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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 56.2: Matthew Croombs
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Legacies of Militant Cinema: Réne Vautier and the Anti-Colonial Combat Film

Matthew Croombs

At the conclusion of my essay, “La jetée in Historical Time,” I point toward the work of René Vautier as a future direction for the study of the cinematic representation of the Franco-Algerian War. Vautier’s trajectory illustrates a process of French cinema transforming itself into a legitimately Algerian cinema concerned with the revolutionary and post-revolutionary aftermath of Algerian society. This transformation began in the late 1940s, when, as a student at L’
Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques, he was commissioned to make a pedagogical film about what was then called French West Africa for French secondary school students. Outraged by the parallels he observed between the situation in Niger and the Nazi violence he experienced as a fighter for the Resistance, Vautier made the first ever anti-colonial documentary, Afrique 50 (1950), leading to his one-year imprisonment for violating a 1934 decree instituted by Vichy collaborator, Pierre Laval.[1] He developed an undercover identity in the ensuing period and travelled to Algeria to become a filmmaker and educator.[2] There he helped the Front de libération nationale (FLN) establish its film unit in 1957 and trained future Algerian filmmakers, including Chérif Zennati and Abd el Hamid Mokdad.[3] In that same year, he made the anti-colonial combat documentary, L’Algérie en flammes, during which his camera was gunned down by the counter-insurgency, leaving a small fragment of the camera embedded in his skull. Over the remaining course of the war of independence, he collaborated with Frantz Fanon on a short documentary, J’ai huit ans (1961), which combines ethnography with radical psychiatry to re-present the drawings of Algerian children who fled to a Tunisian refugee camp after their parents were killed by French troops.[4] On the dawn of independence in 1962, he helped develop the Centre audiovisuel d’Alger, which, in the style of Medvedkin, began a “ciné-pops” program that used two projection vans to facilitate agit-prop screenings across 220 locations in Algeria for a largely illiterate peasantry.[5]

What Vautier describes in a 2001 interview with Nicole Brenez as a paradoxical sense of the archive as a site that exposes history while it simultaneously constitutes its repression is perhaps resonant with the fate of his own cinema, now stored in libraries across France, including the Bibliothéque nationale.[6] I experienced a similar kind of vertigo when I first screened a number of his films, including Peuple en marche (1963), and J’ai huit ans (1961) in the library’s audio-visual archive. Most archival research demands that the researcher proceed through a series of (softly coercive) disciplinary checks and mechanisms: proof of citizenship, a letter attesting to his or her “expertise” in the field, and even physical searches. Nonetheless, the particular topic at hand, the French cinematic representation of the Algerian War, seemed to provoke a prolonged pause at each checkpoint, accompanied by some form of reminder that this was a “loaded” or “curious” topic, especially for a North American to be researching. For years, I had read about Algeria as the “specter” or “structuring absence” of the French cinema of the 1950s and 1960s. Now, after a succession of long escalator rides, security checkpoints, and clearances through metal detectors, I was in a modest room in the library’s basement, watching films by a French director in which millions of Algerians, in their expansive cultural diversity, could be seen manifesting themselves across the country’s streets. 

Vautier’s films could not be assimilated into the opaque, Left Bank Group cinema discussed at the conclusion of my Cinema Journal essay, with all of its strategies of allusion and indirection. Instead of Auschwitz and Dachau as allegories or “screen memories” for Algeria’s concentration camps, Vautier’s Peuple en marche confers visibility on the real Djelfa and Bossuet in all of their architectural and criminal specificity. It also contains the only footage of the massacre at Saqiet sidi Yussuf, what the director refers to as Algeria’s Guernica. However, it was not only the images of dead bodies or the testimonies of torture that made the experience of watching the film chilling, but rather the collision between the disciplinary setting and the film’s images of the post-revolutionary masses. In the vein of Eisenstein and Vertov, Peuple en marche shows the hardships of post-war reconstruction: the shared efforts among the peasantry and the military to harvest the land still embedded with explosives; the rebuilding of schools and hospitals; and the political demonstrations that involved all classes of society in the cause of socialism. Above all, Vautier’s agit-prop film shows masses of bodies in the process of taking and giving form, and is utopian in its promotion of the unified Algerian society to come (Figure 1). J’ai huit ans contains a similar combination of trauma and celebration. In forcing the spectator to confront the faces of the five boys whose stories constitute the voiceover, and in narrativizing their drawings of scenes depicting French troops’ violence against their parents, the film asks us to imagine how France’s presence and now-absence modifies Algerian subjectivity.[7] Like Peuple en marche, this short documentary concludes with visualizations of the people reunited to the uncanny soundtrack of a chant for Algerian independence (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Peuple en marche (1963)

