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October 17, 1961
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by Mel Valentin

"Balanced, insightful, sympathetic look at a little known French event."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: For those of us outside of France and Algeria, the date October 17,1961 is virtually meaningless. For the French and the Algerians, October 17,1961 has come to be recognized as a crucial date in the Algerian War for Independence. By late 1961, negotiations between the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) and the French government pointed to a foreseeable end to a decade long war. In France, however, Algerian immigrants were subjected to mistreatment, humiliation, and, in many cases, torture (without the benefit of legal representation or due process of law). The Algerian resistance in France targeted random police officers in retaliation. In response, the French police escalated extra-legal actions against Algerian Muslims, up to an including the execution of suspected militants.

With a history of escalating violence in Algeria, endemic racism toward Algerian immigrants in France, and a restrictive curfew, a large-scale confrontation between the French police and Algerian Muslims was nearly inevitable. Algerian leaders decided on a peaceful protest for October 17, 1961. The protesters were met by a French police force ready for confrontation and violence. Unarmed, the protesters didn't stand a chance. The numbers vary, but between 7,500 and 11,000 protesters were arrested. Up to two hundred died. The number injured remains uncounted. Official hearings were called for, but all attempts at independent investigations, via the judiciary or the press, were stonewalled.

Alain Tasma's docudrama, October 17, 1961 ("Nuit noire"), attempts to restore a long-forgotten event in French-Algerian history, while raising questions of responsibility, accountability, and ultimately, contemporary relevance to European countries with unassimilated or under-assimilated Muslim minorities. Balancing character studies with the macro-forces that affect historical change, Tasma crafts a compelling, thoughtful, ultimately sympathetic portrait of the French and Algerians caught inexorably in cultural preconceptions, attitudes, and victimization (theirs and others).

Beginning more than a month before the night of October 17, 1961, Tasma's film moves between individual characters, a young police officer afraid of becoming a target of the FLN (he leaves and returns home at night out of uniform), other police officers, most of whom engage in casual acts of racism, a young Algerian studying for a French exam that, if passed, will offer him the opportunity toward a better life, including assimilation, his schoolteacher who takes an interest in him, a sergeant sympathetic toward the Algerians, a female journalist, a Frenchwoman collaborating with the Algerian resistance in France, a racist police chief, and a high-ranking minister. Each, in turn, will become involved in the events that lead directly or indirectly to the confrontation between the French police and the Algerian protesters.

Tasma counts the social realist films of Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, and Alan Clark. Tasma has worked with François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Arthur Penn, and Barbet Schroeder. Closer in tone and subject matter, though, are Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle for Algiers, an exploration of Algerian war for independence from both the Algerian and French sides and, more recently, Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday, a docudrama centered on an ill-fated confrontation between Irish protesters and British paratroopers in the Northern Ireland town of Derry in 1972 (14 were killed, 13 were wounded).

Following Greengrass’ lead, Tasma relies on handheld camerawork to create a sense of closeness (and, therefore, identification) between the onscreen characters and the audience. While not necessarily original or innovative, Tasma’s choices are closely suited to drawing out the dramatic potential of the material, which he does, with only one or two missteps (primarily the characters sketchiness and their easy-to-guess fates, e.g., mentioning a new girlfriend or an upcoming fishing trip are predictable portents of bad things to come).

Where "October 17, 1961" falters is in the lack of a clear resolution. Rather than end with the immediate aftermath of the protest, Tasma follows some of the survivors, some of the witnesses, including a newly emboldened journalist, half-substantiated stories in the press, and a press conference, then ends abruptly. Per an inter-title, we learn that the press and the judicial investigations into the events of October 17, 1961 were both shut down. That makes Tasma’s film more than a historical document, moving it into a polemical call for thought and action. It’s certainly both, but it’s also sympathetic to both sides of the moral and historical equation, depicting flawed characters struggling and often failing to overcome their own prejudices, biases, and desire for revenge. As such, "October 17, 1961" serves as a cold, stark reminder of the dehumanizing effects violence has on perpetrators and victims alike and how violence can escalate out of control.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12964&reviewer=402
originally posted: 05/02/06 14:51:18
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Chicago Film Festival For more in the 2005 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2006 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.

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