Opium and the Stick

English Title: Opium and the Stick

Original Title: L’opium et le bâton

Country of Origin: Algeria

Studio: L’Office National pour le Commerce et l’Industrie Cinématographiques (ONCIC)

Director: Ahmed Rachedi

Producer(s): Smail Ait Si Selmi

Screenplay: Ahmed Rachedi

Cinematographer: Rachid Merabtine

Art Director: Mohamed Bouzid

Editor: Eric Pluet

Runtime: 127 minutes

Genre: Fiction, Historical drama

Language: Arabic, French

Starring/Cast: Jean-Claude Bercq, Brahim Hadjadj, Hassan Hassani, Mustapha Kateb, Sid Ali Kouiret, Marie-José Nat, Abdel Halim Rais, Rouiched, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Larbi Zekka

Year: 1969

Volume: African / Nigerian

L’opium et le bâton is the story of two brothers, Dr Bachir and Ali Lazrak during the Algerian war of liberation from French colonisation. When a young man solicits Bachir (Mustapha Kateb) to treat his uncle who allegedly shot himself hunting, the incredulous doctor recoils: any journey is dangerously suspicious as the curfew is about to begin in Algiers. On leaving the building, the youth is immediately arrested by the French army. Fearing that by association he too will be arrested as a National Liberation Front (FLN) sympathiser, Bachir flees to his native village. Tala is occupied by a French army contingent helped by auxiliary troops recruited by the French (harkis), who are considered as traitors by the patriots. Bachir’s growing indignation at the cowardice he witnesses, spurs him to reconsider his neutrality and seek participation in the struggle for independence. The arrest of the common friend who had recommended the doctor to the youth seals his fate, and Bachir joins the local FLN commander. Meanwhile, his brother Ali (Sid Ali Kouiret) is leading his own group in successful ambushes in the area. When the French officer in command establishes, through the help of local pariah and harki Tayeb (Rouiched), that the villagers have not been as cowardly as they had led them to believe, Captain Delécluze (Bercq)’s wrath is unleashed on Tala and its inhabitants with ferocious force.

L’opium et le bâton is the third instalment of a trilogy first published in 1965 in the French language by Algerian ethnographer and anthropologist Mouloud Mammeri. Ahmed Rachedi’s film adaptation was produced in 1969. It is a realist depiction of a community living in harsh circumstances and for whom liberation seems the only possible avenue. Despite setting the plot in the same period as that of the novel and being faithful to the major threads, significant parts of Mammeri’s book have been modified or omitted. Whilst Rachedi’s choices may have been informed by considerations of heightened dramatic effects or for ease of understanding, this critique focuses on alterations which bear significant historical implications.

The most conspicuous revision to the characters is that of historical Colonel Amirouche, considered a major figure in the Algerian revolution, and whose role and importance is emphasised in the novel. Amirouche is replaced in the film by a guerrilla commander named Si Abbas. Although the actor playing Si Abbas resembles Amirouche physically, this name is never mentioned. Colonel Amirouche was killed in combat after being betrayed by an informant, and so is Si Abbas. The circumstances of Amirouche’s death in 1957 remain a contentious issue in Algerian history, as some allege that it was the result of internal disagreements within the revolutionary leadership. This contention may be a possible motive for this striking change in the cinematic version.

When the French draw up a list of village suspects, there are twenty women and ten men. Director Rachedi reverses this to twenty men and ten women. This numerical reversal is significant inasmuch as it epitomises Rachedi’s debasement of women’s roles in the struggle. The character of Tasadit, only present in the novel, is an example of this. Tasadit is a young woman considered ‘the best liaison agent in the area’. Soon after the atrocious death of her husband flung out of a helicopter by French soldiers, Tasadit is caught by Tayeb during a mission. It is only after Tayeb snatches her son, threatening to give him up to the French soldiers that he succeeds in extracting from Tasadit the details of local hideouts. This crucial confession implicating the community of Tala brings about the displacement of its people and the destruction of the village. Tasadit’s trajectory is unequivocally represented as that of a woman who had willingly and consistently put her own life in danger. The threat of her son’s death proves the ultimate sacrifice she cannot make, the visceral reaction of a woman who is left with nothing but her progeny.

In the film adaptation, it is Bachir and Ali’s sister Farroudja (Marie-José Nat), whose son is taken away and who then divulges the information. Though the confession is transferred on screen to another female character, Tasadit’s courageous involvement is discarded. Mammeri’s more complex as well as historically accurate descriptions are not only an evocation of Algerian women’s transgression of the social codes and norms of the time by participating in the struggle, but also recognition of some of their immense sacrifices. By reducing Farroudja’s confession as solely the expression of the maternal love for her child’s safety, Rachedi thereby undermines the extent of women’s resilience and resistance in the war.

The novel concludes with Ali’s tragic yet dignified execution by the French, and the destruction of the village. Tayeb is left unscathed, and Bachir, whose political consciousness has been firmly awakened, returns to Algiers. A passage to highlight is that of Tayeb walking through the ghost town. He unanticipatedly comes to acknowledge the ramifications of his actions, and loses his emotional bearings. On encountering an elder whom he had previously humiliated, he attempts to persuade him to escape and begs for forgiveness, a salvation which is denied to him by the older man. In the film adaptation, Ali is executed and the village is indeed destroyed. However, Tayeb’s remorseful stance is disregarded. Instead, he is blown to pieces during the village’s annihilation by French mortar. Tayeb the menacing traitor (an excellent performance by comedian legend Rouiched), who had shamefully taken revenge on the villagers for the humiliation he had long suffered in their hands, here embodies the villain with no redeeming features, and for whom death is the only just reward.

Although Rachedi captures the essence of much of the novel, the climactic conclusion of the film articulates an effusion of patriotism through the glorification of the (exclusively male) resistance that is soberly understated in the novel. The rural setting provides viewers with an illuminating counterpoint to urban landscapes such as that of Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1965) or Mohamed Lakhdar Hamina’s Hassan Terro (1967). Rachedi’s acclaimed adaptation was a success on its release, and both the removal of Amirouche and the demotion of women’s role may be considered prescient interpretations: the exaltation of the struggle and its participants continued unabated for decades stifling alternative historical readings, whilst the part played by women was continually played down. This reached its paroxysm in 1984, when the Algerian parliament ratified the Family Code, a set of laws (since partially modified) governed by the Shari’a pertaining to family rights and obligations, and which officially relegates women as minors by severely restricting their rights. The most salient feature of L’opium et le bâton, however – characteristic of Algerian films of the era – does remain the skilful rendering of a people’s struggle and sacrifices as a collective in overthrowing colonialist oppression.

Author of this review: Rosa Abidi