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Flash Festival Reviews, 3-13: Rearview Mirror
Alien-nation a la Francaise: Goupil's "Les mains dans l'air," Badis's "Le chemin noir," & Quillévéré's "Un poison violent"

A scene from Romain Goupil's "Les mains dans l'air" (Hands up). Courtesy the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- Walk by a school in Paris, and you're likely to spot a plaque over the entrance commemorating the hundreds of children from that school rounded up and "deported by the Vichy government, in the name of France," under the Occupation. The signs started going up in about 2000, the 60-year gap ending only after president Jacques Chirac, in one of his first speeches in 1995, said it was time for France to take responsibility for the deportations. Yet today, children from many of those same schools are still being picked up by the police and deported. Director Romain Goupil, who treats this subject in "Hand's up" (Les mains dans l'air) -- screening tonight at the Walter Reade during the Rendez-vous with French Cinema being presented there by the Film Society of Lincoln Center -- was careful to say, in a Q&A after Friday's screening, that one can't compare the two situations because no children are being sent to death camps. But the fact that it took France 60 years to officially acknowledge those wrongs of Vichy is one reason he begins his story in 2067, as the 68-year-old Milena looks back on what happened to her and a group of fellow 10-year-olds living in the lower-middle-class neighborhood behind Montmartre in 2009. "I wanted to show how ridiculous this (the expulsions of children) will look to us in 60 years."

I lived in France from 2001 to 2010, mostly in Paris -- not far from the neighborhood where "Hand's up" is situated -- and I can tell you that while the cause of "Sans-Papiers" or "illegal aliens" overall was a cause taken up by some, the expulsion of children was a cause celebre often taken up by whole schools in support of the families of their students it affected. In my neighborhood below Montmartre on the other side of the hill, it was common to see hand-painted banners strung across school facades demanding a halt to the expulsions, often singling out by first name the cases of individual children. (Or their parents or grandparents. The children were not the only ones at risk of being rounded up, detained, and deported. It was common, for example, for the police to conduct their 'raffles' -- the same term was used when the French police acting under orders of Vichy would round up the Jews for deportation -- at Metro stations in immigrant neighborhoods, including mine, and, in the Belleville district which houses the City's Chinatown, even to arrest Chinese grandparents at school entrances when they showed up to pick up their grandchildren.) A whole organization, RESF -- Reseau (network) d'Education Sans Frontiers -- was set up to fight the expulsions. (It's important to state that the police were often reluctant actors, in fact protesting the expulsion quotas -- about 27,000/year -- imposed by the Sarkozy government.)

Among those engaged in this fight to protect children sans-papiers is a sub-cadre of film-makers, among whom number Roman Goupil. "Hands up" not only enters this world of children sans-papiers, it does so largely through the point of view of the children themselves, who become not just passive victims, but actors in their own destinies. They're prompted to act by three events: Youssef, one of their band, is arrested and marked for expulsion; an adult woman sans-papier jumps off her roof and plummets to her death while being pursued by the police; and an expulsion order is issued for Milena, the hero (and narrator recalling all this from the distance of 2067). Having already set up an emergency plan in advance after Youssef's arrest, four children of the band, including Milena, stock up on provisions and, in the middle of the night, repair to their hiding place in the cellar of an apartment building, the only explanation to their whereabouts being a note left behind announcing, "We are all Milena."

As news gathers of their daring exploit, other children across France start disappearing in solidarity, also leaving behind notes stating, "We are all Milena." The police pick up one of Milena's band who was unable to make the hiding-place rendez-vous and who has been keeping his mates abreast of developments and, after a vicious and muscled interrogation, tell the kid that, in order to stop the rash of other disappearances, they'll legalize both Youssef and Milena if the children come out of hiding. They do -- hands in the air, a gesture not ordered by the police but which they spontaneously decide upon, and which brings the point home: Stop arresting innocent children.

If Milena and Youssef's happy ending is a bit optimistically unrealistic, the general tone of Goupil's film is authentic. At the Q&A, noting that before making "Hand's Up" he detested children's movies for the way they, well, infantalized kids, he explained that for the tournage of his movie, he developed several methods to assure verite. For example, in lieu of the 10-minute takes that filmmakers used to be constricted to, current technology enables elongated takes of an hour, which he used to essentially let the children improvise, later deciding what to retain. (Only 25 percent of the film was pre-scripted.) On one occasion, he related, Milena loses a flip-flop to the currents of a river, a scene that required several takes to direct the shoe in the water. While he was attempting to shoot this, the kids were making a huge ruckus behind him. Finally he asked an assistant to get rid of them. When the racket continued unabated and he asked the assistant why he hadn't scooted them away, the assistant suggested he look behind him; the kids had put baby frogs on their protruding tongues. "That wasn't planned, but we ended up using the scene in the movie," he said.

Goupil's method makes for an organicness that saves the film from being just a polemic. An audience member asked afterwards whether the movie has been seen by the sister of Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, who plays the mother of Milena's best friend (also with phenomenal authenticity) who with her husband takes Milena in. It's a relevant question, considering that Bruni-Tedeschi's sister is Carla Bruni, whose husband, Nicolas Sarkozy, is chiefly responsible for the stepped-up campaign to deport sans-papiers. My question, though, is why there weren't more kids at the afternoon showing I saw. Really, it's their film.

Mohammed (top left), a former worker in the now shuttered steel industry in northeastern France, delves into the entrails of a Peugot 404 in what becomes a metaphor for the quest into the past by Abdallah Badis (top right), who also worked in the industry as a child, in Badis's documentary "Le chemin noir." Image courtesy La Vie Est Belle Films Associés.

