Chronicle of the Years of Embers/Chronique des années de braise (d. Mohamed Lakhdar-Hamina)
The winner of the Palm D’or in 1975, Chronicle of the Years of Embers
is a 177 minute epic of Algerian cinema. I guess you could call the film something of a prequel to the more famous 1965 film The Battle of Algiers
(though the perspective of the French troops and the pied noirs are largely absent), as it spans the years between 1939 and November 1st, 1954 (actually November 11th, if you count the epilogue), the day the Algerian Revolution began. Chronicle of the Years of Embers
is one of those rare creatures, an uncompromising political film, which is not simply didactic, but is instead steeped in a quiet, affecting humanism, which just serves to underline the tragedy of the colonial system, the racism, the brutality, the degradation, the dehumanization, the humiliation, and the economic disparity. The film does so by centering on the character of Ahmad, a poor, yet proud, farmer who lives in a small village suffering from years of drought and colonial neglect (later, we actually learn that water is plentiful, if you are a French settler). The course of the film, which is divided into six chapters and an epilogue (with such titles as “The Years of Ashes,” “The Year of the Cart,” “The Year of the Massacre,” and “November 1st, 1954), charts the emerging revolutionary consciousness of Ahmad as tragedy after tragedy befalls his family and people; Ahmad does not become radicalized due to some overt political analysis, but for the practical reason of his and (his remaining) family’s survival. The other main character of the film is Miloud, the wild-haired madman who lives in the city where Ahmad eventually migrates (he’s played by writer-director Mohmaded Lakhdar-Hamina). Miloud is something of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action, openly mocking the French authority (he’s mad, so they pay him little attention), extolling the people to rise up and resist (though he preaches in the city’s many cemeteries). Eventually, Miloud befriends Ahmad, and becomes something of surrogate parent to Ahmad’s youngest son, especially once his father becomes more politically active (which leads to his imprisonment and armed resistance). By the film’s end, the situation has become so dire that even the French and their Arab puppets can not tolerate the dissent of an old, madman, (especially after he announces, like a town crier, the emergence of the revolution), and he is tortured. The formerly comic character becomes tragic, weakened, he dies alone in the cemetery lamenting his homeland’s lack of freedom.
But to back things up. As if to underline the desperation felt by the film’s characters, the story actually begins with a scene of local Arab tribesman violently fighting over a shallow pool of muddy water, a scene which ends tragically when a young man is shot dead. Immediately afterwards, the director, Mohamed Lakhdar-Hamina, shows the impact of the drought on the villagers, as one after another leaves the village, each time rushing through a gaggle of people imploring them to stay (ironically, each time the film cuts to another scene of a towns person leaving, it turns out to be one of the people who was trying to convince the others to stay). We first see Ahmad striding through the haze of the roiling heat (the film is shot in beautiful widescreen, color photography), as he comes across his eldest son crying, bent over the family's flock of sheep, which are slowly dying of dehydration, panting shallowly, tongues lolling from their mouth. Ahmad comforts his son, and eventually the two of them join the neighboring tribes people on a pilgrimage, led by the local cleric, to a shrine to pray for rain (complete with a very real sacrifice of a cow). Initially Ahmad is too proud to leave his village, despite the death of his sheep, and the long, long treks to retrieve water (in one of the film’s most gasp inducing early moments, his daughter, a toddler, unknowingly spills all the contents of a waterskin, that took several days of walking to fill; it’s a sad scene, as the baby girl smiles at her father, thinking she has helped, while everyone else in the house stares quietly, eventually Ahmad picks up his little girl, and their is an uncomfortable moment of silence, before he smiles and kisses his daughter, breaking the tension, but ultimately not dispelling the tragic dimension of what happened; I have to note, that Chronicle of the Years of Embers
is a very quiet film, though it possesses somewhat melachonic, yet elegaic, score), but after a frustratingly brief rainstorm, followed by more blistering drought (we see the villager’s grain turn from vibrant green to a burnt out brown), Ahmad angrily relents and takes his family to a nearby provincial city, where one of his many cousins live.
