For non-Algerians, some historical context is in order. After the defeat of the French military by the Germans in 1940 and the establishment of a puppet government led by Philippe Pétain, the anti-Pétain, anti-Nazi Free France movement was led by General Charles de Gaulle. In 1943, Free France established its capital in Algiers. Yet Algerians, as French subjects, were expected to fight in the Pétainist French army. At the same time, Algerian nationalists saw the situation as an opportunity to throw off colonialism and promote the possibility of independence for Algeria.
On the day of the Nazi surrender, May 8, 1945, about 5,000 Algerian Muslims held a victory parade in the northern Algerian town of Sétif. Because the marchers carried banners opposing colonialism, they were attacked by the French military. A smaller protest was held in the nearby town of Guelma, site of the film Héliopolis.
In Guelma, police shot to death a man carrying the Algerian flag, after which nationalists killed 12 French settlers, known as pieds-noirs. The French government responded with stunning brutality, eventually killing an estimated 20,000 Algerians, most of whom had no connection with the anti-colonial movement.
In Héliopolis, writer and director Djaffar Gaeem presents this story from the point-of-view of one wealthy Muslim family, whose members are eventually torn between collaborating with the condescending French authorities and joining in the revolutionary independence movement.
Patriarch Mokdad Zenati (Aziz Boukerouni), a World War I veteran, operates a large farming estate. He is seen as a leader in the Muslim community and as a reliable go-between by the French settlers. His son, Mahfoud (Mehdi Ramdani), returns home after graduating with top grades from a high school at which he was the only Arab student. However, his application to attend a French-run technical university is rejected because of his ethnicity. Gradually, upon being exposed to the French exploitation of the locals who are not as rich as he is, he becomes deeply involved in the revolutionary movement. Mokdad also has a daughter, Nedjma (Souhila Mallem), who develops a platonic friendship with stable worker Bachir (Mourad Oudjit).
The French decide to stage a horse race and, in an attempt to appease the Muslim community, they invite Mokdad to enter a horse, assuming it will lose, but at least the Muslims will have been represented. However, Mokdad has a strong horse and Bashir knows how to ride him. Seeing Bashir and the horse race around the countryside, the French become uneasy. They urge Mokdad to withdraw his entry, and he orders Bashir not to race. But by this time the Algerians have seen Bashir and the horse, and winning the race becomes, for them, a meaningful symbol. Despite his boss’s order, but with the support of Nedjma, Bashir enters the race and wins. The French react by forcibly conscripting Bashir and sending him off the fight in World War II.
Then comes the incident of May 8, 1945, and the brutal overreaction of the French authorities. French Sub-Prefect André Achiary (a real-life person) authorizes anti-Arab settlers to form militias with permission to kill as many locals as they want. What follows is so villainous that it is tempting to imagine that the film is portraying an exaggerated version of the massacres. Unfortunately, it is not an exaggeration.
Several films have dealt with the active struggle for Algerian independence, which began in 1954 and succeeded in 1962, most notably Battle of Algiers and Outside the Law. However, Héliopolis is something of a breakthrough in concentrating on the 1945 massacres. One of the reasons the Sétif and Guelma massacres have been deemphasized in Algeria is that the Front de libération nationale (FLN), which led the War of Independence, ruled Algeria as a one-party state until 1988 and has been the dominant political force in Algeria ever since, did not like the fact that the 1945 confrontations are a reminder that other political parties were important to the anti-colonial movement.