• French Competition



Franssou Prenant

Franssou Prenant
A famous docking: Algiers, the White City, in a radiant light. The picture darkens with a voice-over reading of the text of the surrender of the Dey of Algiers in 1830. About the Conquest confronts us with a page of the French national novel that was too hastily turned. Franssou Prenant audaciously gathers a community of complicit voices who read a succession of archives (reports, testimonies, memoirs, historical, geographical, and urbanistic considerations) in a matter-of- fact tone. Recounting the stages of France’s colonisation of Algeria between 1830 and 1848, they outline the ideological landscape of a staggering annihilation effort. The film could just as well have been entitled About Destruction. Franssou Prenant thus constructs a memorial with a technique common to History and cinema: montage. A montage of texts: the words of Victor Hugo, Ernest Renan, Tocqueville are interwoven with those of military men, senior officials, brigadiers, without any way of distinguishing the authors. Then, a montage of images through which yesterday’s acts of violence and dispossession echo in the present: in contrast to an account of murders, the film presents a desolate desert landscape or the frank and innocent smiles of teenagers. The promises of riches offered by colonized Algeria are accompanied by shots of an opulent, Haussmann-style Parisian city centre. We are plunged into a reflection on the nature of this extraordinary violence, through a pictorial meandering into contemporary Algeria, entwined with archival extracts heard in an interplay of convergence and divergence. The piling up of texts brings to light both the ethnocentric and racist imaginary and the cold logic of economic exploitation that dictated the colonization of Algeria and its irreversible consequences, from which Algerian society still suffers today.
(Claire Lasolle)

Interview with Franssou Prenant

Your film plunges us into the heart of a delicate and scarcely examined issue: the French invasion of Algeria between 1830 and 1848.

I learnt and understood at a very young age what colonialism was, thanks to my father’s work as a geographer specialising in Algeria, my family’s pro-Independence stance, and more generally through my friends and family. Later, I followed my parents to Algiers and lived there from 1963 to 1966. I kept visiting regularly until 1980. Then in 1999, by chance, I returned to Algiers and lived there for another ten years. I made two films during that period, the second of which, Bienvenue à Madagascar, was edited in Paris. It looks back on those ten years of encounters, discoveries, reunions, explorations, laughter, conversations, fun, surprises, and deceptions.
Not long ago, having failed to find funding for a film that required more than the usual, I was telling a filmmaker friend, who had been a “suitcase carrier” during the Algerian War of Independence, what the enfumades were: forms of gassing which were rudimentary and of which industrial production was low, but which were nonetheless effective. I don’t know whether this practice existed prior to the war, elsewhere, nor by and against whom, or whether it was invented by the high-ranking officers of the French army. My friend said to me, “But why don’t you make a film about the history of the colonisation of Algeria?” The idea had already been floating around in my mind, but I hadn’t acted upon it. This history is important to me, as is History in general, as without it we can’t understand the sequences of events and dynamics at play in the world, and the ways we’re taken for a ride. The French conquest of Algeria deserves to be investigated and exposed, given its serious consequences: the colonisation of half of Africa, and ways of thinking in the metropole [mainland] whose dregs are particularly apparent in recent times. So I got to work, beginning with a desire to edit four long shots I liked of Algiers that I hadn’t managed to use in Bienvenue à Madagascar.

About the conquest is made up of textual archives from various primary sources. Where do these archives come from? How did you decide on the texts and how to edit them?

I had already read up on the subject. I spent a few more months researching and re-reading books, including those of Charles-André Julien and François Maspero. Through bibliographies, I found the references of the works of those authors, which I went to look through. I also contacted some researchers and read their publications. In this way, I collected and gleaned quotations from those that took part in the conquest. There were far too many. So I left some out, and grouped those that remained by theme. I organized them, trying to respect the chronology as much as possible. Then I recorded myself reading them, and put them together with the images. De la conquête (About the conquest) is clearly what we call a montage film, structured using pre-existing materials. But I could call it a film of montages, in the plural: of the different texts, of the images, of the texts with the images, through matter, movement, association (in the Fourierist sense of the term), and not only through meaning, and especially not through illustrating the texts or commenting the images. I edit images and words together, side by side, and in the same momentum. I edit in such a way that combinations, concordance, and dissonance occur, that materials collide, resist or yield to each other, combine, and reverberate at a distance, in echoes and delayed responses. From the beginning, I knew the film would have two parts: the first one examining the conquest of the north of the country, which was a pure attempt to annihilate the population, and the second one occurring after an interlude which offers a breather, a break in the flux of images and words. It is a kind of close up, a look back on the primary and immediate desire with the landing in July 1830, to destroy the city of Algiers, the “Casbah”, which was in reality an attempt to erase a culture, a civilisation, and to replace them. I decided to stop the story in 1848, even though the conquest was far from over. From 1871, the intensive colonisation began, the peopling, even though miserable “soldier-workers” and large estates were already established. But most of the poorer settlers arrived around that time. I also chose 1848 because the Paris insurrection of June 1848 was put down by generals in the African army (Cavaignac, Bugeaud, St Arnaud…). Bugeaud said in Algeria: “Be like Cavaignac, smoke them to death, like foxes.” In Paris in 1848, he said, “shoot them like rabbits.”