There, Ahmad finds a job at a French-run salt mine, but his temper causes him to lash out at the cruel French overseer (on his first day, Ahmad sits down to eat lunch with his eldest son, and the Frenchman throws dirt all over his food and water, demanding that Ahmad return to work), which leads to a severe beating at the hands of the thuggish colonial police, while the sneering overseer, his eye blackened by Ahmad’s punch, looks on. The subsequent scene, where Miloud and Ahmad’s eldest son meet the battered man outside the police station is reminiscent of the famous, final scene from De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief
, with the utter humiliation of the proud father. To add to his humiliation, Ahmad is blacklisted by the local French employers, and finds himself out of work and idle. Though Ahmad spends most of his time in a fruitless search for work, he does manage to meet some friends and secretly listen to banned broadcasts of German propaganda, puffing on cigarettes, muttering about how the “French were finished,” thinking, ironically, that Hitler was some sort of savior. The defeat of the French and the installation of the Vichy puppet regime does little to change the everyday living conditions of the Arab population (though we do see a Vichy political rally, attended by the majority of the city’s French citizens, in front of a large picture of Marshall Petain; the pied noirs stretch out their arms in a Fascist salute to the French tricolor); later, as Ahmad and his fellow workers watch a convoy of American trucks drive through a wheat field, he remarks that “French, German, Americans, it doesn’t matter.”
Eventually, Ahmad’s cousin gets him a job in a wheat field (through bribery, of course), but tragedy quickly ensues, as his cousin faints in the fields, dying of fever, heralding an outbreak of typhus which ravages the city. The French authorities evacuate the French settlers (who number between 20-40) and seal the Arab population in a quarantine (the program notes at the screening remarks how this episode, entitled “The Year of the Cart,” after the wagons which hall the dead away, is almost an inverse of Camus’s The Plague
, from the Arab perspective), enforced by Arab troops (everyone tries to flee through the ancient city gates, but they are forced back at gunpoint). In this, the film’s most harrowing section, Ahmad is forced to watch his entire extended family slowly die from fever, it seems that only Ahmad and the madman Miloud (who pushes a cart that collects the dead, and finds more and more people to preach to) are left untouched, witness to the devastation. Deserted by the French, the Arab population is left to fend for itself, with very little medicine (it seems like most of the government effort was concentrated on enforcing the quarantine and putting up anti-lice posters). For one extended sequence, Ahmad carries the limp body of his son throughout the twisting streets of the city, crossing paths with cart after cart of bodies, vainly looking for help. Brusquely told to go the church for “help,” he finds it to be a place where the very young and the very old are herded to die. Ahmad manages to pilfer a box of medicine, but it’s not enough. When he returns to his cousin’s house, what little medicine they have is not enough, and the members of the family begin to die one by one, signified by shots of the bodies being covered with sheets. By the end of the typhus outbreak, Ahmad is left alone, the only other survivor being his infant son. When the quarantine is finally lifted, Ahmad bundles his child up and leaves the city, returning to his home village. As he exits the city gates, he passes the truck carrying the French settlers back to their homes; the sing gayly, willfully oblivious to the horror around them.
Back home, Ahmad finds conditions have changed very little. He moves in with another of his cousins, and the desperate search for water continues. Drought still grips the countryside, though water is readily available; a huge reservoir stretches out to the horizon, created a French dam, but this water is only available for French crops, the Arab tribesmen left to scramble and fight over whatever trickle of water is released by the French. Soon the two local tribes are standing off at the end of a rifle, which disgusts Ahmad. In his first act of political (and practical) resistance, Ahmad leads five men from each tribe to the dam (Including his cousin), where they lay charges and blast a hole in the stone edifice, causing the dam to crumble, releasing the water. Though they are caught by the French, the men are still proud of what they did (Ahmad and one of the leaders from the other tribe smile proudly to each other, even when shackled and shaved bald by the French). As punishment, the 10 men are conscripted into the French Army, and forced to fight in Europe. Lakdhar-Hamina chooses to illustrate the war years with newsreel footage of the war, followed by celebrations of V-Day in Paris, and then more disturbing newsreel footage of the aftermath of an uprising in Algeria. It turns out, that on May 8th, the day the Germans surrendered, the French violently put down a countrywide uprising.
A uniformed Ahmad returns to his village alone, only to find it largely empty, recent fires still smoldering. Ahmad is greeted by the kindly old cleric, who informs him of what happened (the film, in a rare flashback, shows how the French herded the townspeople. attempting to “pacify” the region), and that his cousin’s family has fled to the city. Ahmad, wanting to be reunited with his son, follows suit. Even though he wears a French army uniform, festooned with a medal (later, a disgusted Ahmad throws this medal away, very reminiscent of Vietnam vets throwing away their own medals in protest; though, Miloud picks up the medal and pins it to his dusty robes), Ahmad is regarded with suspicion, and is even beaten when he steps out of line. When Ahmad reunites with his family, we learn that Ahmad is the only survivor of the 10 men sent to Europe. Needless to say, his cousin’s family does not take the news very well.