Figure 2. J’ai huit ans (1961)

 Encountering these sounds and images, it was difficult not to be reminded of the conclusion of Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966), in which a French radio broadcaster defines the undulating sounds emanating from the city’s streets as something entirely alien to his European ears, even monstrous. Were Vautier’s films, now left to languish in the Bibliothéque nationale, also potentially monstrous to the French society of control beyond the library’s walls?

A source of insight into this question arrived during the days before I left Paris, when the magazine le Nouvel Observateur released a special issue devoted to the question of “Notre guerre d’Algérie,” accompanied by a limited-edition DVD of Bertrand Tavernier’s La guerre sans nom (1992). In responding to the arguments made by that film, since expanded by philosophers and historians, including Étienne Balibar and Herman Lebovics,[8] the articles in the issue describe how “the Algerian” functions as a synecdoche for the figure of “the immigrant” or non-European other in contemporary France, a generalized target of right-wing bigotry and scapegoating.[9] This slippage, the authors rightly point out, is the product of over fifty years of state-sanctioned amnesia, which began with the amnesty agreements secured by the Evian accords in 1962 against the re-interrogation of French war crimes in Algeria, and continues into the knife-edge present; for example, in the way that France’s legacy of colonial domination over North Africa was rendered almost un-intelligible by dominant representations of the Paris attacks in 2015. The state’s prolonged refusal to identify historical links between the war, the wave of Algerian immigration to France during the period of modernization-decolonization, and the economic and geographical concentration of Arabs around the banlieues in the wake of de-industrialization, has spawned “la gangrène et l’oubli” from which current xenophobic anxieties have been allowed to spread.[10]

What made this special issue of le Nouvel Observateur of particular interest was that it was in part triggered by the cultural response to Rachid Bouchareb’s film Hors la loi (2010).[11] Hors la loi tells the story of three brothers who survive the French military’s and pied noirs’ massacre of the Muslim population of Sétif, and become involved with the cause of the FLN in Paris in the 1950s and 1960s. Prior to debuting at Cannes on May 21, 2010, it became the target of pre-emptive attacks by the radical right to halt its distribution. Lionel Luca, a deputy of the National Assembly belonging to Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire party, condemned the film as “anti-French” before even seeing it, and commissioned the Service historique de la défense (SHD) – an arm of the Ministry of Defense – to evaluate the film’s historical accuracy. The film premiered at Cannes to the scene of thousands of protesters belonging to the far-right National Front, whose presence led police to frisk all attendees out of fear they might be carrying explosives. The mayor of Cannes responded to the protests by organizing a pro-French rally for all of the European soldiers lost to the war.[12]

If the far-right’s response to Bouchareb’s film is any indication, then those counter-informational images stored in the Bibliothèque remain a threat to the state and its ongoing instrumentalization of history. In fact, the simultaneously bureaucratic and repressive character of the intervention against Hors la loi looks unfortunately familiar when seen against the backdrop of Vautier’s career. All of Vautier’s anti-colonial films were denied a visa until the 1970s, often for reasons that were never even specified to the director. But “soft” tactics of censorship against his work were also accompanied by incarcerations, lawsuits, assaults, and acts of state terror. Indeed, Vautier’s entire cinematic and extra-cinematic career can be perceived as a life-long struggle against the erasure of history. It is crucial to remember that the reason films can no longer be censored for their political content in France today is because he went on a 31-day hunger strike in 1973 for the cause of another director’s documentary: Jacques Panijel’s Octobre à Paris (1961).[13]

