Saturday, July 23, 2011

Omar m'a tuer, dir. Roschdy Zem, 2011

On Wednesday night I saw the very touching film, Omar m’a tuer by Roschdy Zem. As a film it is rather heavy handed, but as a cry to rally against the racism and injustice of the French legal system, it works perfectly.

The case enjoyed a very high media and public profile here in France in the 1990s as well as in Morocco, but I was unfamiliar with it until the film was released. Omar was the Moroccan gardener of a society French lady who lived just outside of Cannes. She was found brutally murdered in the basement of her house with multiple stab wounds, 18 to be exact. The door had been barricaded from the inside by a collapsible bed and an iron bar. On the wall, in her own blood were written the words “Omar m’a tuer”. Omar had been framed. At least this is what the majority of French people and all of Morocco believed. But in an unforgiveable and unrelenting display of racism the French justice system has maintained otherwise. Omar Raddad was arrested, convicted, imprisoned on the basis of what was written on the wall.

The film shows Raddad’s grueling years in jail where he learnt to read and write, and from where he slowly started to comprehend the injustice of the accusations against him. When he was arrested in his home in 1991 following the murder, he was illiterate and spoke no French, and therefore, he had no idea of why he was being arrested, let alone imprisoned. This is lesson number one: if you are an Arab man and illiterate in France, your hole has been dug for you before the trial has even begun. The fiction film deals with his 7 years, alternating with the trial and the investigation of a writer who challenges the convictions and gathers evidence to prove Raddad’s innocence.

Every year on Bastille Day, the French President is given the authority to pardon a number of prisoners, not of their crimes, but of their sentences. In 1998 Chirac was pressured by King Hassan on a visit to Morocco to pardon Raddad. But a pardon in France does not mean an overturning of the conviction, and Raddad is still guilty of killing his employer in 1991 in the eyes of the law. The evidence supporting Raddad’s innocence is overwhelming, to the point where, the “Omar m’a tuer” supposedly written by the dying woman in her own blood is the only evidence against him. Even that, as every report on the case continues to point out, is worth little because it is ungrammatical and therefore unlikely to have been written by a highly educated white woman. She would no doubt have written “Omar m’a tué”. And why, as the writer (in the film Pierre-Emmanuel Vaugrenard) asks, would someone name their assassin in their dying moments rather than call for help?

For complicated reasons that could only hold force in the Napoleonic French Justice system, Raddad’s leverage to be absolved of the crimes is minimal to non-existent. But still he continues to fight to clear his name. And still the French Justice system refuses to hear and respect him. It’s difficult not to be enraged by the case because if racism rots the core of every country in a different way, this is how it happens in France: the authorities versus the people. As often happens in such high profile cases, Raddad represents much more than a Moroccan gardener shouldering the blame for an assassin on the loose. This is a cry for equality from all those immigrants who are treated without justice, condemned for no reason other than their race, in contemporary France. This is a very real struggle that weighs on the conscience of this country’s cultural imaginary, a struggle that is shared in by everyone, even those beyond the immigrant communities.

As I say, the film is not particularly interesting as a film, but its contempt, albeit subtly stated, for the French authorities that ensure the perpetuation of the conviction must be kept in the spotlight. The good news is that most French people, including the press, would agree with the film’s conceit. The fact that after a month playing in the cinemas, the 250 seats of the session I went to were sold, speaks to the heartache and solidarity felt by this country’s people. I could count on one hand the number of films whose run goes over two weeks in this city, and even the Academy Award winners are relegated to 11am and other unusual times of the day after their four week run. That Omar m’a tuer effortlessly pulls a full house every night of the week is the evidence that this story needs to be told again and again, in documentaries, in fiction, in the press, in images and writing, until there exists such a thing as equality in France.

For the full story see Anthony Davis, "Written in Blood" in Crime Story

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