I generally avoid theaters, as many of you know, so I’ve only just seen David Oelhofen‘s Far From Men. It’s one of those movies that you just can’t see, the first time around, even if you grew up in Algeria, speak or at least understand Maghrebi Arabic and French, and have some sense of the history and literature undergirding it.
Far From Men is based on a short story by Albert Camus that he wrote while on assignment, in Algeria’s Kabylie region, following the outbreak of Algeria’s War of Independence. The title of the story, taken from Camus’ a collection of 6 short stories entitled Exile and the Kingdom, has been translated from the French L’Hote as The Guest, although L’Hote, in French, can also be translated as The Host. Who is the Host and who is the Guest? That is the question.
The script has come a long way since Camus’ day.
For one thing, the one room schoolhouse in the opening scene is in a valley, whereas Camus set the denouement on a plateau. In Camus’ version, there aren’t any students because, he explains, the ground is covered in snow. The paths have been obliterated by snow. In Far From Men’s opening scene, the first thing we see, after the broad expanse of North Africa’s Atlas Mountains, is a bird’s eye view of a dozen children in a playground. While the layers of clothing suggests cold, there is no snow. If you’re familiar with the short story, right away you’ll know, something’s different.
And you will ask yourself, “is everything is inside out?”
Before we get to the scene where the teacher reviews the names of the Rivers of France, a scene has been inserted where he asks them, “why do we begin the study of history in 3,000 BC?” as if to say, the history of the world, of civilization, begins in Mesopotamia, east of Algeria. Not west, much less northwest. Not even southeast. That’s Oelhofen talking. It’s not in Camus’ version.
So things have changed, since Camus’ day. Pay attention.
After the new version introduces Mesopotamia as the Cradle of Civilization, a French Algerian Gendarmes (literally: people with weapons, gens d’armes) interrupts the class to bring news of the two day killing spree with which the FLN launched Algeria’s War of Independence. Only then does Oelhofen’s version introduce the Rivers of France.
Did Camus know that, for the better part of the 9th century, after Charlemagne promoted what is now France to Holy Roman Empire, the continent was plagued by Vikings. Northmen. Farmers juggling a second job while they waited for their crops to grow. Vikings with Longboats that only require 3 feet of water – so they can go down those rivers and reap the hinterlands of the Holy Roman Empire for Slaves.
Slaves that they may put to good use in Scandinavia, but Slaves that they are more likely to sell to Arab traders, whose boats limited them to raiding the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastline. Arab traders operating out of the Barbary Coast. What we would today call Algeria.
Popular history claims that Napoleon annexed Algeria in 1830 for the Greater Glory of France. But he did it with the help of Thomas Jefferson (who orchestrated the Louisiana Purchase that paid for Napoleon’s wars (until he made the mistake of attacking Russia’s Slavs, after whom the Slave is named, since the rivers of Russia were a much more abundant source of forced labor than the rivers of France(?))). And they did this together to put a stop to the business of trading Europeans into slavery at the hands of what, at the time, was the Ottoman Empire. Algeria was just a great strategic outpost from which to do it.
Algerians are not Arabs. Even though Camus’ systematically refers to his Guest/Host as The Arab, Algerians are overwhelmingly Berbers, particularly in the territory known, in Camus’ day, as French Algeria. Arabized Berbers. Very cleverly, Oelhofen has brought home that message by engaging the grandnephew of a leading spokesperson for the Berber cause in Algeria.
Two years after the release of Far From Men, Berber was made an official language, on par with Arabic, in Algeria. Even though all official business is still conducted in French, the official languages of Algeria are Arabic and Berber, as of 2016. It’s worth noting also that the Berber language uses a Latin Alphabet – for practical reasons.