Based on the French-Kanak conflict in 1988, Mathieu Kassovitz’s Rebellion is a moving portrayal of a world in which freedom and peace are replaced with violence and brutality. Here’s a look at the film’s visual grammar and its suggestive commentary on current affairs and social issues.
Films which present versions of real-life war and conflict often exaggerate certain characters and events, whilst sometimes including entirely fictitious subplots in order to create a broader appeal and a more conventional form of drama. There is however a refreshing lack of these distractions in Rebellion (L’Ordre et la Morale). The film tells the story of the 1988 French-Kanak conflict on the island of Ouvéa, New Caledonia, in the South Pacific. Members of a separatist group there held 27 police officers hostage in a cave, demanding New Caledonia’s instant independence from France.
Released in the UK in April 2013, Rebellion unfolds through the perspective of chief negotiator Philippe Legorjus —played by Kassovitz — who is sent to Ouvéa by the French government along with 300 soldiers in order to resolve the situation. Legorjus manages to speak with freedom fighter Alphonse Dianou and learn of the just cause for which he and his fellow Kanaks are risking their lives.
However, as Legorjus gains an element of trust among the hostage-takers and a resolution for both sides is beginning to come together, his mission is interrupted and his ideas rejected by the French government, the current political interests of which are determined by the ongoing election campaign. Legorjus finds himself in an agonising position, within a situation that disregards human life and risks the chance of a peaceful solution.
Kassovitz co-wrote, produced, and directed this film, as well as acting in it. Given this and his earlier masterpiece, La Haine (1995), it is clear that issues surrounding authoritarianism, violence, and police brutality are important to him. This gives Rebellion a heartfelt feeling of pain and anger, and coupled with Kassovitz’s restrained performance does well to encapsulate the feelings of unease, disapproval, and ultimate hopelessness that shadow his mission as a negotiator from the beginning.
The element of time plays an important role in this drama about a relatively recent event in history. It begins with Legorjus recalling images; blurred memories of how the conflict ends and he is found asking himself how it happened, how it got to that point.
From this point onwards, the film takes the form of a ten-day countdown toward the final moments, which the viewer witnesses in the first scene. As soon as Legorjus’s account begins, Kassovitz’s film begins to slowly build tension between the arriving French soldiers and the island itself. A low hum, punctuated by single bangs of a metal drum join the sound of trees blowing in the wind to form a minimalist soundtrack. The camera calmly pans through the tropical landscape of white sand and lush green vegetation. The blinding sunlight coats the entire environment and seems to pierce both the jungle and the camera lens itself. This gives the film a visceral feel and transports the viewer to this place of beauty and increasing anxiety.
The film flows at a considerable pace without ever lapsing into speculation, or romanticising characters and events. During an early point in which Legorjus is having the initial hostage siege described to him by a local witness, the scenes they portray seamlessly tie together with scenes showing how Alphonse and his men captured their hostages. One flows into the other with ease, but both were filmed as a single-shot sequence in real time during production.
What is also striking about this film are the ways in which scenes play out in real time, without music to tell us what to feel, or fast editing to help build momentum. These are scenes driven solely by powerful performances in which emotions are running high and you are made to feel the seriousness of the Kanaks’ plight and their fight for independence.
Rebellion raises some important issues that affect us all, such as the role of politicians in the manipulation, repression and killing of less powerful groups of people. In a poignant scene in which Legorjus is watching a televised debate between right-wing Prime Minister Chirac and left-wing President Mitterrand, the film’s edit speeds up and transforms the two men into a blend of indistinguishable words — men whose sole purpose in this context is to mask their self-serving agendas focused on maintaining power.
The role of news media and journalism is questioned when we are shown local newspapers running stories that label Alphonse’s men as terrorists and make false accusations towards them, thus heavily influencing local opinion and turning native inhabitants against their own people. Contrastingly, later in the film two honest reporters accept an invitation to hold an interview with Alphonse, enabling the broadcast of a speech he has written in order to explain his actions and the reasons behind them.
Along with helping to establish pace and atmosphere, Kassovitz uses the camera to create a connection between Legorjus and the viewer so that we feel as if we are directly experiencing the situation as it unfolds in front of him. This is often executed through subtle effects such as the mimicking of Legorjus’s breathing, conveyed by a slight backward and forward motion as we look on into the jungle prior to the final moments.
Rebellion succeeds on both a visual and narrative level as an engaging historical drama and hostage thriller with paradoxical elements that elevate it above the kinds of hostage films that the straightforward title might suggest. Suspense is carefully crafted through Legorjus’s perspective, and this is balanced with an ongoing sense of foreboding that is instilled within the viewer from the opening scene in which we see Legorjus break his promise to Alphonse and subsequently fail his mission.
This failure draws an interesting parallel with the current reality in which the French promise of a referendum on independence remains unfulfilled. It is the relevance of this film and its applicability as a clear reminder and message to the French State that makes it such a powerful work.