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French Wildflowers and Algerian Gangsters: Humanism and Violence at the Movies

[Image from the publicity poster for [Image from the publicity poster for "Hors la loi"]

Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men). Written and directed by Xavier Beauvois. France, 2010.

Hors la loi (Outside the Law). Written and directed by Rachid Bouchareb. Algeria/Belgium/France, 2010.

Recently, two movies have offered Algeria a starring role at the post-colonial box-office. Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men), which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival and César award for Best Film, is the story of seven Trappist monks who lived in Algeria during the civil-war of the 1990s. Hors la loi (Outside the Law), which is directed by Rachid Bouchareb (who previously directed Ingidène) and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, follows three Algerian brothers as they become involved in the violent politics of Algerian nationalism in France. While Of Gods and Men has enjoyed critical acclaim, Outside the Law has been plagued by controversy - the film’s debut at Cannes faced intense protests that claimed the film was both partisan and militant. Of Gods and Men has been regarded as a spiritual mediation on universal values, in which very little actually “happens,” while Outside the Law has been denounced as a heroization of violence that is packed with events that are historically inaccurate. Undoubtedly, they are very different genres of films, but it is worth asking if there are reasons - not necessarily cinematic - why Of Gods and Men has been cast in the light of humanism while Outside the Law has been characterized as romanticizing an “endless cycle of bloody revolutionary activity.”

The serene setting and panoramic views in Of Gods and Men provide a partial explanation. Henry Quinson, who worked on the film to ensure a realistic portrayal of monastic life, remarks that the paradox of the gospel is embodied by the film: “it is both anchored in religion and completely outside of any religion…a Christian mysticism and also a completely deconfessionalized humanism,” he notesThe almost secular and convincingly universal appeal of the monks is highlighted throughout the movie. The most powerful moments are those in which the monks are attending to their quotidian tasks - seeing patients, plowing the fields, and tending to the grounds. The inner transformation of these men is inextricably bound up with their desire to serve the community. We find that their lives in France seem hollow; they now belong to the monastery, even as it is perched precariously in the Atlas mountains. This combination of worldly alienation, fraternal love, and community service is the most moving aspect of the film. 

Subsequently, when the monks convene to discuss the possibility of departure, which seems increasingly prudent given the recent slaughter of Croatian construction workers, Brother Christian remarks that they cannot leave because “wildflowers don’t move to find the sun.” Like wildflowers, the Trappists are both rooted and detached. As some critics have noted, it is possible to leave the theater without being aware that the movie took place in Algeria. Like the fate of wildflowers, the sense of place is received rather than willed.

Yet it is worth noting that wildflowers “appear in the wild as a native plant, even if it is growing where it would not naturally.” In other words, even while the plant appears to be native, mirroring pre-existing forms of flora, it often grows where it would not naturally take root. In botanical terms, wildflowers blur the distinction between a “native species” and an “introduced species.” Here, there is a bizarre parallel to be made with French colonialism. Under the French administration, the term “Algerians” came to refer to the European settler population, a term which naturalized their presence on the land. It turns out that botanists may have a thing or two to teach post-colonial theorists (as well as movie critics). The Trappist monks are indeed wildflowers, but they fail to recognize that their roots do not have the same history as those of the autochthonous population. They are, undoubtedly, a (violently) “introduced species.” Indeed, one of the most political moments of the film is when an Algerian government official points to this very fact, deriding the monks for staying and reminding them that the Algerian villagers with whom they live would also leave if they had the means to do so.

The Economist has noted that Outside the Law is an “action film” while Of Gods and Men is “not about politics.” While there is plenty of action in Outside the Law (boxing matches, metro fights, post-colonial romances), there are certainly just as many politics in Of Gods and Men, even if they remain faint. First, there are the politics of the existence of the Trappist monks in Algeria: tied to the civilizing mission, the Trappist monks were originally recruited by the French colonial authorities for their skills in agriculture in 1843. Second, there are the politics of the lives of these particular monks: living in a former French colony, these monks are surrounded by the violence of a civil war that exploded after the Algerian government canceled the democratic elections in which the an Islamist party had emerged victorious. Lastly, there are the politics of the eventual murder of the monks: while the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) initially took responsibility for the killing, it was later revealed that the GIA had been infiltrated by the Algerian secret services. Both Lee P. Ruddin, in his review of the film, and Bejamin Stora, the preeminent historian of Algeria, have commented on this lack of political context.

Yet rather than enact the historian’s cop-out and ask for “more context please,” there is a deeper question that should be posed: Does this historico-political silence allow the film to take on the mantle of humanism in popular discourse? In other words, is the universal appeal of the film secured by eliding colonial politics? If so, the Enlightenment lives on, the first time as colonial tragedy, the second time as box office success.

