Liberty, equality, fraternity?

Prejudice in France, past and present, is smartly addressed by a pair of films

<strong>Days of Glo

Two kinds of battle are being fought in Days of Glory. On the surface, there is the struggle against the Nazis in the dying stages of the Second World War. The film focuses on the North African men who enlist in the 7th Algerian Infantry Regiment of the French army, despite never having set foot on French soil. When one of them, Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), finally makes it to France late in the day, he grabs a handful of earth and inhales deeply. "If I free a country," he says, "then it's my country. Even if I never saw it before." He is the youngest and most innocent of a group that also includes Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), who has the word "unlucky" tattooed on his chest, and Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), a corporal whose military ambitions are thwarted by institutional prejudice.

Which brings us to the second, internal, conflict. Even as the new conscripts are exhorted to fight for the cause of Free France, their rights are gradually eroded, their welfare overlooked. After they emerge victorious from an encounter with German forces in Italy, it is their superiors who take the glory; the camera makes the point forcefully by drifting away from the commanding officer posing for his picture, to show just how many makeshift gravestones there are, jutting out of the hillside.

Although the battle sequences are impressive, this film is at its toughest once the gunfire has subsided and the soldiers are forced to defend their own pockets of territory within army life. Abdelkader comes into his own in such stand-offs. When he learns that the tomatoes in the canteen are reserved for indigenous French soldiers, he steps into the crate and stamps the fruit to a pulp. He wins that argument. The bigger picture, however, remains unchanged. Abdelkader doesn't get the promotion he desires and deserves, and an end title reveals that the African soldiers did not receive the full pensions due to them from the French government.

Days of Glory has had a positive influence in this respect - it was directly responsible for Jacques Chirac bringing all war pensions into line with those paid to French veterans. But, for all its fury and power, the picture remains necessarily open-ended: any conclusion is coloured by our knowledge that people like Abdelkader would soon be fighting again, with the Algerian war of independence less than a decade away. The film's director and co-writer, Rachid Bouchareb, is planning to address that subject in his next picture. It is hard to imagine how history could be in safer hands.

We remain in France, and amid prejudice, for the documentary Beyond Hatred. In September 2002, three skinheads roamed Reims in search of an Arab to attack. Instead, they found 29-year-old François Chenu, whom they beat in a frenzied homophobic assault before dumping him in a pond where he drowned. The film catches up with the Chenu family two years later as they prepare for the murder trial and pick over their memories. Some unusual but significant choices have been made by the director, Olivier Meyrou - François is not shown on screen and nor are his killers, which has the effect of uniting them in a kind of democratic anonymity.

While it is no exaggeration to describe the compassion of the Chenus as breathtaking, Meyrou's own achievement in capturing it on screen should not be undervalued. He displays a flawless instinct for illuminating images, nowhere more so than in the brilliant static sequence in éo Legrange Park, where François died. For eight minutes, the camera stays fixed as we listen to the voice of his sister recalling everything, from her initial attempts to phone her brother on the weekend of his death to her journey to identify his body. We become so absorbed in her words that we may not even notice dusk descending on the park, the grainy murk broken only by the occasional jogger, and the stubbornly optimistic glow of a street lamp.

Pick of the week

Inland Empire (15)
dir: David LynchTake a friend along to help you work out what it all means.

Fur: an imaginary portrait of Diane Arbus (15)
dir: Steven Shainberg
Nicole Kidman is the photographer, Robert Downey Jr her hairy subject, in this "fictionalised" portrait.

Meet the Robinsons (U)
dir: Stephen J Anderson
Futuristic Disney adventure for the school holidays. Also in 3D.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom