I didn’t know about the events in Heliopolis before seeing this film. That’s because we learn fuck all about Empire. True, this is France’s empire, but if there was room on the curriculum for me to learn about Schleswig-Holstein in the German Wars of Unification, there was time for this. A fucking degree I have in history, and never heard about this.

Heliopolis follows the story of one family as they live through the Second World War in Heliopolis, in French colonial Algeria. Mukdad is a kaid, a leader of the local people, someone who is responsible for an area, in Mukdad’s case, Heliopolis, Guelma and Setif. He inherited this title from his father, who always felt uncomfortable with his elevated status among his people and felt the burden of responsibility heavily. When the French arrived, he embraced the education they offered, and put a lot of emphasis on getting as much benefit for his people as possible. Mokdad feels the same and has sent his son, Mahfoud, to Algiers for a secondary school education.

Mahfoud has excelled academically and has done everything his father wanted of him. But his education comes to a screeching halt when he cannot get entrance to college. The reason? He is an Arab, and colleges only admit whites. He returns home, destined with menial work, and with a very different outlook on life as his father.

They argue over support for independence. Mahfoud supports the independence movement for obvious reasons, the equality, self-determination, etc. His father Mokdad is more conservative. He says independence is too radical a solution. Yes, there are things wrong with France, but who educated taught him, his father, his grandfather? Mokdad only completed primary, Mahfoud completed secondary. Things do move and change slowly, just be patient.

Before the war, there is a high degree of intermingling between Mokdad’s class and the white settlers. The ordinary Arabs, not so much. But Mokdad has several white friends, and Mahfoud is pally with Claude, a white settler his age. Yes, there are out-and-out racists, like Gervais, but they are left to just mouth off, that’s all.

The war changes all that. Algerians fight and die for France, but are still second-class citizens in their own country. France’s fall to the Nazis in 10 days makes it seem possible for the first time that France can be defeated. Algeria is then subject to Vichy rule until liberated by the Americans and Brits. In the first free elections after fascist rule, pro-independence candidates are able to stand. Despite the politicians’ attempts to speak in very measured terms, the settlers are enflamed by what they see as treason. There’s a lot of the familiar “My grandad died in the war for this country” bullshit, as though the takeaway from that is it should remain racist for all time.

Mahfoud has signed up with the independence party, and openly campaigned for them during the election. The whole way through, Mokdad warns, they’ll take this as a provocation. Mahfoud’s a bit like, So what? They take everything as a fucking provocation.

And then the Nazis lose! Europe is free! Peace and freedom forever, right? Right?

The day the Nazis surrender, in Setif and Guelma, the Algerians hold parades celebrating, and carry independence banners and sing independence songs. The police repression is swift and brutal. People are shot, people are injured, people die.

In the following days there are isolated revenge attacks on the settlers, which causes Paris to instruct the armed forces in Algeria to wipe out anyone deemed responsible for the attacks, including independence organisers. What follows is wholesale slaughter. They round up and shoot every independence campaigner they can find. Settler militias start shooting any Arab they come across. France sends planes to literally drop bombs on villages. By then end, almost 30,000 people are dead.

For Mokdad and his family, it changes everything. A brilliantly compelling historical drama, with an excellent score and beautiful cinematography.