The historical silence and geographical ambiguity that mark Of Gods and Men is remarkably different from Outside the Law, which is set in France and unmistakably addresses the fact of colonialism in Algeria. Unlike the wonderfully fleshed out personalities of the monks, the three brothers in Outside the Law serve as mere narratological devices, and their individual transformations are remarkably flat. Instead of spiritual duty or fraternal love, the brothers find each other (quite literally) in France due to the violence of history, symbolized by the Sétif massacre. On V. E. Day (8 May 1945), as Europe celebrated the surrender of Nazi Germany, nationalist protests broke out in Sétif, Algeria. Subsequently, the French brutally cracked down on the largely peaceful protesters. The unrest then spread to surrounding regions, resulting in violence across north Constantine. Not only has Sétif been heralded as the beginning of Algeria’s war of independence, but Sartre also claimed that these events undeniably exposed the hypocrisy of the colonial regime. As such, Sétif provides a fitting moment for the opening of film. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the invocation of Sétif has also proved to be extremely controversial.  

Outside the Law has been criticized for historical inaccuracy and for condensing the Sétif massacres into a single event. Yet what may seem to be artistic license may point to something more profound: we should not forget that in France, the massacres at Sétif were refereed to as “les événements” (the events) for decades. More recently, this colonial amnesia was re-enacted in the 2005 law that insisted on teaching the “positive effects” of French colonialism. Ironically, as the French state has usurped the power to narrate these atrocities (and attempted to render them invisible in the process), the film asserts the massacres with a symbolic coherence that is also disproved by the historical record. The difference, of course, is that generally it is governments, not movies, which are held accountable for historical accuracy.

Outside the Law does not focus on spiritual or universal aspirations, but, rather, on the FLN’s (National Liberation Front) attempt to violently liquidate its adversaries in France. The film has been labeled a “gangster movie,” even by its co-producer. The characters often slide into caricatures; they are people “without faith nor law.” Yet while there are undoubtedly many historical inaccuracies and underdeveloped characters in the film, Malika Rahal suggests that this narrative has given the second generation of Algerians in France an important story that allows them to make sense of their post-colonial identity. This is a different kind of existentialist condition than the one explored in Of Gods and Men, to be sure. But (contra Sartre) we may not be free to choose our brand of existentialism after all.

Predictably, film critics have ignored the deeper questions surrounding violence and formation of post-colonial identities. Instead, they have lauded Of Gods and Men for advancing the possibility of co-existence between Christians and Muslims. A review of the original monograph on which the movie is based concludes that there is a “good Islam and a bad Islam,” just as there are “good European Christians and really bad European Christians.”[1] In Of Gods and Men, however, the “really good Europeans” teach the Muslims how to create a “good Islam.” In one scene Brother Christian, faced with the prospect of death, preaches to an Islamist leader that the Qur’an respects Christians and believes them to be friends of the Muslims. At other moments, we see the monks reading the Qur’an, writing in Arabic, and reminding the native population of the nobility of the Islamic faith. By contrast, one of the few times the monks go to visit an Algerian household for a celebration, the Muslims are reciting the Qur’an and citing an obligation to kill the unbelievers. The message is clear: the Trappists should teach the Muslims the truth of their religion, which means discussing theology outside of any historical or political context. This has an uneasy echo with another theme in Algeria’s colonial history: the need for the colonial state to encourage an “acceptable” version of Islam.

The critical reception of the two films is also rooted in historical precedent. Following the announcement that the seven Trappist monks had been executed on 26 May 1996, 40,000 churches in France tolled their bells to express their grief. Following the emergence of information surrounding the massacres in Sétif and Guelma, which killed thousands of Algerians, the French state actively hid the events in order to protect French Algeria. Similarly, some French politicians have claimed that Outside the Law is an insult to the French Republic, while Of Gods and Men has been revered despite (or thanks to) the lack of political context. Yet to view Of Gods and Men as a treatise on humanism, while regarding Outside the Law as a particularistic, “gangster,” action movie, is to fail to grasp how the movies are intrinsically related. Rather than being diametrically opposed, the relationship between the two films reflects the tangled post-colonial connection between metropole and colony. As Etienne Balibar has poignantly written: “Algeria and France, taken together, do not make two, but something like one and a half, as if each of them, in their addition, already contributed a part of the other.”[2]

1. See Joseph V. Montville’s review in Middle East Journal Vol. 57, No 4 (Autumn, 2003), pp. 665 – 667.

2. Etienne Balibar, “Algeria, France: One Nation or Two?” in Joan Copjec and Michael Sorkin (eds.), Giving Ground: the Politics of Propinquity (New York: Verso, 1999), p. 164.

2 comments for "French Wildflowers and Algerian Gangsters: Humanism and Violence at the Movies"



ADNAN AL-BASSAM wrote on April 07, 2011 at 04:45 AM

I am an American graduate student writing a paper on "Of Gods and Men" for a class on religion, secularism and politics. I have waded through pages and pages and pages of google searches on the film, finding only the most simplified arguments glorifying the ostensibly "transcendent" humanist message (or, worse, glorifying martyrdom). Thank you to the author for this eloquent article critically exploring the full political context and nuance of this film. I will be quoting this piece of excellent film scholarship in my paper!

Heather L. wrote on May 05, 2011 at 04:34 AM

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