Algerian Djaffar Gacem, director/producer of the drama “Héliopolis,” said both French and Algerian historians have brought their perspectives to the history of colonial Algeria — and that includes the Sétif and Guelma massacre on May 8, 1945, the day the end of World War II was announced. The event triggered demonstrations by Algerians against the French colonial power and led to a bloody massacre in the streets of Algerian cities and regions.
The film ends with a statement of grim real-life statistics: The massacre resulted in the deaths of 45,000 Algerian Muslims, although the official statistic reported by France was only 1,020.
Even given these staggering numbers, Gacem said on a panel moderated by TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman that it was important for him to show an unbiased look at the horrific conflict. For Western viewers, he said, “I wanted to be able to export a part of this history without taking any sides, without saying that, ‘we are the victims and they were the bad the bad guys,'” he explained.
Through translator Akha-Hanna Agrane, Gacem added that he was most interested in deconstructing the conflict as a way of explaining the cultural complexities that led to the 1954-62 Algerian War and eventually Algeria’s independence from France. That complexity is brought to the forefront in the saga of a wealthy Algerian family that owns a farm in the town of Héliopolis, near Algiers. The family is irrevocably fractured when a son joins the Algerian rebellion, bursting the complacent bubble of patriarch Mokdad (Aziz Boukeron).
Actor Boukeron, who also appeared on the panel, said he sought to bring forth the struggle within his character, who is comfortable assuming the culture of the French until he risks losing his family in the process. “We see he’s not the same person as his father was, a commander,” Boukeron said. “(Mokdad) inherited land from him, and his father inherited it from his grandfather. And I must say that my character is a character that’s a bit enigmatic.”
Also on the panel was actress Souhila Mallem, who portrays Mokdad’s daughter. “She loves her father very much and her brother too. And she wasn’t really aware of what was really going on, of the tensions happening,” Mallem said of her character. “But with time… and the inequalities happening with Algerians, she became more mature.”
Watch the discussion in the video above.