Outside the Law is Rachid Bouchareb’s second film to deal with the colonial relationship of France to his native Algeria. It focuses on the Front de Liberation Nationale’s (FLN) guerrilla war against France in Paris from the early 50s up to Algerian independence in 1962, as seen through the story of three brothers.
The film sets the context in two scenes which show their family being evicted from their ancestral land on the orders of a French colonialist and the death of their father in the Sétif massacre, in 1945, after French police opened fire on peaceful Algerian nationalist demonstrators.
The three brothers then follow different paths. One, Said, moves with their mother to Paris, living in an Algerian shanty town in Nanterre. Trying to avoid working at Renault Billancourt, he becomes involved in prostitution, running a shady night club and boxing promotion. Abdelkader goes to prison for political activity and while there becomes a cadre of the FLN, which is about to launch armed struggle in France. The third brother, Mossaoud, becomes a French paratrooper in Vietnam. Defeat and capture by the Vietnamese makes him realise the French are not invincible and on his return he is convinced by Abdelkader to join the FLN, becoming his brother’s “muscle”.
Abdelkader and Mossaoud become single-minded revolutionaries who totally subordinate themselves to the cause at whatever cost to themselves and those close to them. The film’s climax comes as this brings them into conflict with their brother who invests everything in a boxing match the FLN does not wish to take place.
The central part of the film shows the two brothers building up the FLN from nothing to dominate the shanty town and the launching of a war against the police in Paris that draws repression directed against the entire Algerian population. Much of the film dramatises actual historical events of the late 50s and early 60s — the FLN assassination of police, who in turn set up their own underground terror organisation to take revenge, the use of torture to gather information on the FLN, the random killing of Algerians forced to drown in the Seine, the use of unobtrusive French sympathisers as FLN couriers (a role played in reality by Trotskyists among others), the financing of FLN arms through money from Algerians in France, the beating to death by the CRS riot police of demonstrators defying a curfew on Algerians and much else.
The film does not romanticise the FLN. Its growth in Nanterre begins, alongside speeches to the Algerians in Renault, with the two brothers’ elimination of the local boss of its political rival, the MNA, and the assertion of their power by the killing of a shanty-town dweller who uses “taxes” collected for the FLN to buy a much needed fridge for his family. Later one of the top leaders of the FLN in Switzerland tells Abdelkader, by now risen to command the FLN in Paris, to continue attacks on the police knowing the high price the Algerian population will pay. Yet it is clear where Bouchareb’s sympathies lie and the film shows the backing of the mass of Algerians in Paris for the FLN’s struggle.
The antagonistic response of elements of the French right and some historians to the film indicates that the Algerian war still remains a sensitive subject in France. In one controversial scene, Colonel Faivre, the ex-World War Two Resistance fighter hunting down the brothers and in charge of his own semi-official terror group, is kidnapped and taken to meet Abdelkader who tries to convince him that his old fight against the Germans should now lead him to support the FLN. Abdelkader quotes the de Gaulle of 1941, saying that the FLN is now taking the role of the Resistance in fighting an occupier using the means of assassination de Gaulle called for. Faivre prefers to fight for “the honour of France” but acknowledges his opponent’s integrity, saying Abdelkader would have fitted well into his Resistance network.
In the final scenes, Faivre, standing on a Metro station looking at Abdelkader’s body while the CRS beat Algerian demonstrators in the background, acknowledges that, despite the repression against the entire Algerian population and his own death, Abdelkader has won the war. The film ends with documentary footage of the celebrations of Algerian independence a few months later.
Outside the Law is part thriller, part a study of the brothers’ relationships and, most importantly, a historical drama of the Algerian War of Independence. As a thriller, it is sometimes a bit formulaic, but its basis in historical fact and the portrayal of the main characters sustain interest and give one the sense that their individual fates are tied to great events in which one has to take sides.
Bouchareb has brought one of the hardest fought anti-colonial struggles back to life at a time when the “Arab Spring” brings a new wave of very different uprisings to North Africa.