Pic has different take on WWII

'Indigenes' took five years from inception to shoot

PARIS — On a misty morning among the tightly knit beech trees of France’s Vosges region, all hell has broken loose. A runaway mule on the set of $16 million World War II drama “Indigenes” has just sent a pile of chairs flying and film extras scurrying for cover.

It takes about half an hour and several juicy apples before the mule is finally back in harness. Amid the chaos, the pic’s helmer, Rachid Bouchareb, remains a picture of calm.

It’s been a challenging five-year path from inception to shooting for Bouchareb and co-scribe Olivier Lorelle, who took almost 2½ years to write the screenplay for “Indigenes.” Raising funding from France 2, France 3 and StudioCanal took Bouchareb and his company 3B another year and a half. “Indigenes” (“natives” in French) is now aimed for a summer 2006 release.

Bouchareb, who is half-French, half-Algerian, is the first filmmaker to make a movie addressing the part that tens of thousands of North African volunteers played in the liberation of Italy and France.

While there are no official figures, it is estimated that more than 20,000 soldiers from former French colonies like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia died fighting under the command of the Free French against the Germans. Among them was Bouchareb’s grandfather.

“The story is a part of France’s history which not many people know about and has all but been erased from the history books,” Bouchareb asserts to Variety.

“Up until very recently France tried to whitewash the part our grandfathers played in the liberation. Because of that, there was a lot of difficulty convincing financial people that this film should be a big-budget one, this specific story.”

Bouchareb’s cause was substantially aided by the Moroccan government (pic’s opening scenes were shot in Morocco) which lent him some 10,000 soldiers as well as vehicles, uniforms and weapons used during WWII. The pic’s stars — Jamel Debbouze, Samy Naceri, Sami Bouajila and Roschdy Zem — agreed to work for scale.

Debbouze likens “Indigenes” to Edward Zwick’s “Glory” — about the U.S. Civil War’s first all-black volunteer company — and says he hopes it could have a similarly positive effect on French consciousness.

Bouchareb, whose other pics include “Cheb” (1991) and “Little Senegal” (2000), hopes “Indigenes” will encourage changes to improve the lot of the roughly 30,000 North African veterans still alive. They currently receive about a third of what French national veterans get in pension payments.

At a time when huge controversy has arisen in France over a perceived rewriting of the history books — in late February, Gaul’s rightist government passed a law demanding that the national school curriculum recognize the “positive role” of French colonialism — a growing number of French filmmakers have addressed controversial episodes in France’s past.

Recent films like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement” and Robert Guediguian’s “The Last Mitterrand” have focused less on the glory of war and the brilliance of politicians, and more on the cracks in the system.

Coming in October is Serge Le Peron’s pic “J’ai vu tuer Ben Barka” which promises to shed some light on the mysterious disappearance of Moroccan socialist opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka and his subsequent death.

The $3.1 million pic, produced by Maia Films and sold abroad by Films Distribution, suggests that the Moroccan secret services were aided by their French and American counterparts in the kidnapping of Ben Barka outside a Paris brasserie in 1965. While Ben Barka’s body has never been found, at least some of French cinema is intent on seeing his soul live on.

“I don’t know if it’s because of a greater Europe or because of the exactingness of a new generation of historians, but things are finally starting to come out,” says Georges-Marc Benamou, who wrote “The Last Mitterrand.”