By Elif Kayi
Cinema. In the night between March 26th and 27th 1996 an armed group kidnapped seven French Cistercian monks living in the monastery of Tibhirine, in the mountains of the Algerian Atlas. Two months later, after unsuccessful negotiations with the French government, the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) announced through a Moroccan radio station the murder of the monks. Their heads were found on May 30th close to the city of Medea. But their bodies remained missing.
In the 1990s, at the core of a bloody conflict between the Algerian state and terrorist groups that caused thousands of deaths, the monks’ killing created a big wave of shock. The circumstances of their rapt and death are still unclear though. In 2003 doubts regarding the official version were publicly raised after the publication of an enquiry by the American journalist John Kiser (The Monks of Tibhirine Faith, love, and terror in Algeria), in which Kiser also analysed the political machinations that brought Algeria to the situation of civil war. In the same year the family of Brother Christophe Lebreton, one of the seven assassinated monks, pressed charges against X. The revelations of France’s former military attaché in Algiers, the General François Buchwalter, further raised the possibility of an implication or a blunder of the Algerian army. “Failures” in negotiations from the French side were also discussed. In 2009 French president Nicolas Sarkozy promised to reveal the state’s confidential documents that the investigative magistrate Marc Trévidic would need. Since then, silence had fallen again on the case.
When politics try to burry an embarrassing issue, the civil society is sometimes there to remind of open wounds. Many people were deeply moved by the tragic ending of the monks of Tibhirine. So was the French movie producer Etienne Comar. In 2006 he was attending the Cannes film festival. It was the 10th anniversary of the monks’ murder and several articles had been published in newspapers and magazines to remember the sad event. Comar, who was raised in a liberal Catholic family, became passionate about the story. He started the writing of a scenario, which took him two years. Under a pseudonym he sent it to the director Xavier Beauvois, who immediately felt a strong empathy for the story. It took both men another two years to finally produce the film, which received the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Festival.
“You will certainly die like humans and fall like any prince”. The psalm 82:7 of the Bible inspired the movie’s title “Of Men and Gods”. The movie, that was shot in December last year in Morocco, in the region of Azrou, depicts the life of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine between 1993 and the night of their abduction.
For people who would be keen on seeing another contribution to the polemic around the circumstances of the monks’ death, “Of Men and Gods” will certainly appear quite disappointing. One firstly discovers the simple, basic daily life of a small group of Christian devouts in an remote area of the Algerian countryside. Brother Luc (played by Michael Lonsdale), an 82-year-old doctor, receives every day the sick of the village, which is located close to the monastery. The monks are invited to local celebrations, such as the circumcision fest of a villager’s son. Brother Christian (played by Lambert Wilson) studies the Coran in his free time. The sound of the Church bell and the one of the muezzin join every morning. One discovers the strong relationship between the monks and the inhabitants of the village, who are also scared by the troubled events and the growing insecurity in their country.
The movie shows the evolution towards a climate of growing terror and fear. It comes back on the murder of Croatian building workers in February 1994, close to Tibhirine (the workers are sometimes presented as Bosnians). In one scene, an old villager reports how a young girl was knifed in the bus and expressed the complete incomprehension towards such situation. In real life the monks denounced the events they were witnessing in the French Catholic daily newspaper La Croix: “If we remain silent, the stones of the Oued will scream”. They refused the insistent offer made by the wali (prefect) of the neighbouring city of Medea to have the monastery under military protection.
Brother Christophe (played by Olivier Rabourdin), who at a time was very scared and fearing for his own life, once asked Brother Christian ironically about the possibility of an attack by terrorists: “And if they come, shall we kindly let them kill us?”. To which Brother Christian quietly answered: “This is a risk”.
“Of Men and Gods” plays with the intimate question the monks asked themselves during the last months of their lives: To stay or to leave? One follows their personal questioning and can feel quite sceptical at the beginning about the immediate choice of some of them to remain despite of the dangers. But the more the minutes passed, the more one starts to understand why they finally decided to stay. Tibhirine was their place, the place they loved and had chosen to live in together with its inhabitants, the place they wanted to be and eventually to die in.
The two survivors, Brother Amedée – who had arrived to Tibhirine together with Brother Luc in 1946 – and Brother Jean-Pierre, moved to Morocco after the event (they survived because they were sleeping in a separate room and the kidnappers did not realize their presence). They were hoping someday to return to Algeria. Brother Amédée died in 2008 without fulfilling his dream.
“Of Men and Gods” leaves a bitter feeling. The images of a simple and quite harmonious life based on sharing and living together, beyond the barriers of faith. And the heavy consciousness that such life no longer exists in Tibhirine. Since 1996 the monastery remained unoccupied.