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French & Francophone Film: A Research Guide

Beur Cinema

Victor Alfred Lundy, artist. Rue Saint Julien le Pauvre, Paris 5e. January 18, 1949. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Cinema began in France and spread throughout the Francophone world. Since the mid-1980s, Beur cinema has been a growing subgenre of Francophone cinema, one which reflects and influences contemporary European debates around the legacies of colonialism and diasporas from former colonies. These films, also known as banlieue (suburbs) cinema, interrogate the potential and exigency of assimilation and national identity by featuring protagonists of first and second generation-immigrant origin.

The term "Beur" is a slang inversion of "arabe" and typically denotes a European person of North African heritage.

(A piece of cultural information is essential here: Les banlieues tend to be the French versions of American inner cities, sites of low-income housing projects [les HLM, or, habitation à loyer modéré/low-income housing]. A short history of their postwar origins can be found here.)

Beur cinema has a significant link to poetic realism not only in its preoccupation with social justice but also because the parents and grandparents of the characters in many of these films came to France around the time that post-war poetic realism and cinéma de papa (dad's cinema) were the dominant aesthetics of Francophone film.

At the end of World War II and throughout the era of colonial independence movements (the 1950s-1970s), many North Africans and sub-Saharan Africans immigrated to France for economic (e.g., work in factories such as Renault), religious (Algerian Jews, after Algerian independence), or political reasons (e.g., North Africans of European heritage after independence from France), where the only affordable housing was at the peripheries of cities, the banlieues or bidonvilles/shantytowns.

Housing projects, or HLM, were built as families reunited in les banlieues, and these areas physically separated newcomers and the poor apart from city centers, the inhabitance of middle- and upper-class, Christian Français "de souche," ("pure" French, a pejorative term based on a nationalistic hierarchy of race and ethnicity). Many Beurs faced socioeconomic and religious discrimination as a result.

Still today, in contemporary France, newly arrived immigrants and the children and grandchildren of immigrants complain about continued racial profiling, religious discrimination against Muslims, subpar schools in certain areas, etc.

Beur cinema testifies to this intersection of Europe and its former colonies, to debates about the (im-)possibility of assimilation and of universalism anchored in state laïcité/secularism. (Another essential cultural note: It is important to recognize that the American conception of multiculturalism does not exist in France. For example, there is no census data about religious affiliation; citizen status is the only thing that should matter, some insist.)

In practice, of course, this is more complicated; and that is where Beur cinema shines a light on the contradictions of France as the home of revolutionary democratic ideals, such as the Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen/Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), or the French motto Liberté, égalité, fraternité/liberty, equality, brotherhood.

These radical ideas and texts were created by the same nation that was one of the largest slaveholding, colonizing empires in history.

Mehdi Charef's Le Thé au harem d'Archimède/Tea in the Harem (1985), generally considered the first Beur film, addresses such dissonances. The movie was made after the 1983 Marche pour l'égalité et contre le racisme/March for Equality and Against Racism (also called the Beurs' March), a months-long march through France in response to racial profiling by police, the rhetoric of the far-right Front National party, and the deaths of several French of Maghrebi origin. More recently, Mathieu Kassovitz, in his film La Haine/Hate (1995), situates similar protagonists--Black, Beur, and Jewish--in Parisian ghettos after a riot, where the young men seem similarly trapped as Charef's characters are, enduring underemployment, police profiling, illicit drug use, violence, and economic and cultural segregation.

In the tradition of Third Cinema and poetic realism, Beur cinema is often a cinema of resistance and of social justice, provoking demonstrable social change. An example of the power for positive social transformation through film is Rachid Bouchareb's Indigènes/Days of Glory (2006). The film follows North African troops fighting for France during World War II. Although the troops are French citizens, they have never seen France yet nevertheless fight and even die for that country. The audience learns at the end of the film that these soldiers did not receive full veterans' pensions. Upon viewing the film, then-President Jacques Chirac awarded them full pensions.

Notable Beur directors include Bouchareb, Yamina Benguigui, Soraya Nini, Abdellatif Kechiche, Mehdi Charef, and Roschdy Zem, to name only a few. Additional resources on this topic can be found in the African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED). AMED currently consists of three sections - African, Hebraic and Near East - and covers more than 77 countries and regions from Southern Africa to the Maghreb and from the Middle East to Central Asia. For help locating more resources refer to the guide, African, Jewish, and Middle Eastern Studies: Digital Resources at the Library of Congress.

The bibliography below lists films and resources covering Beur Cinema in France.

Suggested titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.