Restoring law and order in the South Pacific, Mathieu Kassovitz’s Rebellion is a war of words, bullets and cynical politicians.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
From the beginning, rewinding back through Philippe Legorjus’s blurred memories of the catastrophic D-day assault on the Melanesian island and French territory of New Caledonia, we know there is no hope. And so, any inkling that the film’s English language title Rebellion might be hopeful enough to allow for an eleventh-hour plucky act of insurrection on the part of the police leader must be quickly quashed. Knowing our hero won’t (or can’t) renege on his military orders in order to save the lives of the men and fathers who find themselves in charge of a group of hostages in the jungle, Law And Order, L’Ordre et la Morale, the film’s French title, conveys much better Matthieu Kassovitz’s portrait of the political disaster in the run-up to France’s 1988 presidential elections between socialist president François Mitterand and conservative prime minister Jacques Chirac. For these are platoons presided over by politicians, in which humanity, dialogue and negotiation are eventually replaced by swift decisive action. Hostages can be sacrificed for the sake of some good publicity and a few marginal seats. The revolution will not be tolerated. Law and order will prevail.
It’s a battery of information from the get-go – graphics, dates, radio and news reports, facts and figures as we negotiate ourselves into the Kanak uprising on the island of Ouvéa. Outraged against the French Minister Of Overseas Territories’ new laws outlawing the Polynesian system of chieftains, as well as its customs and traditions, a group of frustrated fathers seize the local police station killing three officers, wounding two and kidnapping 30. Captain of France’s GIGN (Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale), Philippe Legorjus and his company are deployed to bring the situation under control, only to find on landing the army already on site. And under the military’s gung-ho command, while the GIGN try to act with a decency due to all French citizens, they uncover the police hostages, Alphonse Dianou and his tribe of unexpected freedom fighters, forcing Legorjus into a labyrinthine underworld of interested parties, military one-upmanship and political intransigeance.
Resistance and revolution are loaded terms in the Héxagone. And with its army occupying overseas French soil for the first time since Algeria, France’s reaction to the Ouvéa uprising isn’t as delicate as its historians and philosophers might like. The army threaten women and children, humiliate the village elders chaining them up like dogs, and dehumanise their adversaries, treating them like bloodthirsty terrorists. And while the Kayakans prove peaceful, the kidnappers in the south giving up their hostages without a shot fired – even giving them a custom token by way of apology, the GIGN’s strategy of negotiation is replaced by military and political wishful thinking, which sees 21 killed and both Dianou and Legorjus betrayed.
Words are mightier than the sword, but Kassovitz’s war of words, as Legorjus deals with rebels, generals, ministers and insiders in the Élysée Palace, isn’t as powerful as Rebellion‘s final-reel crusade – a tour-de-force of whistling bullets and battlefield terror and calm. The skill of Legorjus’ politicking and negotiating is lost against the rat-a-tat-tat of rapid-fire events, as the tactician’s silver tongue and eye-to-eye persuasiveness is concealed by the dense narrative jungle of detailed reconstruction. The real-life photos in the credits add a documentary weight to Kassovitz’s Rebellion, transforming his feature film into testimony – giving a voice to New Caledonia’s quiet revolution and humanising its wayward fathers turned revolutionaries.
And Rebellion lays the blame for the massacre squarely at the politicians’ feet, at Pons’s one-size-fits-all and culturally insensitive laws, and at the electioneering impatience of Prime Minister and President determined to tie up loose ends regardless of the human cost. Kassovitz invites comparisons with the modern war on terror. Its final raid is reminiscent, in its breathless bravura, of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, refreshingly different from the structure of Islamist terrorism and the political and economic drive to plunder far-flung lands of their natural resources, in this case nickel, all too familiar from recent wars. Dianou’s diatribe against the capitalist apocalypse which sees their earth turned into money is heart-felt and hard-hitting if uncomfortably preachy. Seen as freedom fighters and terrorists alternately, the Kayakans’ cause is dramatically recreated through the televised election debates between Mitterand and Chirac. But, making the most of this, their best shot at independence, these essentially peace-loving, humble and respectful people are galvanised into resistants, demanding to be seen as freedom fighters (not terrorists), and the end of the Pons laws.
Released almost 15 years to the day since the uprising in Ouvéa, Rebellion is a comprehensive investigation into the human cost of broken political promises. Centred around Legorjus’s memories, it’s a truthful recounting of the dirty politics of following orders and betrayal, of “ordre et morale”. For, if truth hurts, lies kill. And Rebellion is dirty viewing, splashed by speeding trucks, sent reeling by the booming countdown, and hypnotised by jump zooms, embedded in this Polynesian powder keg. But battered and bruised, there’s a haunting memory of peace, of Kayakan women singing while weaving grass into tokens to beg forgiveness of the hostages. But with a referendum set for next year on New Caledonia’s independence, it’s time for the French government to start singing and weaving.
Rebellion is released on 19th April 2013 in the UK