Indigenes (Days of Glory): Director Rachid Bouchareb

Cannes Film Fest 2006–Director Rachid Bouchareb talks about the hot issues of his new film, “Indigenes” (“Days of Glory”).

Colonization and Immigration

There comes a time when things have come together and matured. For me, that moment came when I finished Little Senegal. Ive always been caught up in the history of immigration. Its my familys past. One of my uncles fought in the Indochina war. He lived through the Algerian war and I even have a great grandfather who fought in World War I. Ive always been at the intersection of the colonization, decolonization, immigration and all these men who made French History.


Olivier Lorelle, my co-screenwriter and I did over a year of research. We started off going through the army documentation department. I even found Defense Ministry documents in the names of Naceri and Debbouze, who were the ancestors of the ones we all know today. We also worked in libraries but above all, we met with people who had lived through the period. We started to hear what they had to say. We went to Bordeaux, Marseilles, and Nantes as well as Senegal, Morocco and Algeria. We fed off their experiences and feelings. This was when I realized the film could not be the story of one man. It had to encompass the African continent.

Encounters and Emotions

Then we had to digest all the facts we collected. I wanted to make a film, not a documentary. A docu-fiction would have been a trap too. Cinema has to consider the viewer. There has to be a dimension that goes beyond historical context to dive into the human heart, to reach out to what moves us all, beyond our differences.

For me, cinema is about encounters and emotions. Above all, it makes you feel, even if it also teaches you something. It is the only way I could carry the story and connect with the viewer. I did not want to be didactic. Theres no point. We developed the screenplay over two and a half years. It took 25 versions to get beyond history and concentrate on the human content, on the small, everyday details that reproduce life better than any message.

During the research phase, I found an article from five years ago about a village in Alsace that had just built a war monument to the hundreds of skirmishers who died protecting the inhabitants. They had held their ground to the end, suffering enormous casualties. This event catalyzed my desire to tell the story of a mixed group that unites in the face of hardship. I was also determined to only use authentic elements. I wrote about the mission of these men that found themselves in a lost village and sacrificed their lives in the name of the Fatherland.

Actors and Characters

From the outset, I talked to the actors about it because I couldnt imagine the film being anything other than collective. I chose my actors for their sensibility. I knew some of them personally already but I appreciated them all professionally. I went to see them and told them about my project. They were all interested. I told them wed meet again when I had a screenplay! They were the first people to be enthusiastic about it. The project went beyond making a film. There was an extra dimension.

To create the characters, I was more than anything inspired by the veterans I met. Yassir, the Goumier, came out of these encounters I met Yassir in a hotel in Nantes. Sad, the goat keeper also exists. Other characters are several personalities combined. Abdelkader is also inspired by characters such as Ben Bella, who fought in World War II, was disillusioned and became a nationalist. I also met three people who met women in France, moved to France and made their lives there.

Long Process

At first, the screenplay lasted three and a half hours and started in Africa. We had to cut back to the countries of North Africa. I did not write a specific character for each actor. I wanted to feel free when I was writing. Jamel could have played Abdelkader. I didnt want constraints. The roles were interchangeable.

Since Jamel was going to sink or swim with us and carry the film as an actor, I asked him to be one of the co-producers. And the adventure began. We met with financiers one by one, then we went and saw the French National Assembly, the Senate, the regions even some where we didnt film. We also met with ministries in Algeria and Morocco. It was a long process and everyone had to work at it, but I never had any doubts the film would be made. The necessity of telling the story was so obvious that there was no alternative! Sometimes the energy of a project gets away from you and carries you along. Thats what the film was like for me! This certainly moved things forward. The subject was so important that I felt a moral obligation to see it through.

Intimate Saga on Location

For me, the film was unusual in that it combined vast scenes requiring real logistics and more intimate moments between the actors. Both were closely tied, and even in the biggest battle scenes, my aim was to stay as close to the characters as possible.

Before shooting, we storyboarded the 900 shots of the screenplay over a four month period. Shooting lasted 18 weeks and took place in Ouarzazate, Agadir for the oat scenes, the south of Francein Beaucaire and Tarasconfor the Liberation scenes, then in the Vosges and around the Alsace-Loraine border. The snowy mountain scenes, supposed to be in the Vosges, were shot in Morocco.

We also had battle scenes that covered many acres with explosions everywhere, as well as special effects simulating planes in the sky and fleets of navy vessels. I wanted the film to have an epic dimension, for us to feel the numbers, the passing seasons, the movements across countries and the changes in the men. I had to be there on all fronts! Even the set of a village in the Vosges required five months work for 50 people who transformed a hamlet in ruins, reconstructing a group of houses and adding a church and caf. It all had to serve as a historical setting.

Reality Shocks

My first shock was during the costume fittings. Seeing Jamel, Samy, Roschdy and Sami dressed as their characters suddenly gave me a sense of the films reality. A soldiers jacket, a cap or djellaba suddenly gave the characters an element of truth. They had taken the places of their ancestors! From the outset, we felt that none of them was playing a hero. They were a group of men.

