Riot police held off protestors on the Cannes waterfront Friday during a demonstration against the film festival screening of an explosive thriller about the Algerian war of independence.
Police with batons and shields blocked hundreds of demonstrators from reaching the festival hall where French-Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb’s "Outside of the Law" screened on Friday.
Police estimated some 1,200 people joined the protest which was called by the far-right National Front party, but no incidents were reported.
The party and other right-wing politicians have accused Bouchareb of distorting history in his emotionally-charged account of Algerian militants’ fight against French colonialism.
The movie, part-financed by France, tells the story of Algerian brothers who are driven from their home as children by colonialists and grow up to mount an armed resistance movement on French soil.
It opens with a massacre of Algerian civilians by French soldiers in the town of Setif in 1945 — a historical event which critics say is misrepresented — and ends with a crackdown on independence demonstrators in Paris.
The film sparked controversy ahead of the festival, with right-wing politicians criticizing its treatment of France’s role in Algeria during the colonial period and the war that led to independence in 1962.
Army veterans and groups representing former colonists and "harkis," Algerians who fought for France, joined the protest, with demonstrators waving French flags and singing the French national anthem.
"It is a falsification of history," said Frederic Bruno, a 62-year-old pensioner who travelled from Nice to join the rally. In Setif, "the army kept order" after Algerians killed French people, he said.
Bouchareb insisted after the screening: "The film isn’t a battlefield. The film is not there to provoke confrontation. It is there to launch a calm debate."
On top of the National Front protest, Cannes mayor Bernard Brochand, from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right wing UMP party, was to hold a ceremony for what he called the "French victims" of the Algerian war and events in Setif.
The film is one of few cinematic treatments of the conflict and stories about the activities on French soil of independence fighters including the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) are especially rare.
"It is for sociologists or other experts to say why in France people find it difficult to journey into the past," Bouchareb told a news conference.
Two of the brothers in the film, Messaoud and Abdelkader, launch attacks against police from their base in an immigrant shanty town in northern Paris — a precursor of the current-day suburbs which exploded in violence in 2005.
Their campaign prompts French authorities to retaliate by forming their own underground armed group to launch bomb attacks and kill Messaoud and Abdelkader and other FLN members.
The third brother, Said — played by French-Moroccan comedian Jamel Debbouze — tries to take a peaceful route as an entrepreneur promoting an Algerian boxer, and clashes with his militant brothers.
Debbouze won a best actor prize at Cannes in 2006 along with his fellow male leads in Bouchareb’s Oscar-nominated film "Days of Glory," about North Africans who suffer discrimination despite serving in the French army in World War II.
French director Rachid Bouchareb and French actor Jamel Debbouze pose during the photocall of "Hors La Loi" (Outside of the Law) presented in competition at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival on May 21, 2010. (AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS GUILLOT)