In Philippe Faucon’s film Les Harkis, set in the final years of the Algerian War of Independence, it’s a losing battle for the Algerian soldiers in the French Army.
The film Les Harkis had its world premiere in the 2022 Cannes Director’s Fortnight, screened at Montreal’s Cinemania in November 2022, and screens this week at the Rendez-vous with French Cinema festival in New York City. It is still seeking North American distribution.
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In Philippe Faucon’s Les Harkis, set during the latter half of the Algerian War of Independence, it’s a losing battle for every Algerian. The film follows a regiment of Algerian soldiers fighting in the French Army, the eponymous “Harkis”, from the moment several of them enlist near the end of the war (1959) to the devastating aftermath of the war (1962). To the French, the Harkis weren’t individuals; they were, as Salah’s mother suggests, cannon fodder. Once enlisted, we watch a group of new recruits get minimally trained, poorly equipped, fed propaganda about the benevolence of the French State, and then abandoned as soon as the conflict ends. Les Harkis treats the characters less as an ensemble than as a unit, a regiment. In so doing, Faucon shows how becoming an Harki meant losing your individual identity and suffering systemic injustices at every turn.
A short, elliptical, and episodic film focuses on the unit rather than the individuals
Faucon manages the difficult balancing act of always extending our empathy towards the exploited soldiers without offering much character background or development. His success is in large part because of the film’s short run time — evenly split between the events of the war and its aftermath — and its elliptical, impressionistic approach to the narrative. We only ever see brief glimpses of different stages of the war in short scenes separated by fades to black and chirons telling you the date. The nature of the structure means the story and the soldiers are always in motion, rarely stopping for a character beat that isn’t necessary for painting a picture of the whole unit.
Moreover, we may follow the soldiers through a particular mission, but we never have any sense of how that mission fits into the bigger picture, or if there’s any end in sight. We’re always struggling to keep up. In this sense, the film’s structure puts us in the headspace of the characters themselves: losing track of time, purpose, and individual identity.
Four protagonists emerge in the film Les Harkis
Nevertheless, four key characters emerge. The film opens by introducing us to Salah (Mohamed Mouffok), who enlists in the army when the severed head of his brother, a former soldier, turns up on his doorstep. He takes his brother’s place. Next, we meet Kaddour (Amine Zorgane) working on his farm when he finds out he has until the end of the week to pay the rent, an impossible sum of money to acquire.
Suddenly, Kaddour and Salah are both in uniform. Though we meet both men’s families, it’s only briefly; the scenes unfold at such a clipped pace that you’ve lost sight of these individuals within the regiment within minutes. Lieutenant Pascal (Theo Chalbi), a French-speaking French citizen, is a decent man yet naive enough to believe in the benevolence of France. This is perhaps because he devotes himself to his men.
Krimou, the most complex character
The fourth character, Krimou is the most complex, and only enters the scene partway through the film. He arrives as an enemy captive, a Fellagha (a member of what the French referred to as the ‘rebel’ army). Though Krimou withstands brutal torture out of loyalty to his fellow Fellagha, before long, he becomes a turncoat, enlisting in the French army. It’s the only way to survive. He becomes complicit in the regime he was fighting against and kills the very people he was tortured for protecting.
It’s an impossible situation, and as one of his colleagues opines, will push Krimou into becoming the most brutal and devoted to the French army of them all. Once he becomes a Harki, he also gets a giant target on his back for betraying the Fellagha. And yet, one of his first missions is to go undercover as a Fellagha, ingratiate himself with them for the sake of the French, and even give a speech about the lies and dangers of the French. He’s pretending to be the person he is, or was. It’s hard to tell what is performance and what is self-preservation; the two blur together.
The chasm between the French and the Harkis in the film
Throughout the film, Faucon highlights the chasm between the French Army’s propaganda and the reality on the ground. In the same scene where army officials promise new recruits the benevolence and protection of the French state, they receive outdated guns (with no safety), and only rudimentary training. Faucon’s camera pans across the faces of the new recruits who listen in dead-eyed silence: at no point do they look like they’ve bought into the propaganda, but they also know they have no choice but to hope the French come through. (They don’t.) The language differences between the French and the Algerians in the army emphasises the chasm between the two. The French-speaking regiment leader, Lieutenant Pascal, gives commands in French, which an Algerian Harki translates into Arabic in order to be carried out.
Although the film acknowledges the brutality of the war itself, from beheadings to torture, Faucon ensures that the most violent player is the French State. We barely see the severed head that opens the film. Faucon shoots the one brief scene of torture from a distance and with no nail-biting lead-up or crushing aftermath; there’s less overt violence here than in watching Willem Defoe prepare to lose his nails in The English Patient. A stabbing happens as a matter-of-fact part of war, yet nobody who witnesses it approves. What happens to civilians remains largely off screen.
The violence of colonial paperwork in Faucon’s Les Harkis
For Faucon, there is more violence in colonial paperwork than in the machinations of war. At each key step in the film, the men must sign forms. They speak Arabic, but the forms are in French. Thus, the details of these contracts remain unknown to the signers; they must trust whatever gets translated to them orally. They sign away their lives to the French Army when they enlist, and they sign them away again when they’re given only poor choices in the aftermath.
The men know they’re getting a raw deal by the end. Some of them even abscond before they have to sign anything — what little the French offer them isn’t worth the indignity of further complicity nor the threat of disarmament. Even Lieutenant Pascal, who is used to running his unit with fair leadership, registers the violence of the bureaucracy by the end of the war. The forms are a death sentence, in one way or another, so Pascal decides he must do what he can to independently help.
Philippe Faucon has previously explore France’s colonial legacy before the film Les Harkis
Les Harkis is Faucon’s fourth feature specifically about the effect of France’s colonial legacy on African people. The excellent, César-winning Fatima (2015) and the heartfelt but somewhat underwhelming Amin (2018) were both stories set in France about present-day immigrants to France from colonial Africa. Faucon previously looked at the Algerian War of Independence in The Betrayal (2005) from the perspective of Algerian civilians; Les Harkis tells the story of men who probably would have preferred to be civilians but had no choice but to enlist. Faucon, who was born in Algeria during the war, and has spent most of his adult life in France, tends to make films about outsiders.
That’s true of Les Harkis: the Harkis were outsiders in the French Army, and thus forced into become outsiders within their own communities. And it’s also true of some of his work about contemporary French society, like the excellent miniseries Proud (featuring a young Benjamin Voisin), about a pair of gay men living through 30 years of oppression (and liberation) up until present day.
Les Harkis is a tougher watch
Les Harkis is a tougher watch than Faucon’s other recent films, which are gentler, more character-driven stories about people trying to find joy as they get their lives against the backdrop of oppression. But Les Harkis’ rewards outweigh our discomfort — the discomfort is even one of them. Faucon’s humanist approach still remains while telling a more overtly political, if less directly character-driven story. The regiment at the center of the film could deliberately serve as a stand-in for many other regiments, and that’s part of the point. The systemic injustice was widespread, affecting tens of thousands of Harkis.
Although many characters speak the films’ themes out loud, Faucon avoids steering into didacticism. Within the film’s structure and run time, Faucon will give equal weight to a tendentious piece of dialogue as he does to just observing the men eating, walking, and waiting. As a result, the explainer lines never read as such; you’re too busy caught in the moment, trying to keep up with the action or inaction for anything to register as a teachable moment.
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