Most of the story is forgotten. Even if recorded, it slips out of the primary narrative, out of textbooks, eclipsed. That is why Shadows of freedom begins with a three-minute story of the invasion of France and the creation of the Vichy Republic. Why? Because, even if Vichy France is a punchline for American politicians, most Americans know nothing about it. Further than that: Most of them have no idea that D-Day was not the first time the Allies launched a coordinated attack on Nazi-held ground, because they never heard talk about Operation Torch – a complete invasion of French Algiers in November 1942. Also, the chances that they have any idea that they were aided in their efforts by a band of 388 resistance fighters – many young, Jewish or socialists – and more particularly the French Jewish Resistance, led by a young brand called José Aboulker, working with the Free French Army.
Amos Carlen and Aline Robichaud’s simple and fascinating documentary on this crucial military operation (no torch, no beach to launch Operation Husky to take Sicily, no road to Rome or Berlin) is often breathless, having to crowd a huge amount in 65 minutes. It’s also clear that a Rubicon documentary was crossed over in regards to WWII – there are fewer and fewer surviving veterans of the conflict to interview – so they build the story through a combination of documents. archives, animated reconstructions and conversations with academics and historians.
Documentary makers are a bit trapped in the context. They spend so much time explaining the background to Torch that it takes them half an hour to get to the real flesh of the story – Aboulker and his friends secretly launching a resistance force out of an Algerian gymnasium, and stumbling accidentally to aid Torch’s forces. It would be less of a problem if the movie hadn’t been 65 minutes long, but it’s a forgivable flaw as most people will have no idea.
Shadows of freedom often looks more like a making-of for a different movie. If Steven Spielberg had filmed the story of the Algerian resistance in the early 2000s, when extravagant and elaborate DVD extras were all the rage, it would fit perfectly in a three-disc edition. His linear approach is both informative and analytical, and Aboulker inevitably becomes the most central figure as he has given the most in-depth interviews of the postwar period. His glimpses into the days of the rebellion, complemented by the magnificent illustrations by Joseph Sherman, spark the dry but fascinating history lesson (this also does not deny that French North Africa was an occupation). imperial, even though the French considered it part of France).
The biggest compliment anyone can give Carlen and Robichaud is you’ll wish there was more of their movie. They present the true story of an incredible struggle, with all of its great tragedies, terrible losses, and happy accidents (expect an entertaining aside between Aboulker and the American soldier who sort of liberated the city on his own). It’s also a sharp reminder that Operation Torch and the Jewish Resistance are often overlooked, and talking heads are not shying away from the complicated reasons for these two omissions. Double bill with another forgotten story of French Jewish resistance, the biopic Marcel Marceau Resistance, for a fascinating glimpse into this neglected chapter in anti-Nazi history.
Shadows of freedom is available on Amazon prime and other VOD platforms now.