviour is referred to as normal practice. But there again we weren't interested in trying to be sensational or to slant the film in any way.
Tavernier: As one of them, Alain Boeuf, puts it so tellingly, some of those who tortured weren't even aware they were doing anything wrong. So they wouldn't testify even if they were asked to, because they have nothing to say. Boe If talks about the volunteers, who were in it for kicks and to whom it was impossible to talk rationally. I think that even if one could lay one's hands on a volunteer, he would have nothing of interest to say.
Rotman: Whereas with Boeuf, when he opened a door and saw what he saw, the effect was terrible. You just need to look at his face as he recalls the scene. Then his silence.
Q:There is also the veil of silence drawn over soldiers' psychological traumas, which is referred to at the end of the film.
Tavernier: As soon as I heard about their existence, I knew the film would have to end like that, just as it opened with the great demonstration against the departure for Algeria that was organised in Grenoble on May 18, 1956. The psychological disorders were never officially recognisedQjust as there are no figures for the number of harkis killed.
In the course of your interviews, did you detect any signs of the racism which is a part of that society today?
Rotman: There's nothing to suggest that people like the ones we interviewed are the spearhead of the racist ideas which have gained currency today. Of course there's a minority who are still living in 1962, and who belong to blatantly right wing associations. They are represented by Jean Bollon president of the Grenoble section of the Union Nationale des Combattants. But that's all.
There's nothing racist, for example, in the remarks that Jacques Bec, a hard-boiled paratroop officer, makes about the Arabs. Another para officer, Robert Andre, in answer to the question "What aspect of the war most marked you? (which was left out of the final cut), says: "I was left with the greatest possible mistrust of the mass media and politicians. I have never voted since and have never succeeded in deciding where I stand politically. But if ever I saw a bunch of cretins beating up an Arab, I hope I would still have the courage to intervene."
Tavernier: It's the cliches and prejudices kept alive by both sides after the Algerian War that encouraged acrimony. The film is against all that. It boils down to what Orwell said about the need for two and two to make four. Up to now, no one had put two and two together, so no one knew what it came to. Above all, it wasn't regarded as the sort of question one should ask.
* PS: According to the Algerian government, 1.5 millions Algerians (mostly civilians) were killed.
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