Tuesday, December 1, 2009
This 2007 Algerian film by Rachid Bouchareb, at the very least, is a view of World War II that you likely haven’t seen. Countless films on the subject are out there and from several different angles, but the vast majority of them are told through the mouths of Westerners or at most the Japanese. This one, however, is told through African soldiers fighting for the French. The French side of the story alone isn’t portrayed very often, but the voice of soldiers from the African colonies is almost nonexistent. Not only are most of the soldiers and primary characters minorities and non-Europeans, but they’re also nearly all Muslim. They leave their dessert homes and travel by land and sea to fight the Nazi’s in Europe, and spend much of the time wondering about what exactly their role is. Are they meant to merely be the guinea pigs, sent in first to tire and distract the enemy until the ‘real’ army can arrive? Are they truly considered equals? If not, then what? Many of the themes are similar to the movie Glory. Some of the soldiers seem just fine with their role and place in the hierarchy, but a handful eventually decide to take a stand and be heroes. While this may be noble, the sad truth of the matter is that they soon learn that no one in the West really cares, no matter how heroic they are, even if it’s in the name of liberating and saving the West. How many Americans truly know about the Tuskegee Airmen or the Native American code breakers from WWII? Not many. And why? Because no one really seems to want to see minorities as saving white people. It’s pathetic and watching these characters come to understand this and then to come to a determination of how to proceed makes for an interesting watch. It’s also interesting for this director to make a movie about Muslims fighting for the West in a time when these very same Near Eastern, Middle Eastern and North African Muslims are so often portrayed as against the West. Part of me thinks this is to remind us that many Muslims have always been and are now are thankless allies. Part of me also thinks Bouchareb’s trying to show that there really was a time not too long ago when the West and these groups of Muslims were largely united. They were on our side. After all, respect begets respect and right now there’s very little respect flowing in either direction between the West and most of these Near Eastern, Middle Eastern and North African countries. The performances are great (so great in fact that the entire primary cast was given the Cannes Festival's best actor award as a single unit) and the cinematography and production design were fantastic. The story got a little weak at times and some of the bits could’ve been cut entirely. But overall it was a really decent watch and certainly a perspective on the war I’ve never seen before.