The second shock was on the first day of shooting. For organizational reasons, we had to start with the scene where the soldiers are lined up in front of the camp in Sicily and Jamel is hit with the butt of a rifle. We were immediately at the heart of the matter. Since I hadnt made a film in three years, I would have preferred getting back into it by filming trucks go by, but thats how it turned out and it was fine that way!

Working with the Actors

Each day was difficult. I was panic-stricken but I couldnt let it show. In front of 500 extras and 220 technicians, you cant look like youre unsure of yourself! I faced up to my doubts when I was alone in my room at night. I reassured myself by working.

With the actors, we worked hard beforehand. While we were shooting, almost every night, we had a meeting about the screenplay. It became a ritual. We talked about the scenes, the script, the story It was a human adventure we undertook together.

Jamel Debbouze

It was the first time Id worked with Jamel. Hes very conscientious. This dramatic role was very important to him and he was worried about doing a good job. He worked hard. From time to time, he joked around to ease the tension and maybe also to reassure himself. I was moved by what he put out, by his sincerity and his fragility. We soon forget that its Jamel Debbouze acting and only see Sad. It takes talent to provoke that small miracle.

Ive known Roschdy for a long time. He has inner strength. He does everything with apparent ease but its based on a lot of hard work. He hits the right note. He always tries to understand and never pretends. His sense of observation and ability to integrate parameters are impressive.

Sami Bouajila is very focused and leaves nothing to chance. He works on his character until he masters it completely. He became Abdelkaber. He had his energy, integrity and reflexes. He was very implicated on a human level and was very attached to the group.

Theres something fascinating about Samy Nacri. He doesnt talk much. He almost never asks questions. He listens and suddenly when the camera comes on, he comes to life and gets it right the first take. He is an instinctive and powerful actor. During the scene when he takes his dead brother in his arms, he bowled us over. The whole crew was speechless.

Not Many Takes

We did not do many takes, no more than then three or four. Everyone was spot on. Sometimes I had to rein them in so we didnt go off the rails. Even though they could bring minor additions to their characters, I was against improvisation. I often had to refuse suggestions. I didnt like having to do it but I had to stay faithful to the screenplay. Once, two or three of them wrote a dialogue. I was really happy they did it together. They came to see me and I said to them, Okay, lets do it but you can only have one take. Well see if we keep it when we edit For pacing reasons, I didnt keep it, but I was delighted to see them working together like brothers!

Emotions of a Story

When I make a film, I am always a viewer. If I dont feel emotion during the scene, the viewer wont feel it either. Im a thermometer! I forget my trade and the technical aspect so I can feel. If Im not moved, we start over! If it doesnt work, it is not necessarily the actors fault. It can be a problem with the script. If so, its up to me to suggest something else.

Something really powerful happened during the filming that I hadnt expected. I realized it first with the Moroccan soldiers who were extras in the part we shot in the Ouarzazate. Every morning, they were incredibly enthusiastic. They did more than just obey directing orders. They really put their hearts into it. They said to me, Rachid, were with you! or, Weve worked on other films but with you, we know why were running. And their commitment shows in the film. Sometimes I was reluctant to get them to redo a scene, getting them to carry a load and run in sandals over rocks that made their ankles bleed. But they volunteered. Because the film talks about their ancestors, their relation with France and a period that profoundly marked their history. Even with them, we were at the heart of the matter.

Bringing Old Photos

This human factor also struck us when we came back to France. Some came with the photo of their father who had fought in World War II. One of them, who had fought in the village, showed me his photos and the letters he wrote to the government that were never answered.
Everywhere we went, people came to see us, whatever their origins. Sometimes they came from 50 kilometers away. They waitedto show us their photos, to tell us about skirmishers theyd met and the people who liberated them. We also saw a lot of second or third generations who told us about their parents. Sometimes they waited for hours because we were busy with the film. The film was given an incredible reception! We were asked to participate in debates with the French, North Africans and Africans who talked about the subject, the film and what their parents had been through. We understood that it was high time we told this story, to give an image to what has been kept quiet for so long. Despite everything I had felt myself, I was surprised by this amazing enthusiasm.

All these testimonies taught me something that struck me even more. It was the same thing I heard from the survivors: the love and attachment to France that incredibly remains stronger than any other sentiment.

The story of these men and their relation to France does not start in the 1960s. Well before they came and liberated France, they were heroes. They were not only street sweepers. They were heroes who were loved and welcomed with open arms! It often remains the best moment of their lives. Thats why the attitude that followed and continues today seems so strange to them. They see it as a love story gone sour, a betrayal. It shocks them that their children and grandchildren have such a hard time. The change happened in the 1960s. And yet despite the degradation of their image, the rejection, their ex-servicemen pensions that have not been paid, they have no hatred, no spirit of revenge. If they had to do it again, they would.

No Bitterness

I didnt try to change history. If they had been full of violence or bitterness, I would have put it in the film. But its not the case. Liberating a country that is theirs, the Motherland, being welcomed the way they were by French villages, being applauded along the road. It has left its mark on their memories, their history and all the injustice theyve experienced since then has not erased that. Ive wanted to make this film for a long time so young people know about it and others can remember. The timing is right. It is a brick that we can keep building ontogether.