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The last time I saw Rachid Bouchareb, a real-life drama was unfolding on the set of his new film Indigènes: a pack mule had escaped its handler and sent cast and crew scuttling for the under-growth. Amid the chaos, Bouchareb, a diminutive man with the wiry build of a jockey or a fly-weight boxer, was a serene zen-like presence, calmly suggesting that an extra go off and look for some apples. Result: The mule was soon back in harness crunching happily on the apples.
Just a little under two years later, the same film Indigènes (released in the US last week as Days of Glory) – a second world war two drama about the relatively little-known role north African soldiers played in the liberation of France – has taken on a run-away life of its own, earning a nomination for best foreign film at this year’s Oscars. It is just the latest evidence of what can justifiably be described as an Indigenes-effect.
Films rarely if ever alter the social fabric of a country, but Indigènes – French parlance which translates as “natives” – has proved to be an honourable exception. After seeing Bouchareb’s film, French president Jacques Chirac raised the pensions of African army veterans from the former colonies, which had been frozen since 1959, to the same level as those of their French comrades. The decision, which came into effect in January, will benefit some 80,000 veterans. The move was heavily criticised by Nicolas Sarkozy, interior minister and presidential hopeful at this year’s presidential elections, for costing the French government tens of millions of euros.
“Sarkozy said Chirac was the best possible press attaché the film could have and that you wouldn’t want him seeing a film every week,” said the 47-year-old director in Paris recently. “Why say such stupid things? This is money France has a debt to these veterans.”
Two weeks earlier, prior to this interview, Bouchareb had accompanied a veteran who had also provided the inspiration for one of the main characters in his film to a ceremony where he received France’s legion d’honneur.
“This man, who settled in Alsace after the war and married a Frenchwoman, had been waiting for years to be decorated,” Bouchareb said. “So I called Jacques Chirac and he agreed that this man’s courage should be recognised. When he received his medal he was crying with emotion. Even after so many years of being ignored he was still proud of the recognition. He was still proud of having helped deliver France from fascism.”
Most days Bouchareb travels to and from his office using on the Paris metro. Strangers, mainly immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants, often approach him and thank him for making Indigènes, which has sold more than 3m tickets in France.
“The film brought something. It’s difficult to explain exactly what, but I think it has to do with a recovered sense of dignity,” Bouchareb said. “When the immigrant community saw the posters for the film, with actors they identify with, on the walls of their cities, dressed up as soldiers, or when they saw the film’s trailer and saw what the story was about, they rushed to see the film.
“For them, going to see the film was an act of faith, a display of solidarity.”
It helps that Bouchareb is the son of immigrants. His parents moved to France from the Algerian sea city of Oran. He was born and grew up in the north eastern Parisian suburb of Seine Saint Denis, now also known as the 93 on account of its postal code, or “la banlieue chaude” because of its incendiary tendencies.
“Growing up I was interested in war because members of my family fought for the French Army in the Algerian War, the Indochina War, the first and the second world wars,” he said.
“My parents didn’t know how to read or write. From the time I was 10 years old, all the paperwork that needed reading and replying to passed through me, which allowed me to learn a bit more about my family’s past, as well as how French administration works.”
After leaving school, Bouchareb trained to operate heavy industrial machinery. But he was not overly enamoured with the idea of spending the rest of his working life on a factory floor.
“I wanted to be an artist, so I went back to school, passed my bac – the French equivalent of A-levels – and afterwards did a film studies course. So in the end, I managed to do what I wanted,” he said. “But the kind of films I wanted to make were not going to be quite like other French films. My first, Baton Rouge (1985), is set in America, Cheb (1991) takes place in Algeria, the third, Dust of Life (1995), happens in Asia and the fourth, Little Senegal (2001), is set in Harlem.
“I decided that only I had the necessary energy to be able to get my films made, so I became my own producer as well as a director.”
Unlike his previous films – intimate tales told on a small budget – Bouchareb wanted to make Indigènes a blockbuster in the American mould – one of his templates was the John Sturges western The Magnificent Seven – and for it to reach the biggest possible audience.
After co-writing the script with Olivier Lorelle and assembling a cast brimming with talented actors such as Jamel Debbouze and Roschdy Zem (all of whom worked for scale) Bouchareb went looking for the €15m (£10m, $19.73m) he needed to make his film.
“The power of the outsider is that at a given moment he can win the race – and this was one race we won because we refused to be stopped by anyone or anything,” Bouchareb said. “We went looking for money everywhere; I even got on a plane and went to meet with the King of Morocco.
“In France, a lot of the money came from the different regional departments. We succeeded because we made it seem as if it were their duty to make this film. It was tricky for them to say no; after all, here was a film that spoke about France’s liberation. There were some ‘nos’, but not enough to derail the film.”
Yet despite the resonance that Indigènes has had in France, the film enters the Oscars race under Algerian, not French, colours.
According to Bouchareb this happened because the film was first released in France on September 27 last year, and to qualify for the Oscars it had to come out before September 22. Indigènes qualified as an Algerian entry because it came out in Oran in June.
Before adding with typical fatalism: “As it’s turned out I think that it’s a good thing that Indigènes goes into the Oscars as an African film,” Bouchareb says. “France has won a number of Oscars in the past; Africa, very few. Perhaps it can create a snowball effect if it wins.”
‘Days of Glory’ (‘Indigènes’) is released in the UK on March 30