Today, a collection of Vautier’s films are available on DVD through the distributor, Les Mutin de Pangée, and film scholar Nicole Brenez is currently working on the release of a second collection. The crucial significance of this work is made evident by Leïla Morouche and Oriane Brun-Moschetti’s film, Algérie tours détours (2007), which documents screenings of Vautier’s filmography to youth groups across Algeria. At first cynical about the idea that a Frenchman might give them a lesson in Algerian history, the majority of the youths become both stunned and moved by their own alienation from the national past. Such inter-generational resonances demonstrate why it is necessary, particularly against the rise of white-supremacist nationalisms, to build on the politicized and insubordinate currents of historiographical film and media scholarship. These currents are most forcefully embodied in the growing body of books and special journal issues devoted to the question of militant cinema and the militant image.[14] In both documenting and analyzing the liberation struggles of the twentieth century, the legacy of militant cinema provides us with tools to historicize the ongoing spread of fascism and its counter-intellectual avatars, as well to probe how the rhetoric of globalization is subtended by walled states and re-territorializations of national subjectivity.[15]

[1] Steven Ungar, “Making Waves: René Vautier's Afrique 50 and the Emergence of Anti-Colonial Cinema,” L’Esprit Créateur 51, no. 3 (2011): 34-46.

[2] René Vautier, Caméra citoyenne: Mémoires (Paris: Éditions Apogée, 1998), 29-49.

[3] Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 246.

[4] Guy Austin, “Drawing trauma: visual testimony in Caché and J’ai huit ans,” Screen 48, no. 4 (2007): 529-536.

[5] Nicole Brenez and Bernard Benoliel, “Un entretien avec René Vautier,” Cahiers du cinéma, no. 561 (October 2001): 14.

[6] Brenez and Benoliel, 14-19.

[7] Étienne Balibar, “Algeria, France: One nation or two,” in Giving Ground: The Politics of Propinquity, eds. Joan Copjec and Michael Sorkin (London: Verso, 1999), 167.

[8] Etienne Balibar, We, the People of Europe?: Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009); Herman Lebovics, Bringing the Empire Back Home: France in the Global Age (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

[9] Sylvain Courage and Nicole Pénicaut, “Notre Guerre d’Algérie,” le Nouvel Observateur no. 2398, 21-27 October 2010: 22-34; Slimane Zeghidour, “Un demi-siècle plus tard... Les Algériens enterrent la guerre,” le Nouvel Observateur no. 2398, 21-27 October 2010: 36-38. 

[10] Benjamin Stora, La gangrène et l’oubli (Paris: La Découverte, 1991).

[11] Nathalie Funès and Agathe Logeart, “Comment Sarkozy drague les rapatriés,” le Nouvel Observateur no. 2398, 21-27 October 2010: 46-50.

[12] Mark Brown, “Hundreds protests as ‘anti-French’ Outside the Law is screened,” The Guardian, 21 May 2010:

[13] Rosemarie Scullion, “Inscribing the historical: film texts in context,” in The Routledge Companion to Film History, ed. William Guynn (New York: Routledge, 2011), 130.

[14] Kodwo Eshun and Ros Gray, “The Militant Image: A Ciné-Geography: Editors’ Introduction,” Third Text 25, no. 1 (2011); See also Lynn A. Higgins, Steven Ungar and Dalton Krauss, “Introduction: The Powers of Cinema,” L’Esprit Créateur 51, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 1-2; Elena Gorfinkel, “Dossier: The Work of the Image: Cinema, Labour, Aesthetics,” Framework 53, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 43-46; Paul Douglas Grant, Cinéma Militant: Political Filmmaking and May 1968 (London: Wallflower Press, 2016); The Camera Obscura Collective, Collectivity: Parts 1 and 2 [Special Issues], Camera Obscura vol. 31, nos. 1 91 and 3 93 (2016).

[15] See, TJ Demos, The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary During Global Crisis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013)

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