Besides the deportations under the Occupation, the other major honte or shame in France's 20th century history that it took several decades to face was the government and military's comportment during and around the Algerian war, both in the rebelling country and at home. Indeed, it was France's failure to fully deal with Vichy's actions during the Occupation that was responsible for one of the most notorious crimes perpetrated during the Algerian uprising. In October 1961, Maurice Papon -- who despite directing the deportation of 1600 Bordeaux Jews during the Occupation had been allowed to rise in post-War governments and was then prefect of Paris -- directed the massacre of up to 200 Algerians taking part in a protest, many of them simply thrown into the Seine by police. Abdallah Badis incorporates actual black and white footage of the round-up -- young Frenchmen of Algerian origin with their hands raised above their heads, being herded onto busses -- without commentary, in his 2009 "Le chemin noir" (The black path), seen Thursday in its U.S. premiere at the Maison Francaise of Columbia University, as the closing film of the Documentary Film Festival: Immigration and Multiculturalism in France, organized in collaboration with the Festival Images de la Diversité et de l'egalité. (The film has not yet opened in French theaters; it will be screened at the Cite nationale de l'histoire de l'immigraiton in Paris in the Fall.) Like "Hands up!," Badis's film has as its frame a look in the rear-view mirror, here by 60-something French Algerians in the Lorraine region in the northeast of France recalling the late '50s and early '60s, when they provided the core of the labor force in the region's steel industry, long-since departed. Badis worked the mines too, as a 12-year-old boy, and decided to return there in 2009 -- to Hagondange, where one of the mines was located, and the Valleys of the Lorne and Fensch, where the men and their families lived, to talk to some of the former workers, now retired. There he finds Mohammed, an emigre from Morocco with a similar experience to his. Much of their interaction together and with several other men takes place around the carcass of a Peugot 404, the classic status car in France as well as Algeria and Morocco in the late '50s and '60s, which Mohammed is working to repair. In a sense, these scenes place the men in two worlds of time and two of place. They may have been in France for 50 years, but they still talk of having their bodies repatriated to Algeria when they die. (One of the most poignant sections in the film has Mohammed, contemplating his aged father's wish that he be repatriated to Algeria upon his death, asking Badis, childlike, about the practicalities of this.) In another section, two of the older men watch two younger men boxing in a makeshift ring set up in the abandoned interior of a steel plant, then get in the ring themselves, in their suits, and shadow box.

Indeed, Badis said in a Q&A following the projection, he returned to the region in search of the child that he was. What he found was men ensconced in two histories, that of their Algerian origins, and that of their work in the mines, now gone; as vivant as they are, one has the feeling of promenading in a land where living men walk side by side with ghosts. Aside from the archival footage of the 1961 round-ups of French of Algerian origins, the most jarring moments in "Le chemin noir" occur when archival footage of the men working in the mines in the epoch suddenly morphs into footage of Badis and Mohammed probing their way through the mines today, which Badis shot in black and white.

Much of the conversation is in Arabic. This together with the juxtaposition of the men filmed in the typically French lush mountainous setting of the Lorraine region and their focus on Algeria prompted me to ask Badis afterwards what he thought of the current obsession of the Sarkozy government with "national identity" -- the French president even set up a new ministerial portfolio for 'immigration and national identity,' and next month, his right-wing UMP party has organized a controversial 'reflection' on Islam in France. I pointed out that some in France worry that Algerians of French origin see themselves more as Algerians then French and refuse to integrate. "Algeria was a department of France" prior to the Algerian uprising, Badis pointed out, explaining that therefore, it's hypocritical to deny Algerians in France either part of their identity. Indeed, regardless of whether Badis fulfilled his courageous mission of finding the child he was -- and if "Le chemin noir" is anything, it's a courageous voyage into the past and how it resonates in the present -- perhaps he discovered something globally more significant, an example of consummate integration in these men as rooted in their origins as they are in France's industrial history of the past 50 years, owning it, invested in it, as enmeshed in it as their hands are in the entrails of the Peugot 404 car -- an iconic vehicle in France as it is in the country's former colonies.

Katell Quillévéré's "Un poison violent" (Love Like Poison). Films Distribution.

Next to "Le chemin noir" and "Les mains dans l'air," Katell Quillévéré's "Un poison violent," also seen Friday at the Walter Reade as part of the Rendez-vous with French Cinema, is little more than a bon-bon, and one we've seen before, less over-wrought than it is in this 2010 film: 14-year-old heroine Anna (Clara Augarde), on break from her Catholic boarding school in her native Bretagne (cue lush landscape), is torn between budding sexual desires and the church, as represented respectively by a charming if awkward neighbor boy and an imminent communion. She succumbs to the boy and faints before the bishop can hand her the body of Christ. Adding to the amorous and sensual confusion are familial pressures which riff on them: While she was away at school, her dad left her mom and her ailing grandpa, who lives with them, has one last service to request from her before he goes, to "see the place from which I came." "Sure, I'll take you to your native village," Anna offers, but he indicates that's not what he meant; she eventually obliges by showing him her... and off he goes. Throw in a conflicted priest in whom mom sees a confident but who perhaps seeks something not so priestly from her and English country garden music that kicks in at sentimental moments -- a walk on the rolling hills taken by Anna and the priest, Anna promenading alone -- to make sure we realize when we're supposed to be moved, and it's hard to understand why "Un poison violent" received the Jean Vigo award, named for the French filmmaker who died too young at 29 but not before he made "L'Atalante" and set the standard for films that are as unforgettable as they are simple, not the case here.

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