Director Rachid Bouchareb returns once again to the complex story of Algerian and French relations which he addressed so successfully in the superb Days of Glory. While that focused on the role played by colonial Algerian troops in fighting for the French motherland in the Second World War, Outside The Law focuses on the Algerian campaign for independence in the decades following the end of the war. However, much like with his previous film, Bouchareb pulls no punches and provides a brutal and unflinching take on an extremely emotive subject.
The film charts the lives of three brothers who, at the film’s outset, are kicked off their land in Algeria by the French controlled government and forced to move into the city. Years later they are caught up in a bloody massacre of protestors by the French troops and their father and sisters are slain. The emotional scars of this atrocity hit the brothers hard, but in differing ways. Abdelkader becomes heavily politicised and involved in the independence movement but soon finds himself thrown in jail for his beliefs. Messaoud joins the French army and sets off to fight in the war in Indochina, while Said on the other hand, decides to move himself and their elderly mother to France for the chance of a new life. Once there, he becomes embroiled in the city’s seedy underworld and, determined never to be poor again, he pursues his love of promoting boxing matches.
Eventually, Abdelkander is released from prison and having moved to the Paris outskirts to live with Said and their mother, he takes up the mantle of local head of the Algerian independence movement, the FLN. Upon returning from war, Messaoud is a changed man who, after witnessing first hand the success the Vietnamese had in gaining freedom from the French Empire, begins to share Abdelkader’s belief in the need for violent upheaval to achieve their goals. Said does not share his brothers’ staunch belief in using extreme methods to achieve their goal. Instead, he focuses on his club and boxing empire. As the film progresses and the French authorities begin to clamp down on the FLN and the brother’s lives become more fraught with danger, the bond between the three brothers comes ever more to the fore.
Much like in Days of Glory, Bouchareb wishes to make extremely clear the great injustices that were done to his people by successive French governments. In that same vein, Outside the Law paints the French squarely as the villains of the piece. The brutality of the French regime in Algeria is heavily emphasised, especially with the graphic opening slaughter in Setif. There was much uproar in France when the film was released as many felt the film exaggerated the atrocity and emitted the equally bloody reprisal attacks carried out on French settlers. There were various other anachronisms and misleading events in the picture which angered some French circles which once again raises the question of how accurate a historical film must be. Does every detail need to be correct? Bouchareb would surely argue that it was the ideals and spirit of the revolution he was seeking to convey and not an accurate historical reconstruction. His work is not a documentary but a film designed to entertain and provoke. On a purely cinematic level, Outside The Law is definitely a very moving tale but also undeniably manipulative. You get caught up in the brother’s struggle from day one and can’t help but root for their broader cause, even with their violent tactics. Some may argue that a filmmaker like Bouchareb has an obligation of sorts to ensure that his work is balanced and does not mislead its audience, but with such a highly charged topic as this, we can surely understand why he may omit any kind of French voice on the matter.
However, with that said, the film does not completely whitewash the more deplorable actions of the FLN. The cold blooded brutality that pervaded their cause, be it the slaying of civilians or even their own members for insubordination, is shown in no uncertain terms too. It is strange to emerge from a film having sympathised with terrorists who were ruthless killers to a certain degree.
The central thrust of the film is not only about the campaign for Algerian independence, but is also about the brothers themselves and their relationships with each other and their homeland. The three leads give great performances and each capture the essence of their character superbly. At times it is a difficult watch and deals with complicated themes, but Bouchareb’s Outside The Law packs a powerful punch that will stay with you for some time after.
Outside The Law is out on DVD and blu-ray 29th September 2011.
Director: Rachid Bouchareb
Stars: Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila
Runtime: 138 min