Nuit Noire, 17 Octobre 1961, a French made-for-television film is a long-overdue look at the horrendous events that took place in Paris on that fateful night. In the summer of 1961, Algerian nationalist forces and De Gaulle’s French government were locked in negotiations for Algerian independence. Meanwhile racial tensions in Paris were at boiling point. The FLN (National Liberation Front) began to carry out ‘retaliations’ against French police and led a bold attack at a police station that left policemen dead. Following the assassination of another policeman, Police Chief Maurice Papon (Thierry Fortineau) declared “for each blow we receive, we will deliver ten.” On Oct 5, the curfew from 8:30 pm-5:30 am was declared on all French muslims from Algeria, and the demonstration on October 17 was organised by the FLN in response. The night ended in horrific bloodshed with an undetermined number of protestors beaten to death. Some were beaten and thrown in the Seine and others were beaten to death by police in a walled courtyard at police headquarters. Estimates of the number of dead range from 50-300. There was no official enquiry at the time and it was only in 1998 that the French government finally acknowledge the shameful events that took place that night. No one was ever prosecuted.
Since this is a re-enactment of events that took place, the film is not character-centered. Instead the story is a detailed reenactment that answers the question: how could this have happened? Watching the lead-up to October 17 becomes a tense, almost painful experience, and there’s the definite feeling (even if we didn’t know what happened that night) that everything will end badly. The film follows several characters and their roles in the events of that night: Sabine (Clotilde Courau) a young female reporter who doesn’t approve of the FLN, Abde, a young Algerian who’s taking classes to improve his French, his sympathetic, naive young teacher, a young French radical woman whose sympathies lie squarely with the Algerians, and a young policeman, Martin who’s about to resign due to fear for his life.
The film begins with details of the weeks before the demonstration, and these scenes set the stage for what lies ahead as the film’s characters are gradually trapped in a maze of violence: Algerians are stopped and harassed by police for entertainment, and police officers, many of whom have served in Algeria, feel as though they have ‘carte blanche’ in this perceived period of open season towards any Algerians who may fall into their hands. Algerian workers, living in slums or shantytowns, are beaten and harassed by police, and then when the police are done with them, the same Algerians are beaten and threatened by the hardcore FLN members. Amidst rumours of bodies of Algerians found hanging in the forest, bands of rogue cops go hunting for stray Algerians at night. And of course, in the process, Italians, Spanish–anyone slightly dark skinned fall foul of the police.
In one scene, Abde reluctantly goes to police headquarters accompanied by his teacher to ask about his missing uncle. The treatment the teacher receives at the hands the officers leaves her in shock and tears–as a French citizen, she’s always had assurances of certain behaviour from the police, but now, in the company of an Algerian, she gets a taste of how the immigrants are treated every day. At first, she protests with the typical threat of a complaint and then it dawns on her, just who is she going to complain to?
This very intelligent film shows the political machinations from both sides during this period, and of course, the often unacknowledged political tactics has a trickle down effect to the ground level. Clearly the FLN organisers of the demonstration expected violence, and scenes depict shantytown dwellers being forced to participate. While there are definite innocents in the film, the plot also reveals those who waver before choosing sides. The policemen, Martin, for example, isn’t portrayed as a bad character, and police violence and harassment of Algerians seems to make him queasy, but he’s also weak and tends to turn away rather than utterly reject their behaviour. After the assassination of a fellow policeman, Martin finds himself participating in violence towards Algerians. On the other hand, another police sergeant utterly rejects the events of 17 October (also known as The Paris Massacre) and finds himself ostracized and threatened.
Police Chief Papon was, of course, a major player in events. Not only did he serve as a French Prefect in France’s Dirty War with Algeria overseeing repression and torture, he was also interestingly enough, finally convicted in 1998 for deporting over 1600 Jews from Bordeaux to concentration camps. Strange, isn’t it, the way these old fascists just pick up and move on from one government gig to another.
Police records show, and the film illustrates, that Papon encouraged police to be “subversive” and he even promised to protect them from prosecution. This of course, opens up many other questions. For example: while the French government denied that the police murdered demonstrators, how did they explain the bodies fished out of the Seine or beaten to a pulp at police headquarters? These bodies must have been buried somewhere, and of course, this can only lead to the idea that many levels of the French government contributed into a media clamp down of the incident. Indeed the film shows media censorship and biased reporting.
Nuit Noire, 17 Octobre 1961 is an extremely powerful film. Even though we know how the film will end, nothing can prepare the viewer for one scene of unspeakable violence in the walled courtyard at police headquarters.
From director Alain Tasma