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France's forgotten liberators

`Days of Glory' recalls the heroics of colonial subjects who fought and then were swept aside.

February 23, 2007|Geraldine Baum | Special to The Times

PARIS — When the lights came back on in a suburban movie theater here last fall after a screening of the World War II epic "Indigenes," Mohamed Hamidi was surprised to see many of his teenage students weeping.

These street-smart French children of Arab and North African immigrants had just learned more in a two-hour movie about their ancestors' role in liberating France from the Nazis than they had their whole lives up to then. And some of what they learned was heartbreaking and resonant of their own alienation in this country. But, for once, their emotions also contained pride.

"They just couldn't believe that their grandfathers are as much a part of French history as all the kings and queens and revolutionaries they learn about in school," said Hamidi, who teaches high school economics. "Their history is not in the books yet. But now it is in a movie." Renamed "Days of Glory" for English-speaking audiences, the film recounts the mostly obscured story of a band of infantrymen who were conscripted in French colonies -- Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal -- and who went on to fight with the Allies in Europe through the end of the war. The "indigenes" or "natives" -- a term used for African soldiers back then -- made up more than half the First French Army in 1944, yet the white military hierarchy treated them as lesser comrades and later concealed their role in victory.

The film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and opened in Paris last September, has already received considerable recognition, from critics and judges at Cannes and now as an Academy Award finalist for best foreign-language picture. It is also nominated for nine of France's Cesar film awards.

The movie opened last week in the U.S. with its new title, one clearly tailored for Hollywood's Greatest Generation genre. Probably the story will surprise American moviegoers whose memory of the French in North Africa in the 1940s has them singing "La Marseillaise" in Rick's cafe or wearing jaunty berets as they liberate Paris. Dark-skinned Frenchmen rarely made it into the pictures.

For French moviegoers, this film has been an education -- and has also raised a number of uncomfortable themes: In a country that still wrestles with its collaborationist record with the Nazis, "Days of Glory" recalls that the majority of its "French" liberators were not born here; in a country that still attempts to live by egalitarian ideals, the movie asserts a racism that cannot be brushed off as buried in the past but one that endures, particularly among young French-born Muslims and North Africans who after two generations still feel the sting of discrimination and of being caught between cultures.

Colonial historian Martin Thomas, a professor at Britain's University of Exeter, said the French public has, over the last 30 years, done a great deal of soul-searching over its wartime past. "France had been looking at itself for years now over Vichy, over the treatment of its Jewish population, over divisions between resistors and collaborators," Thomas said. "The next logical step was over its treatment of colonials and what came later."

More than 1 million people, many in the multiethnic suburbs, went to see the movie the first week it opened here. It helped that it was heavily promoted and that it featured actors revered by the young people of France. One of the four major characters is played by one of the country's best-known celebrities of North African heritage, Jamal Debbouze, a popular 31-year-old comic whom American audiences might remember as the sweet grocer's son in "Amelie." Although not a blockbuster -- the French always prefer a comedy -- "Indigenes" came in eighth for box office gross last year, drawing 3.2 million people, compared with another 2006 historic film, Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette," which opened around the same time and sold 1.2 million tickets.

" 'Indigenes' sent a little shockwave in France by showing a lost history," said Jean-Francois Morisse, editor in chief of Premiere.fr, the film magazine's website. "It's a rough story, that many people had a problem with the North Africans, and we know people still do." But it's one that viewers also found believable, Morisse added. "Indigenes" made an impression not only on France's minority population, like those teenagers in Mohamed Hamidi's class, but also in as unlikely quarters as the presidential Elysee Palace.

According to cast members who attended a private screening with President Jacques Chirac, his wife, Bernadette, turned to him after reading the film's postscript about the frozen pensions of colonial soldiers and reportedly said, "Jacques, we must do something." And, thus, one of director Rachid Bouchareb's intentions in making the film -- to inspire political debate and change -- was, in part, realized.

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