Why did you choose to not identify the authors of the textual sources in the course of the film? What was the intended effect?

The authors of the texts are cited in the closing credits, by order of appearance. As most of them appear several times, it isn’t easy to find one’s bearings. The authors of these citations are first and foremost military men — governors, officers of various ranks, ordinary soldiers, the director of the Arab officers — and secondly from civil society — an insignificant writer, a tourist, a geographer, deputies (including Victor Hugo), Fourier, and Tocqueville, the theorist of the war of colonisation. All of them were colonialists and even though some were “humanists” and condemned the army’s practices, most were murderers, hungry for stripes, money, and glory, for personal reasons rather than for the greatness of France, of which they often speak. But I didn’t want to embed the name of every author within the image. The film would have become a kind of directory and the image would have been ruined.

These archives are read uniquely by male voice-overs. They alternate from text to text. How did you work on the reading of the texts (the rhythm, the tone, the alternation, the choice to only use male voices…)?

All the voices are male because the authors are men. There are no written traces left by women, or at least I haven’t found them.
It’s not a question of image editing on one side and voice editing on the other side. I did everything at the same time. I began by making a model draft, with my own voice to determine the succession and logical harmony of the citations with regard to the images which in turn demanded space, rapprochement or its opposite, distant repetition, reminiscence, sequential combinations, unexpected surges, seeking dis-order, dis-equilibrium and rhythm. Then I looked for actor-speakers. I first made a mental casting of voices among my friends and acquaintances in order to find suitable but heterogeneous timbres. Then, after several tests and rehearsals, I distributed the texts to the voices and not the voices to an author, with two exceptions: the texts of Abd el Kader and his sheikhs — the opposing force — are spoken by the same person and a series of short sentences describing the military campaign of Colonel St Arnaud is voiced by the same actor. I tried to make a kind of score, emphasising as much the timbres of the voices and the rhythms of reading as what the texts speak of, the contradictions between them, their relationships, their abundance and their suspension: silence.

Can you tell us about the origins of the visual material in About the conquest?

I still had unedited images filmed in Algiers in 2009-10 clear in my mind, from the visual material for Bienvenue à Madagascar. Then in 2017, I shot in Algeria. Furthermore, I had digitised everything I had filmed using Super 8 from 1986 to 2004 – the year when Kodachrome 40, my preferred film roll, disappeared – including several hours of footage shot in Paris, which represents the other side of the Mediterranean, the side of French leaders (whether they were obeyed or not by the officers of the invading army) who had already begun and continued this conquest.
Two types of material shape the film: images that had already been filmed from my archives (not archival images or reconstructions), and citations, and these alone (no interviews, no commentary, no “specialists”). This combining of contemporary images with texts from the 19th century is absolutely and resolutely anachronistic, without being cut off from current events. It seems to me that this conquest (and the preceding and following ones) is the source of many of the blemishes that crown this French republic based on liberty, equality and fraternity.

Interview by Claire Lasolle

  • French Competition

Technical sheet

France / 2022 / 75’

Original version : french
Subtitles : english
Script : Franssou Prenant
Photography : Franssou Prenant
Editing : Franssou Prenant
Sound : Franssou Prenant
Production : Gaël Teicher (La Traverse)
Filmography : Bienvenue à Madagascar, 2015
I am too sexy for my body, for my bo-ody, 2012.
Le jeu de l’oie du Professeur Poilibus, 2007
Reviens et prends moi, 2004
Sous le ciel lumineux de son pays natal, 2002
Paris, mon petit corps est bien las de ce grand monde, 2000
L’Escale de Guinée, 1987
Habibi, 1983
Paradis perdu, 1975