restricted access Filming Ghosts: French Cinema and the Algerian War
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Filming Ghosts:
French Cinema and the Algerian War

March 18, 1992, was a date of some importance in the French historical and political calendar. It marked the thirtieth anniversary of the signature of the Evian accords between the French Government and the Algerian Front de libération nationale (FLN) that, in Spring 1962, after eight years of increasingly violent conflict, brought to an end the Algerian war and finally led to the granting of independence to Algeria. Although on the one hand the war signalled the ending of France's role as a major Western colonial power, and eventually served to open a new chapter in the history both of France and of Algeria itself, in other ways, it left behind a controversial and not always happy legacy. France's reluctance to quit North Africa had played a major part in bringing about the collapse of the French Fourth Republic in 1958, thus enabling the return to power of General de Gaulle with a new constitution that significantly strengthened the personal power of the executive. And as evidence emerged from 1957 onwards that France was engaged in the systematic torture of many of the FLN activists it arrested, France's vision of itself as a traditional sanctuary for the respect of human rights was seriously compromised, with arguably permanent effect.

There were many further, long-lasting problems left behind by the war. In France itself, anti-Arab racism was reinforced; and policing methods, too, became increasingly militarized, as the students of May 1968 were to discover to their cost. There were also other psychological scars that had collective as well as private implications. These arose in [End Page 787] part as a result of the French Republic's consistent refusal to recognize the Algerian situation for the colonial war that it was. (This, in turn, was largely a belated reaction to the memory of the humiliating defeat of the French army at the hands of the Vietnamese in Indochina in 1954.) Under the constitutional statute of August 1947, Algeria had been given the status of a group of French overseas départements mainly under the control of a governor general. As a result, successive French governments attempted to treat Algerian resistance to colonial rule simply as an internal state of emergency, a matter to be resolved between metropolitan France and its own outlying territories. But this failure to confront the reality of the situation meant that, when the end of French Algeria did come in 1962, a blanket of silence and incomprehension was immediately cast over the events of the preceding eight years. But the events of the Algerian war have continued to haunt French politics, even to the present; and their memory seems to live on in silence, as it were, always ready to be reawakened and exploited by the nostalgic ideologues of the far right in their endeavour to capitalize on the injured national pride and anti-Arab sentiments that the ending of the Algerian war bequeathed to French political life.

Despite this mixed inheritance, the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the war was greeted in France largely as a time for remembrance; on radio, television, and in the press, participants and commentators exchanged views and memories in an effort to place the war within some ordered historical and political frame. For the first time, it seems, French conscripts and reservists who had taken part in the war, as well as those who had refused and had joined the clandestine antiwar movement, were allowed to rediscover their own past and tell in their own words the story of the final years of France's colonial presence in North Africa. There were signs here of a new openness to the still traumatic legacy of the Algerian war, and amidst all the many different acts of recollection provoked by the anniversary, one in particular seems to have been viewed by French audiences themselves as emblematic of the country's new relationship to its own past: the cinema release of the film by Bertrand Tavernier and Patrick Rotman, entitled La Guerre sans nom (The Undeclared War).1

Using the method pioneered in France by...


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