The 1954-1962 Algerian War was undoubtedly one of the most bitter and destructive of modern conflicts. Nearly three million French combatants were involved, 25,000 lost their lives, and the French political establishment was shaken to its foundations. Officially, of course, there was no war, only 'a police action'. In the 30 years since, precious little has been written or filmed on the subject, and it was in a sense to break the taboo, to give voice to the repressed past, that producer Jean-Pierre Guérin and Tavernier undertook this documentary, hacked down from 50 hours of footage shot in Grenoble, the venue of one of the two largest anti-war riots in the '50s. They made the decision to focus exclusively on the testimonies of 28 veterans and a few of their wives; Tavernier uses a few of their own snapshots, a few shots of the Algerian desert, some footage of the site of the riots and of a veterans' rally; there is no stock footage, of carnage or otherwise. The film's remarkable power and universality lies in the human scale of these testimonies. The veterans - all of them conscripts, and of every shade of political conviction - are clearly talking about their experiences for the first time, and describe the events of 30-odd years ago with exceptional vividness and honesty. With anguished memory captured so tangibly, it is sometimes difficult to watch as so many of them break down in tears. The film, however, is shot with full allowance for their integrity.
Patrick Rotman, Bertrand Tavernier