Immigrant Memories: The North African Inheritance

Ethnic strife and antagonism toward onetime "guest workers" being a hot issue these days, "Immigrant Memories" - which attempts a historical and intimate overview of North African-heritage French citizens - should get decent Eurotube play. But hewing to kinder-gentler human portraiture in a fashion that often skirts harsher political realities, docu divulges just limited insight into a complex topic. Its three parts neatly sectioned into sub-hour packages, pic is best suited to broadcast venues.

Ethnic strife and antagonism toward onetime “guest workers” being a hot issue these days, “Immigrant Memories” – which attempts a historical and intimate overview of North African-heritage French citizens – should get decent Eurotube play. But hewing to kinder-gentler human portraiture in a fashion that often skirts harsher political realities, docu divulges just limited insight into a complex topic. Its three parts neatly sectioned into sub-hour packages, pic is best suited to broadcast venues.

First section, subtitled “The Fathers,” offers the broadest scope. The booming French economy after Word War II (especially among auto manufacturers) required importation of additional work-force muscle. A natural recruitment center was Algeria, then under French rule; bodies were also culled from Tunisia , Morocco and elsewhere. The promise of wealth lured thousands of single men, many leaving children and wives behind. But despite their often already-decent bilingual abilities and eagerness to assimilate, most found segregation, primitive living conditions and poor pay as long-term greeting.

After the Algerian War for independence (won in ’62), emigre workers agitated more boldly for political and economic rights. The French government’s response was to placate via a “Family Reunification Program” that brought over long-separated spouses and offspring. Yet somehow many of these immigrants – and certainly their “host” majority society – never figured this would result in permanent second- and third-generation multicultural minorities.

Remaining two parts, “The Mothers” and “The Children,” are not as strong mostly because they abandon the larger political framework for illustrative individual life stories. While desire to put a human face on current, often xenophobically tilted issues, is well-meant – stressing the inclusive rather than “different” nature of interviewees who now identify primarily as Frenchmen and Frenchwomen – it avoids controversy to a happy-faced fault.

Portraits of middle-aged women who enjoy their Continental freedom relative to Islamic homeland gender-constraints are welcome, as are those of younger subjects (a writer, a lawyer, a gaggle of project-residing teenagers) who bemusedly reflect on their schizoid bicultural identity.

But helmer Yamina Benguigui’s editing approach grows repetitious – interview seg, musical montage transition, then another interview seg – while her referencing the uglier native-French roots/results of racism both past and present seldom goes far enough to risk viewer discomfort.

Pic benefits from incorporating an evident wealth of postwar documentary footage, abetted by latter-day interviews with numerous emigre-focus government officials from several regimes (only one of whom comes off as conservative-boorish). Pacing is a mite slack, though whole package would play better in primarily intended one-hour bites.

Immigrant Memories: The North African Inheritance

(DOCU -- FRENCH -- COLOR/B&W)

Production: A Canal Plus/Bandits Prods. presentation. Produced by Philippe Dupuis-Mendel. Directed, written by Yamina Benguigui.

Crew: Camera (color, B&W), Virginie St. Martin, Bakir Beladi; editors, Lionel Bernard, Nadia Ben Rachid; sound, Serge Richard; assistant director, Jose Gerel. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival , April 27, 1998. Running time: 160 MIN.

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