Article/ Free Men: A Hidden Past

Ismaél Ferroukhi unearths a tale of courage from the Second World War

By Edward Lawrenson

In the opening scene of Free Men, a young Algerian immigrant called Younes buys a valuable darbuka – the hand drum used in so much traditional North African music – for the price of a few cigarettes. Younes doesn’t know it at the time, but the purchase of the drum helps trigger a series of events that sees him change from an apolitical, young hustler evading immigration cops in occupied Paris, to a committed Resistance fighter struggling to overthrow the Vichy regime. Arrested for black-marketeering by the police, Younes is forced into monitoring the activities at his local mosque, from where the Nazi authorities suspect (with good reason) that there is a Resistance cell operating.

It is here that Younes (a restrained and subtle performance from A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim) befriends Salim Halali (Mahmoud Shalaby), a talented singer of traditional Algerian music; they bond over that darbuka from the opening scene, which Younes sells Salim for a ridiculously low price. Asked to spy on Salim, Younes begins to question his involvement with the Vichy police, and switches his allegiance to the Resistance.

Inspired by a true story, Free Men is a handsome wartime thriller directed with gripping authority by Ismaél Ferroukhi. In charting Younes’ deepening involvement in the fight against Nazi rule, it also tells the story of his awakening political consciousness as a North African. Throughout the film, Younes and his fellow Algerian comrades believe that their battle to free France from oppression will itself lead to the end of French colonial rule in Africa – a historical detail steeped in tragic historical irony given the post-war French government’s bloody reluctance to leave Algeria. If Younes begins the film as a callow, unthinkingly Westernised young man, his wartime experience sees him reclaim his Algerian identity.

What makes the film so resonant is its insistence that the brand of nationalism Younes and his comrades embrace is tolerant, inclusive, and outward-looking. Much admired by Younes’ fellow Muslims, Salim is actually Jewish, and it is in the mosque that he and other Jews find shelter from the Nazi authorities. Run with a mix of lofty spirituality and wily pragmatism by the rector, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (played with commanding grace by Michael Lonsdale), the mosque is an oasis of common sense humanity compared to the vile racism imposed by the Nazis on the rest of Paris. We get a glimpse of this in a terrifying scene when Younes is identified as Jewish and bundled into a truck.

With its focus on wartime France from a North African perspective, Free Men recalls Rachid Bouchareb’s stirring 2006 film Days of Glory. Concerned less with explosive action scenes than the complicated dynamics between its main characters, Free Men is a more low-key, even modest affair than Bouchareb’s sweeping epic. Nevertheless it remains just as committed to uncovering a story from France’s immediate past that has hitherto been hidden. In the closing credits, a title card informs us of the real-life fate of Salim Halali and Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (both historical figures). But the most moving caption applies to Younes: although fictional, the character was based on many actual free men of North Africa, and it is to all the anonymous men and women who fought for freedom that the film is dedicated.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

Free Men screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 25 May. Book your tickets here.