Quietly embittered (I must note that the actor who plays Ahmad has a wonderfully expressive face, often captured in close-up, which can go from kindness to seething rage in an instant), Ahmad goes to work as a blacksmith, along with an old friend from his village. The men like to sit around and gossip, grousing about the French, but doing little or nothing. That is, until a bespectacled Arab man, in a business suit and carrying a briefcase, arrives one day on the bus. Though his visits to the police station initially draws the suspicion of the local men, it’s soon learned that the man is named Larbi, and he is a political activist, exiled to the provinces by the French. Larbi is a radical nationalist, who advocates armed resistance (Larbi remarks that colonialism began with violence and will only end with violence), and it doesn’t take long for him to organize a group of followers among the disaffected locals, especially Ahmad, who, in his own stoic way, becomes something of his right hand man. Larbi’s position is not especially popular, at least, not yet, even splitting Ahmad’s friends (most of the nationalists follow a philosophy of accommodation, and resistance through elections), though you can tell that they are somewhat sympathetic (one man, in particular seems to continually waver, regretfully looking back everytime the two groups meet and then part).
Larbi’s activities (after questioning a imam’s interpretation of the Qu’ran that seems to support French rule) get him beaten up by the French agents sent to watch him, but that doesn’t dissuade him from continuing his struggle. Things come to a head when a Party leader visits the city advocating independence through elections; he wants to lead a rally to disrupt a speech by the local Arab strongman (known as the Caid), who acts as the French puppet. Larbi tries to convince him otherwise, but in a show of solidarity, joins the protest march along with his own followers. When the French get wind of the protest, they set an ambush. The impassive, uniformed French officers look on from a nearby balcony, as the protest march is trapped in a narrow roadway by the mounted calvary of the Caid. Snipers assassinate Larbi, shooting him in the head, and wound the Party candidate, before the calvary herded the hundred or so protesters into the square, where the Caid’s rally had previously been taking place. Encircling the protesters, herding them back into the square, letting none escape, the horseman, massacre the protesters with sabers and rifles (for the most part, this sequence is captured in a series of long and extreme long shots), as the townspeople who had been attending the rally look on from the rooftops. Some of the men, led by Ahmad and his group, attempt to fight back, knocking soldiers off their horses, stealing their sabers and guns. At first, it looks like the tide is turning against the Caid’s men, but just as quickly it turns back, until there are only eight survivors, bloody and battered, huddled underneath an archway, led by a still defiant Ahmad. The eight survivors of “The Year of the Massacre” are imprisoned for two years by the French rulers, but escape, becoming, as Miloud puts it, “phantoms of the resistance.” The guerilla movement has begun (underscored by a shot of the men blowing up a train).
With the situation in Algeria escalating, the French can not afford the increasing fame of Ahmad and his group, so they organize troops to hunt him down. Ahmad’s surviving son, now a young boy (about 10-12 years old), senses the danger, and convinces Miloud to lead him to his father. The two of them hike through the snowy, tree-covered mountains, but arrive too late. While resting in a sympathizer’s cabin, they hear the crackle of automatic weapons fire in the distance. The next day, Miloud and Ahmad’s son arrive at the guerilla encampment, only to find Ahmad dead, only a bloodstain on the cobblestones remain. He sacrificed himself to save the others (shown in flashback, and continuing a pattern, where Ahmad continues to fight and sacrifice, first for himself, and then for others), and the men pronounce him a hero of the resistance. A title announces that Ahmad died on November 1st, 1954.
In the film’s epilogue, we see that the revolution is already underway. This sequence is the most expressionistic of the film, as Lakhdar-Hamina cuts between three different sequences, as he builds up to his conclusion: the Caid torturing Miloud for preaching the revolution by tying him to his horse, and dragging him through the streets; Miloud dying in the cemetery, pleading to the dead, lamenting the plight of his country (since the part is played by the director, it’s not hard to draw the conclusion that these were his own feelings during that time period), while Ahmad’s son runs to his side (again, he’s ultimately too late), and a fantasy sequence which reintroduces the now deceased Ahmad. This sequence echoes Ahmad’s actual entrance in the film, we see him, now dressed in modern clothing, instead of the traditional garb he wore at the beginning, walking through the roiling heat, though this time, his son runs up to him in the distance. Without breaking a stride, Ahmad scoops his son up into his arms (something we never really saw him do in life). At the very end of the film, Ahmad’s son reaches Miloud in the cemetery, but it is too late, the old man has died. The son is now all alone, and must fight for himself. The films ends with a profile of Miloud’s bearded face against the setting sun. The film fades to black, as sounds of machine gun fire begin to fill the soundtrack. A final title announces the Algeria won it’s independence in 1962, but at a cost of one million lives.